“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?
Reports of flying or hovering humans reached a peak at the dawn of modernity, along with reports of other phenomena also deemed impossible by many in our own day and by some doubters back then. Unlike spontaneous healing miracles, which really do occur with some frequency, levitations and bilocations are extremely rare events that are seldom taken seriously outside certain belief systems. They are but two of several physical phenomena that have been linked to mystical ecstasy in various cultures and religions around the world for thousands of years. They are also among the oddest of wonders, not just because they seem to happen infrequently but also because they appear to serve no practical purpose other than confirming the special status of the person who levitates or bilocates. In a religious context—and most accounts of levitations and bilocations have religious origins—the unseen force is usually ascribed to some higher being, but it can also be ascribed to the levitators and bilocators themselves, who are so obviously unlike most of their fellow human beings, for whom the tug of gravity within a single location is inescapable. In Christianity, that higher being could be God or the devil, and levitators could be viewed as either holy or diabolical, or, in some cases, as clever frauds. As awesome displays of raw unnatural power, the phenomena of levitation and bilocation have few equals.
But how is it possible to speak about something that can’t possibly happen? Acts of levitation or bilocation are “wild facts,” to use a term coined by William James over a century ago. As he defined it, a wild fact is any occurrence that has “no stall or pigeonhole” into which “the ordinary and critical mind” can fit it. The alterity of any such phenomenon is so extreme, said James, that it becomes “unclassifiable” as well as an unimaginable “paradoxical absurdity” that must be considered inherently untrue as well as impossible. Such wild facts puzzle scientists so much, he observed, that they “always prove more easy to ignore than to attend to.” James was intensely interested in psychic and mystical phenomena and greatly pained by the dismissive attitude his fellow scientists displayed toward these phenomena. Most of them, he quipped, thought that passing “from mystical to scientific speculations is like passing from lunacy to sanity.”
The situation James described long ago has not changed much, and in some respects has worsened for anyone who wants to take wild facts such as levitation and bilocation seriously. This leaves the historian or anyone with a critical mind in a tight spot. If wild facts are “paradoxical absurdities,” are there any facts whatsoever left to study? The answer is yes. The fact we can explore is not the act of levitation itself, the wild fact that is inaccessible to us. The fact we can deal with is the testimony. This issue is as brutally simple as it is brutally circumscribed: since we have no films or photographs to analyze for authenticity with the latest cutting-edge technology, all we have is the fact that thousands of testimonies exist in which human beings swore they saw another human being hover or fly, or suddenly materialize in some other location. Consequently, a history of the impossible is a history of testimonies about impossible events. Our dominant culture dismisses these testimonies as unbelievable and merely “anecdotal”—that is, as accounts that have no point of reference beyond themselves, no wider context, and little or no credibility. So why not call it a history of lying, a history of hallucinations, or a history of the ridiculous? Because the testimonies themselves self-consciously accept the impossible event as impossible, as well as bafflingly and utterly real—even terrifying—and of great significance. Moreover, the sheer number of such testimonies is so relatively large, so widespread across time and geographical boundaries, and so closely linked to civil and ecclesiastical institutions that they most certainly do have a broader context into which they fit. And that is a very rare and credible kind of evidence, as unique as the events confirmed by it.
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. Yet levitation is still a subject that attracts disparagement and repels serious inquiry: the very claim that any human being can defy the laws of gravity seems way too absurd nowadays, more than two centuries after Newton, despite the existence of high-speed trains that employ magnetic levitation to hover and fly forward while suspended just a few centimeters above their tracks. Human levitation seems incompatible with seriousness. Even a crank such as Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo, a Spanish historian who eagerly defended absurd notions—including the claim that Catholic orthodoxy was genetically transmitted among pure-blooded Spaniards—had no patience with levitation and other physical phenomena associated with mystical ecstasy. What this most unreasonable man had to say long ago about levitation and other related phenomena, such as stigmata, is still very much in line with prevailing thought: “Leave all these cases lying in oblivion. Let them be brought to light, in due course, by those who are researching folk customs, or those who wish to satisfy a childish sort of curiosity.”
