Glad You Asked: Did the saints really levitate?

On this episode of the podcast, guest Carlos Eire talks about the history of levitation in the lives of the saints.

These days, when Catholics talk about someone being a saint, this usually has nothing to do with signs or wonders, but with a life of heroic virtue. Further back in church history, however, stories of the saints are often filled with anecdotes about the miraculous. Some stories tell of miraculous healings or rescues; others tell of saints levitating or flying through the air.  

“Yes, but those were just legends,” people may say—but the Catholic Church does teach that miracles are real, and it still requires evidence of the miraculous as part of the process of canonization. So what are we to make of these older stories of saints levitating or performing miraculous or supernatural feats? Are the faithful required to believe these things happened?

On this episode of the podcast, guest Carlos Eire talks about the motif of levitation in Catholic hagiography. Eire is the T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University, and a historian of late medieval and early modern Europe. His most recent book, They Flew: A History of the Impossible from Yale University Press, explores miraculous events such as levitation in the era of transition to modernity. He has also written a highly acclaimed memoir about his experience as a child escapee from the Castro regime in Cuba. 

You can learn more about this topic, and read some of Eire’s writing, in these links:

The following is a transcript of this episode of Glad You Asked.

Cassidy Klein: Welcome to Glad You Asked, the podcast where we answer the questions about Catholicism that are easy to ask but not so easy to answer. I’m Cassidy Klein, editorial assistant at U.S. Catholic.

Rebecca Bratten Weiss: And I’m Rebecca Bratten Weiss, digital editor at U.S. Catholic. On this last episode of season four of the podcast, we’re going to talk about the weird and the wonderful, in some of our stories associated with the Catholic saints and traditions.

Cassidy: While saints from recent times are celebrated for their heroic virtue, or their loving sacrifices, we don’t usually find them doing anything that defies reason or natural science. But further back in church history, we find saints doing all kinds of surprising things.

Rebecca: We’ve got St. Nicholas resurrecting boys from a pickle barrel. St. Francis taming a wolf just by talking to it. Miraculous healings. And then of course there are all those saints who were supposedly able to levitate, or fly through the air.   

Cassidy: So why are earlier saint stories filled with miracles and wonders, while more recent stories are not? The obvious answer to this, of course, is that the older stories were just legends, and now people tend to be less superstitious. 

Rebecca: But the Catholic Church still does teach that miracles are real. After all, miracles are required for saints to be canonized. So what are we to make of this? What should Catholics believe, when it comes to stories of saints levitating, or healing people? Our guest on today’s episode is going to help us sort this out.

Cassidy: Carlos Eire is the T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University, and a historian of late medieval and early modern Europe. 

Rebecca: His most recent book They Flew: A History of the Impossible from Yale University Press, explores miraculous events such as levitation, in the era of transition to modernity. He has also written a highly acclaimed memoir about his experience as a child escapee from the Castro regime in Cuba. 

Rebecca: Carlos, thanks so much for joining us on the podcast today.

Carlos Eire: Thanks so much for the invitation. Thank you.

Cassidy: So first of all, can you give some background on the history of levitation stories? It seems like they’ve been around longer than Catholic saint traditions have.

Carlos: Yeah, sure. Levitation does not appear much in the Bible, either in the Old or New Testaments. Although I’ve seen some scholars who point to the ascension of Christ as levitation, but others that say, no, that’s not levitation because he just went to heaven and has not returned. So I could say one might classify that as the longest levitation in human history, if you want. But no, the fact is that levitation is a phenomenon that occurs in most world religions. And it’s ancient, and it predates the Christian religion. And actually, the Acts of Peter, an early Christian text written maybe second or third century, has Peter going against a pagan magician, Simon Magus, who wants to convince people that he is the Messiah. But Peter takes care of it by praying very, very hard while Simon is up in the air. And then Simon crashes. And Peter proves the superiority of Christian religion to pagan magic. But it’s considered an apocryphal text. It means it couldn’t be included in the Bible.

Then throughout antiquity and the early Middle Ages, so the entire first millennium, there are very few narratives about levitation. They begin to appear in the second millennium, in the first part of the second millennium, and by the time that St. Francis comes around in the 13th century, then it’s when it really begins to speed up. Francis levitated. And one of the more extreme levitators in Christian history is Christina the Astonishing, another medieval saint. Could go up to the rafters in the church. 

It is really in the 13th, 14th, 15th century that we begin to see more narratives of levitating saints, always associated with mystical ecstasy as a side effect of the ecstasy. And then in the 16th and 17th century, we have the most crowded list of levitators in Christian history. I always say it’s the peak period for flying in Western history, not just Christian history. So by then it’s accepted by the 16th century, it’s definitely accepted as a possibility. It’s possible because it happens and we have so many accounts of it that it’s overwhelming sometimes when you consider the number of testimonies. 

