While strolling in the garden one day…a priest said to him, ‘Father Joseph, oh, how beautiful God has made heaven!’ Then Joseph, as if he had been called to heaven, gave a loud shriek, leapt off the ground, flew through the air, and knelt down atop an olive tree, and—as witnesses declared in his beatification
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While strolling in the garden one day…a priest said to him, ‘Father Joseph, oh, how beautiful God has made heaven!’ Then Joseph, as if he had been called to heaven, gave a loud shriek, leapt off the ground, flew through the air, and knelt down atop an olive tree, and—as witnesses declared in his beatification inquest—that branch on which he rested waved as if a bird were perched upon it, and he remained up there about half an hour” (Paolo Agelli, Vita del Beato Giuseppe di Copertino, 1753).
What kind of nonsense is this? Who is this liar quoted above? Human beings can’t fly or kneel on slender tree limbs like little birds. So, how is it that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—the very era that gave birth to aggressive skepticism and empirical science—countless people swore that they had witnessed such events? And how is it that some of these sworn testimonies are legal records, archived alongside lawsuits and murder trials, from all sorts of people, not just illiterate peasants but also elites at the apex of the social, intellectual, and political hierarchy?
…Levitation is one of the best of all entry points into the history of the impossible, principally because it is an event for which we have an overabundance of testimonies, not just in Western Christianity but throughout all of world history.
Carlos Eire arguing in CommonWeal that these events should be taken seriously. Eire is cagey about what he means by take seriously but I agree that we can say something about the form such visions take and when and why they rise and fall in frequency. Eire notes, for example, that reporting of such events changed significantly with the Protestant Reformation.
…Protestants of all stripes also rejected the proposition that God had continued to perform miracles beyond the first century, a doctrine that came to be known as “the cessation of miracles” or “the cessation of the charismata.” The miracles mentioned in the Bible had really occurred, they argued, but such marvels became unnecessary after the birth of the early Church and would never happen again. Consequently, all of those miraculous supernatural phenomena associated with holiness throughout the Middle Ages, including levitation, could not be the work of God. But by designating these phenomena “false”—that is, not attributable to God—Protestants did not declare them impossible. As most Protestant Reformers and their later disciples saw it, ecstatic seizures, levitations, luminous irradiance, and all such phenomena did in fact occur, but they were all diabolical in origin.
…Given the religious, social, political, and intellectual turmoil caused by the advent of Protestantism and its great paradigm shift, it is not at all surprising that miracles became a marker of difference between Catholics and Protestants, as well as a flash point of discord and a polemical weapon.
That’s right but the author would have done better to refer to the work of my GMU colleagues. GMU (oddly?) is a leading center of experts on witch trials. See most notably Leeson and Russ and Johnson and Koyama.
People don’t report seeing flying people the way they used to. Is that because people have become more rational or because the socially acceptable form of vision has changed?
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