Bilocation is another entry point into the history of the impossible and another subject that Menéndez y Pelayo would have wanted to sink into oblivion. Like levitation, it is a phenomenon found in many religions and cultures from ancient times to the present. But, like levitation, it seems incompatible with seriousness, and therefore it receives an equal amount of disrespect and contemptuous dismissals. Testimonies of bilocations are fewer in number than those of levitations in Christian history, and the phenomenon is impossible in a double way: not just as something that “cannot” happen but also as something that no one can ever witness in both locations simultaneously. Verifying its occurrence requires matching up eyewitness accounts from different locations ex post facto, something that makes all testimonies less immediate and therefore more open to the likelihood of fraud. But there is no denying the fact that such corroborations have been recorded and accepted as factual, as in the case of the bilocation of St. Ignatius Loyola to the bedside of the ailing Alexander Petronius.
If the past itself includes bizarre events and beliefs, are these to be dismissed simply because they seem illogical or because our current frame of reference differs so much from that of previous centuries? The easiest path is to say, yes, of course. But a wiser path to take might be to say, no, of course not. As Lucien Febvre, a very savvy historian, once said: “To comprehend is not to clarify, simplify, or to reduce things to a perfectly clear logical scheme. To comprehend is to complicate, to augment in depth. It is to widen on all sides. It is to vivify.” And this vivifying requires not only embracing what might seem strange in the past but accepting the strangeness as an essential rational feature of the past, not as something irrational. As Darren Oldridge has observed: “However peculiar they now seem, the beliefs of pre-modern people were normally a rational response to the intellectual and social context in which they were expressed.”
Levitations are among the most ambiguous of mystical phenomena in Catholic Christianity for two reasons: because of the belief that they can be caused by the devil rather than God and because of the fact that they can also be faked and have been regularly faked for millennia by all sorts of wizards and hucksters. Contrived acts of levitation performed under tightly controlled conditions can seem real indeed when those performing them are experts at creating illusions and at fooling their audience’s senses. It matters little if the illusion is performed on a stage as entertainment or in a chapel or some dimly lit parlor as deceit. Reports of bilocations are even more vulnerable to dismissal than levitations. To fake a bilocation seems easy enough. All one needs to do is to recruit or bribe expert liars at both locations. Consequently, believing in reports of bilocations requires a more intense leap of faith than believing in levitations.
The likelihood of deceit haunts levitations and bilocations in yet another way, for not too long ago these phenomena became intensely linked with ghosts and spirits rather than God or the devil. This happened due to a rise in popularity of the quasi-religious occult movement known as Spiritualism, which spread like wildfire across North and South America, Europe, and other corners of the Western world between the 1860s and the 1920s. Spiritualism had its detractors, for sure, especially among the Christian clergy, professional illusionists, and an array of skeptics, but it was not restricted to quirky outcasts on the margins of respectability. Quite the contrary. As hard as it might be to imagine nowadays, Spiritualism attracted a broad spectrum of devotees, some of whom belonged to the upper echelons of society, such as the eminent chemist and physicist Sir William Crookes; novelist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the hyper-rational and immensely popular fictional character Sherlock Holmes; evolutionary biologist Alfred Russel Wallace, Charles Darwin’s closest collaborator and competitor; the Nobel laureates Pierre and Marie Curie, pioneers in the study of radiation; and Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of American president Abraham Lincoln, who regularly held séances at the White House.
The term “levitation” was coined by spiritualists in the nineteenth century. Although accounts of hovering or flying men and women stretch back to antiquity, no specific term had ever been applied to the phenomenon. But, given its centrality in spiritualist ritual, especially during séances at which mediums levitated objects, their own bodies, or those of others—ostensibly through the agency of spirits—the amazing feat needed a name, and “levitation” seemed to suit the cult’s quasi-scientific needs perfectly. Derived as it was from the Latin levitas, or “lightness,” the exact opposite of “gravitas,” or “heaviness,” the newly minted term had a distinctly Newtonian feel to it, evoking his law of universal gravitation and empirical objectivity while conveying a sense of the mysteriously spiritual and otherworldly. “Bilocation” was another quasi-scientific term favored by spiritualists, who believed that the human body had an “astral double,” a spiritual component that could leave the physical body and appear elsewhere.