But at the very same time in the 16th century, along comes the Protestant Reformation, and Protestants deny that there could be any miracles, period. No miracles after the year 100 or so when the last of the Apostles died. However, Protestants don’t say that levitation is impossible. They just say that all levitations claimed by the Catholic Church are from the devil. So the impossibility of levitation does not begin to be considered the real thing. They’re impossible. This begins with the scientific revolution. But it really doesn’t take off till about the 18th century.

And then 18th, 19th, 20th century as secularism grips the West ever more potently, well, levitation becomes an impossible miracle and therefore any testimonies about levitation, Catholic or Protestant, they’re just lies. People are lying or they’re insane or they’re having hallucinations because by the 18th century it becomes impossible, by the 21st century it’s definitely impossible for many people.

Rebecca: So could you talk a little bit more about this association of stories about levitation or flying with accusations of demonic activity, witchcraft? Is that kind of associated with witches flying on broomsticks?

Carlos: Yes, definitely. The broomsticks show up in the late Middle Ages. Although more often than not, it’s pitchforks rather than brooms. Interesting. Early engravings and depictions of flying witches put them either on animals, usually livestock, goats especially. Pitchforks, brooms, associated of course with peasants and the countryside. The curious thing about the demonic origin of levitations is that throughout Christian antiquity and the early Middle Ages, there, in Western Christendom as well as Eastern Christendom, right, there was a binary possibility of a source for levitation. It could be demonic because the devil does play tricks with nature. They don’t count as miracles, however, the demonic ones. There is just the fact that the devil is so old and so much smarter than humans that he is like a great scientist who knows how to manipulate the laws of nature. So it’s not supernatural because God’s not involved if the devil is doing it. The technical term is preternatural.

And this is what the Protestants pick up in the 17th century, in the 16th century and 17th century. So witch persecutions are carried out by both Protestants and Catholics. And the curious thing about the Protestant thinking on witchcraft and Protestant demonology is that while Protestants rejected a whole lot of Catholic theology on just about every area of theology there are differences, but Protestants picked up Catholic demonology from the Middle Ages and accepted it nearly 100 percent.

So that’s what I call a very odd asymmetry or lack of symmetry between the rejection of theology and the acceptance of demonology. So we have many testimonies at witchcraft trials of individuals who say, yeah, he or she is a witch. I can testify. I saw so -and -so flying. But this too begins to break down. This kind of accusation begins to disappear in the 18th century. And there’s an interesting court case in England, late 17th century, early 18th. I don’t remember the specific date, but a judge at a witchcraft trial refuses to accept testimony from an eyewitness because this was his legal decision. There is no law against lying. He throws out the case. That’s the beginning of the end of witchcraft trials in England. So there it is. And the flying witches now only exist on Halloween.

Cassidy: So can you talk a bit about the significance of levitation in other cultures or faith traditions?

Carlos: Well, sure. In other religions, it is a sign of holiness. It is a sign of close relationship with supernatural powers. Of course, every religion points to different kinds of lives that lead individuals to achieve levitation. And in some traditions, levitation is something that the individual achieves through prayer or meditation and self-denial. Buddhist monks, for instance.

There are levitators in Judaism, in Islam, in Hinduism, in Buddhism, and of course also in religions that are smaller in their geographical scale, native religions. You find it throughout human history. But in the Christian tradition, it is very carefully defined as only possible from a divine source if the person has achieved a certain degree of holiness or closeness to God. It is not something anyone can will or make happen. In Christianity, it has always been interpreted as a gift, and not only a gift, but an unpredictable gift that individuals are sometimes shocked and surprised it’s happening to them. Or the eyewitnesses are surprised and shocked that it’s happening right in their presence. So unlike, there are some Latin American authors, 20th century, who wrote in a style known as magical realism. And they create characters who can actually will their levitations. They control it. That’s not the Christian tradition.

Rebecca: So in your book, you talk about levitation and other miraculous occurrences, especially in the late medieval and early modern era. What are some of the more interesting stories that you discuss there?

Carlos: Well, there are so many. As I mentioned previously, you know, one of the earlier ones, Christina the Astonishing, she goes up to the rafters in the church. And actually in that narrative, she ends up there because she can also smell the sins of the people. She can’t stand the stench of all the sinners in the church, so up she goes. 

St. Francis of Assisi, he astonishes his followers. There are some descriptions in some of the lives of Saint Francis of him going up so far that his brethren actually almost lose sight of him, which means he’s going up very, very, very high. But then in the 16th century, we keep encountering in hagiographies, as well as in canonization processes, I’ll say more about that later probably, of very well-known saints who are seen levitating and also glowing because those two phenomena are often conjoined during mystical ecstasy. And individuals either walk into a room or actually in the room when someone while praying and in mystical ecstasy goes up and glows so much that they can light up a dark room at night. 