Spiritualism never disappeared completely. In fact, the ever-popular Ouija board, still a best-selling game, made and marketed as a toy by Hasbro, the same company that makes Monopoly, is a spiritualist device. But as Spiritualism’s heyday waned, so did interest in levitation and bilocation. By 1928, when Olivier Leroy published the one and only comprehensive history of levitation written in the twentieth century, the popularity of Spiritualism was already fading fast. And no comparable effort was ever made to cover the history of bilocation. Doyle, who died in 1930, seemed to embody the cult’s decline in his final years. His zealous defense of communication with the dead and of photographs of ghosts and fairies had by then become more of a disposable Victorian curiosity than a set of beliefs to embrace, and since levitation and bilocation were part of the spiritualist package deal, they, too, gradually vanished into the cobwebbed attic of the public’s imagination.
Levitation and bilocation might have had a shady lineage to overcome, but they nonetheless had—and continue to have—a very different past upon which to claim legitimate significance. Within the Catholic tradition, levitation and bilocation have an immensely rich history, especially in the lives of the saints. Because holy levitation and bilocation are considered miracles in Catholicism—that is, supernatural gifts, or “charisms,” that accompany mystical ecstasy and can be markers of exceptional sanctity—they have never completely lost their luster and are not likely to lose it. The Greek term charisma denotes any gift bestowed on humans through God ’s benevolent love (charis). Belief in such gifts is as old as Christianity itself and was initially given theological shape by the apostle Paul, who delineated their function in the shaping of the Church:
There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord who works all things in all. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines. (Corinthians 12:4–11)
Among such extraordinary supernatural gifts, some not mentioned by Paul were later recognized as legitimate, including levitation, bilocation, and several others that accompanied mystical ecstasy. During the Middle Ages, a long list of these divine mystical gifts evolved, especially through the process of evaluating the holiness of candidates for sainthood and of writing narratives of their lives as part of that process. By the thirteenth century, when bilocation and levitation accounts begin to appear regularly in Western hagiographies, many supernatural phenomena were believed to be definite signs of sainthood, but there was no fixed list of the miraculous physical phenomena that could accompany mystical ecstasy in the life of any saint. Much in the same way that a medical text might contain lists of all the known symptoms for specific maladies, this list of miraculous mystical gifts or charisma would have simply catalogued those known to occur, but the primary characteristic of holiness was always a virtuous life, rather than any miraculous mystical phenomena—those were just a bonus. In the seventeenth century, this attitude deepened in the Catholic Church as the process of canonization was revamped and “heroic virtue” came to be emphasized more than miracles.
No holy mystic was ever expected to have all the charisms that could be listed, and these charisms could manifest themselves in varying degrees: some saints could levitate more often or higher than others; some might just hover; others might actually fly. All these gifts were wild cards of sorts, and so were the particular combinations any mystic might be dealt by God. The most significant of these charisms could be sorted into two categories: first, those phenomena that were overtly physical and visibly involved the body; second, those phenomena that were not visible but could be conjoined with mystical ecstasy.
In the first category, there were at least fifteen overtly physical phenomena commonly linked with holiness and mystical experiences. Visible ecstasies, raptures, and trances: when the body enters a cataleptic state and becomes rigid, insensible, and oblivious to its surroundings. Levitation: when the body rises up in the air, hovers, or flies. Weightlessness: when the body displays a total or nearly total absence of weight during trances and levitations or after death. Transvection: when the body is transported through the air from one location to another in some indeterminate measure of time. Mystical transport or teleportation: when the body transverses physical space instantaneously, moving from one place to another without any time having elapsed, sometimes over great distances. Bilocation: when the body is present in two places simultaneously. Stigmatization: when the body acquires the five wounds of the crucified Christ or other wounds inflicted during his passion. Luminous irradiance: when the body glows brightly. Supernatural hyperosmia: a heightened sense of smell that allows the mystic to detect the sins of others. Supernatural inedia: the ability to survive without any food or with very little food at all. Supernatural insomnia: the ability to survive without much, if any, sleep. Visible demonic molestations: physical attacks by demons that wound the body. Odor of sanctity: when the body emits a unique and immensely pleasant smell. Supernatural incorruption: when the corpse of a saint does not decompose but remains unnaturally intact for many years, decades, or centuries. Supernatural oozing, or myroblitism: when the corpse of a saint discharges a pleasant-smelling oily substance capable of performing healing miracles directly or through cloths dipped in it.
And in the second category, holy mystics could have at least ten different kinds of otherworldly experiences not visible to others or supernatural powers with which they could be imbued. Some of these were physical gifts, some spiritual, and some mental. Visions, locutions, and apparitions: when the mystic has various sorts of encounters with the divine that are not visible to others, and the mystic receives communications from God that are visual, aural, or purely spiritual. Invisible demonic molestations: when the mystic is assailed by demons spiritually or mentally, sometimes with a visual component that is invisible to others. Telekinesis: the ability to move objects at a distance by nonphysical means, without touching them. Telepathy: the ability to read the minds and consciences of others or to communicate mentally. Prophecy: the ability to know and predict future events accurately, including one’s own death. Supernatural remote vision: the ability to see events that are occurring elsewhere. Supernatural dreams: the ability to receive divine communications while sleeping. Infused knowledge: learning directly from God, without formal education, through ecstasies, visions, locutions, and apparitions. Supernatural control over nature: the ability to command the behavior of weather, fauna, and flora and to communicate with animals. Discernment of spirits: the ability to distinguish whether any event is of divine or demonic origin.
Tellingly, only one of the phenomena listed above can be called genuinely and exclusively Christian: that of the stigmata, the miraculous duplication of the wounds of Christ on the mystic’s hands, feet, and torso, the first recorded instance of which involves St. Francis of Assisi in the thirteenth century. All other physical phenomena can be found in accounts from other cultures and religions, in which such gifts are linked to individuals with spiritual powers.
Naturally, fraud and delusion could certainly be involved in claims about such charisma and the miracles associated with them, and the likelihood of that could be obvious to anyone, but in cultures where such phenomena were assumed to be possible, it was belief in the charismata that had to be suspended rather than disbelief.
Accepting these phenomena as possible requires a certain way of thinking about the fabric of reality. It requires accepting as fact that the cosmos consists of two dimensions, the natural and the supernatural, and that these two dimensions, though distinct, are nevertheless intertwined in such a way that the natural is always subordinate to the supernatural. In this mentality or worldview, which was reinforced culturally by social custom and the political forces of church and state, the natural order could be constantly interrupted and overpowered by the supernatural. Any such irruption of the supernatural was a miracle (miraculum or prodigium), and the natural world constantly pulsated with the possibility of the miraculous.
This binary approach to reality extended to the human being, for humans were believed to have been created in “the image and likeness of God” and to be composed of a mortal material body and an immortal spiritual soul. Saints could tap into the supernatural because they were “holy”—that is, they were more spiritual than other human beings, more attuned to the sacred and divine. As individuals who embraced self-denial and focused intensely on spiritual realities rather than on the needs of their corruptible material bodies, they were able to avoid sinful behavior and live virtuous lives. This made them “holy” and therefore closer to God, and that closeness transformed their mortal bodies, imbuing them with supernatural abilities.
Such abilities were deemed celestial in origin: charisma granted to holy human beings in and through whom God worked miracles. Some of these charismata had dark parallels in pagan magic and witchcraft, so discerning the actual source of the gift was always necessary for Catholic Christians, and that process of discernment could be immensely complicated, awkward, and often painful. In essence, the process involved reckoning the difference between religion—that is, whatever was truly supernatural—and magic, which was never truly supernatural but rather involved the diabolical agency or some sort of humanly devised trickery.
Given this conundrum, and the inherent instability and ambiguity of the miraculous, every levitation or bilocation—no matter how wondrous—had an unavoidable tragic dimension, and all miracle-workers had to contend with it in various ways. The more extreme the miracle claim, the worse the ordeal that the miracle-worker had to face. Whether it was being grilled by the Inquisition, being confined to a small monastic cell like a prisoner, or having one’s writings destroyed or hidden away under lock and key, miracle-workers usually had to be refined in some sort of crucible. Magic, religion, and the demonic were too closely intertwined to allow Church authorities to approve of miracles instantaneously. Distinctions had to be maintained, and those distinctions were understood in precise terms by educated folk, especially the clergy tasked with the job of doing the discerning. But at street level, among the faithful, the line between religion and magic was anything but precise, especially when it came to popular piety and the ways in which most Christians approached what they believed to be supernatural.