So, St. Teresa of Avila, her dates are 1515 to 1582. She writes about her levitations in the book of her life, which is often called her autobiography. But it’s really not an autobiography. It’s an account of her life that she wrote for the Inquisition. Because the Inquisition was trying to figure out if she was the genuine article that is a holy Christian saint, rather than somebody influenced by the devil. So what’s interesting about Teresa is that she’s so worried about her levitations. She doesn’t like them. She doesn’t like them for various reasons. Reason number one is there are people who might think that the devil is doing this. Reason number two is that if they don’t think that it’s the devil and they actually do attribute it to God, they’ll find her to be very special. And they might then also begin to suspect that she lacks humility. That this is happening and it’s going to her head and it’s making her proud. So either way, whether it’s demonic or not, there’s a danger to levitate for any monastic because humility is one of the chief virtues of sanctity. So Teresa also complains to God. She actually complains to God and begs God to stop the levitations because resisting them is impossible and it also makes your body hurt afterwards. And she details how the pain on her joints could be so extreme that she could not pick up her quill for writing for two or three days after one of these levitations.

But it turns almost comical, or actually comical, because she orders her nuns, she’s their superior, she orders her nuns to try to restrain her when she’s levitating, to keep her from going up, or also to try to pull her down when she’s gone. So we have all these narratives in which nuns are trying to pile up on Teresa to keep her from ascending, or they’re actually pulling on her to bring her down. And in one of these narratives, she has a pan of hot olive oil in her hand because she goes into ecstasy while cooking. And the nuns are worried she’s going to spill the oil on them. Not just worried because it’s hot, but it’s because it’s the last bit of oil they have in the convent. They don’t want to lose it.

So, Teresa says in her so-called autobiography that God stopped it. He heard her prayers. But her autobiography was finished in 1562. Later in some letters, she tells people they’ve returned. And there is also a narrative, an eyewitness testimony, in the early 1570s she bilocated jointly with St. John of the Cross. And there are several artistic depictions of this double levitation. That one’s very interesting. 

But by far the individual who wins the gold medal for levitating is Joseph of Cupertino. And his dates are 1603 to 1663, so he’s later than Teresa. He doesn’t beg God to stop the levitations though, he levitates constantly. And he levitates great distances up vertically, but also horizontally once he’s up in the air, both forwards and backwards. And he has several sorts of triggers that send him into ecstasy and levitation. Religious images can send him up in the air, people praying can send him up in the air, saying Mass. He also levitates very frequently while saying Mass, and stays suspended sometimes for two hours. And then when his ecstasy ends, he picks up right where he left off. And it usually happens to him as he’s consecrating the Eucharist. And then he’s also very peculiar in another sense. He often, almost always, lets out some kind of shout before he goes up. And in the Italian original, the testimonies speak of three different kinds of noises, grido, strillo, and urro. And let’s call them a scream, a shriek, and a deep baritone grunt of sorts that he lets out. Another curious thing about Joseph is that when he goes up, his habit, his Franciscan habit, ceases to move. It’s like frozen. I should add this too, that in all of these early modern as well as medieval levitations, when somebody levitates, their bodies freeze up and don’t move. And they lose all sense of sensation, their senses stop working. So we have, in the case of other saints besides St. Joseph, it happens with him, it happens with others, that if they’re monks or nuns, their brethren or sisters poke them with pins, place candles up against their eyes to see if they will twitch, or in the case of one of these levitators Maria de Agreda, they actually play with her body up in the air, tap it to see how how far it moves or blow on it to see if they can move it with their breath because that’s another sign of this levitating ecstasy is that the body becomes nearly weightless.

So it’s weird stuff happening. And many testimonies that make you wonder how it was that in many cases, these individuals who were levitating were not aware of the fact that these things were being done to their bodies while they were up in the air. When Maria de Agreda found out that that had been going on, she was terribly upset, terribly upset. 

And my favorite levitation story comes from the 18th century, actually. And it involves St. Alphonsus Liguori who towards the end of his life became so infirm, so sick, that he could no longer say Mass, and he was in a wheelchair. And one day he was complaining to the person pushing his wheelchair that he was very upset he couldn’t say Mass anymore. So his assistant bent over and whispered in his ear, but you still do marvelous things. And just say this prayer. And he mentioned a little prayer to him. And the narrative goes like this. St. Alphonsus suddenly rose up from his chair. And since the guy was bending over him, hit his chin with the top of his head and knocked him over. And afterwards this man said, afterwards I would never whisper again in St. Alphonsus’ ear or get too close to him. So it can get humorous almost.

Cassidy: Yeah, so why this period in particular? Like, what is it about this era that is especially interesting when it comes to stories about the miraculous?

Carlos: Well, you know, miracles are a contested area, not only between Catholics and Protestants, but also between all believers and the ever-increasing number of skeptics, right, because this is the beginning of the scientific revolution. So in Catholic polemics against Protestants, these miracles serve as proof of the fact that the Catholic Church is the true church indeed, because it has these phenomenal miracles. In the case of Protestants, this is one that there’s a lot of scholarly disagreement about. Why did the witch persecutions become so massive in the 16th and 17th century? And scholars have all different sorts of explanations for it. But because Protestants and Catholics both had a demonology in which the devil caused people to fly, testimonies about flying witches appear more often or more frequently than in any other time period. So for the skeptics, you know, this is a sign of how Christian gullibility is something to be dismissed, right? 

So as the scientific revolution produces more and more skepticism, doubt, and rejection of Christian beliefs, the number of levitations begins to decrease. And there’s also a lot of scholarly disagreement about how to interpret this decrease. But the fact is that there is a two-way street, let’s put it that way, between belief and these miraculous events. They seem to require widespread belief in them in order to occur in high numbers. And as belief in them shrinks, the number of such events also decreases.

One question I get very often is, well, why don’t these things happen anymore? And within Catholicism, you know, one can say, and I say it repeatedly, no, they have not stopped in Catholicism. And there are 18th, 19th, 20th, and even 21st century levitators and bilocators. We just don’t have film. That’s what I also find somewhat interesting and kind of hard to sort out because there have been 20th century saints who could have been filmed levitating such as Saint Padre Pio who was canonized in 2002. Well, he died in 1968, and there are numerous films, film clips of Padre Pio. But none of them have him levitating or bilocating, which he also reportedly did somewhat frequently.

Rebecca: So when did the Catholics fascination with these kinds of stories kind of officially begin to fade? Was that very much associated with the increase in scientific demands for evidence and so forth?

Carlos: Yeah, I think there’s a direct relationship because the church actually turns the canonization process into something semi-scientific, or at least something that approaches the kind of attitude towards evidence that scientists require. And by the time we get to the 17th century, we have in the canonization process a higher emphasis placed on heroic virtue than on miracles. And actually, for the canonization process, and I could say that this is true of every canonization since the end of the 16th century, the vast majority of miracles attributed to saints, which mark them off as genuine saints, have to do with healings because the Catholic Church in the 17th century actually strengthens the office of the so-called devil’s advocate. That’s usually a cardinal in Rome whose job it is to cast doubt on all the miracle accounts. 

And one of these devil’s advocates, Prospero Lambertini, actually becomes pope, Benedict XIV. And as Pope, ironically, well let me back up one step. Prospero Lambertini, before he became Pope, wrote an enormous, massive book, which actually is always broken up into different volumes, on the canonization and beatification of saints, which is still in use. But ironically, Joseph of Cupertino’s canonization case came up for finalization under Benedict XIV. And it was Benedict XIV who had insisted that miracles should take second place the heroic virtue, who canonizes Joseph of Cupertino, the greatest levitator of all time. So, it is true that miracles are rationalized beginning in the 17th and 18th century. So to this day, the preferred kind of expert to pass judgment on a miracle, especially healing miracles, the preferred experts are atheists. Not only scientists and doctors, but scientists and doctors who are atheists. Who then end up saying, there’s no way that modern science or modern medicine can explain this change in this person’s condition. You know, disappearance of a tumor, the regeneration of nerves in the ear or in the eyes, and all sorts of other, well, we call them miraculous, miraculous healings that don’t come from chemotherapy or any other medical procedure.

Cassidy: So what do Catholics officially believe about miracles today? Like, do we still believe that if we become holy enough and if God wills it, we could also be able to fly?

Carlos: Well, it’s not required of Catholics to believe in these miracles in the same way that it’s not required of Catholics to believe that apparitions of the Virgin Mary are genuine. This is left to the individual’s personal judgment. And as far as I know, no one has polled Catholics, either in the US or any other country, on what they think about levitation and bilocation. But I know I’ve run into many Catholics who are actually embarrassed and ashamed of the Catholic Church for including these miracles as part of the canonization process and popular belief. But there’s no getting around the fact that Catholicism as a religion, Catholic Christianity, it’s a very broad spectrum, very broad. And depending on time and place, you could still find many, many Catholics, perhaps even in a majority of Catholics, in some time and place, who have believed in these miracles. 

And my experience since my book came out speaking to various Catholic audiences is that at least the audiences I spoke to were very receptive to these stories. But then again, I think Catholics who are embarrassed or angered by these stories are not going to come to my talks. Or if they come, you know, they’ll come just to sort of get further proof that these things are silly.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for answering our questions and for being our guest on the podcast today.

Carlos: My pleasure, my pleasure to be here. Thank you so much for inviting me.

Glad You Asked is sponsored by the Claretian Missionaries.