The advent of the Protestant Reformation brought about a sudden redefinition of concepts such as religion, magic, superstition, and idolatry, as well as of assumptions about the relation between the natural and supernatural realms. Distinctions that had reigned largely uncontested in the Catholic Church of the West and the Orthodox Churches of the East since the first century suddenly began to be challenged in the early 1520s when an earth-shaking paradigm shift took place. The change in thinking resulting from this new Protestant take on reality was similar in scope and significance to the one caused by Copernicus in astronomy, but its impact was much more immediate and widespread. It gave rise to a disparate mentality that still saw reality in binary terms but drew the line between religion and magic differently, rejecting the intense intermingling of the natural and supernatural as well as of the material and the spiritual, thus placing much of Catholic ritual and piety in the realm of magic. Moreover, this Protestant mentality also redefined the concepts of holiness and sainthood, and rejected the assumption that self-denial and virtuous behavior could allow human beings to be gifted with supernatural powers.
As if this were not enough of an assault on medieval assumptions about the relation between the natural and the supernatural realms, 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. For Catholics, holy levitation could serve as proof of the divine source of their Church’s authority and of the truth of their teachings and sacraments. If miracles such as this occurred in the Catholic Church, could it really be the seat of the Antichrist, as Protestants argued? Protestants simply countered by insisting that if such weird phenomena were not fraudulent, they could only be demonic, their existence damning evidence of the falsehood of the Catholic Church, which employed the devil’s ability to easily fool the unwary. After all, witches hovered and flew too. As Thomas Browne argued in 1646, since Satan was a “natural Magician” he could “perform many acts in ways above our knowledge, though not transcending our natural powers.” Meanwhile, however, Protestants and Catholics alike continued to believe that witches hovered and flew and should all be exterminated.
At exactly the same time that Catholics were canonizing levitating saints and burning flying witches and Protestants were busy tossing flying witches into the flames, too—by the thousands—modern empirical science was emerging and creating paradigm shifts of its own. The peak period for flying humans in Western history coincides with the initial development of a new materialistic way of thinking about reality that would reject all this flying as absolutely impossible nonsense. One could say that the oddest fact about two of the most extreme exemplars of miraculous baroque Catholicism, Joseph of Cupertino (1603–1663), “the Flying Friar,” and María de Jesús de Ágreda (1602–1665), the bilocating and levitating nun, is that they walked the earth—and ostensibly hovered over it—at the same time as Isaac Newton (1642–1727).
Beyond the factual historical dimension of baroque-era levitators, divine or demonic, one runs into more abstract issues in the metaphysical and epistemological dimension of these accounts. And the questions there make historians very uncomfortable. Did these people really float in the air? If so, how and why, and how could it be proved? As soon as these questions begin to pop up, we historians proudly bring out our brackets and wield them with all the epistemological brawn we can muster. “We bracket the question of whether this happened or not,” we say, and by that we mean that since we cannot prove that any of this hovering and flying happened, we put those questions aside. We limit ourselves to analyzing narratives and the beliefs expressed in those narratives but not the events reported in them. Those events remain suspended in an ether of their own, much like some stiff-jointed levitating saint, in that vast limbo where all unprovable and unusable testimonies get squirreled away. And all we are left with is the fact of the testimonies given and of the beliefs reflected in them.
The issue of whether so-and-so really flew cannot be addressed. And the same goes for bilocation or any other charisma associated with mystical ecstasy, for there is no way anyone today can prove that someone really hovered or flew or bilocated in the sixteenth or seventeenth century. No one’s testimony from the distant past can be taken as absolute proof, not for something as uncommon and unnatural a phenomenon as levitation, even if corroborated by hundreds or thousands of similar testimonies, for a simple reason: like all miracles, by definition, phenomena such as levitation and bilocation are totally unlike others in history. If in fact they have taken place, the number of witnesses has been far too small, relatively speaking. And the further back one goes in time, the more difficult it becomes to defend the credibility of those witnesses. The argument made by David Hume in 1748 about the impossibility of proving any miracle solely from testimony is worth quoting at this point:
A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined…. Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happens in the common course of nature…. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation…. The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), “That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish.”
Nonetheless, while it is ultimately impossible for anyone to prove that any levitation or bilocation actually took place, the fact that there are eyewitness testimonies of such instances is easy enough to prove. And those testimonies, which are often rich in detail, tell us something about the past that our present-day culture predisposes many people to overlook or deride. This brings us back to Febvre’s observation: “To comprehend is to complicate, to augment in depth. It is to widen on all sides. It is to vivify.” The testimonies of witnesses to impossible events, which are themselves full of complexities and ambivalences, vivify the past. They allow us a glimpse of the world as some of those who lived long ago actually saw it.