Joseph of Cupertino (or Copertino) is said to have performed more than 70 levitations, in which he was lifted up into the air and even flew about. Born Giuseppe Desa in 1603 in southern Italy, Joseph was nicknamed “open-mouth” at school because he often sat in motionless ecstasy with his mouth agape. In 1620 he joined the Capuchin order but was dismissed after eight months for carelessness. Finally, at age 25, he became a Franciscan priest at Grottaglie, near Cupertino. He practiced extreme austerity, rigorously fasting and flogging himself until he bled. His numerous ecstasies disturbed the services and meals so much that he was forbidden to attend.
Joseph first became airborne in the church of Saint Gregory of Armenia, in Naples, in 1638. After saying Mass there, he moved to a corner to pray. Suddenly he rose into the air with a cry, and flew upright to the altar, landing in the middle of the flowers and the burning candles without disturbing them. With another cry he flew back down and landed on his knees, and then whirled around calling out, “Oh most Blessed Virgin.”
When Joseph was sent to Rome, he promptly levitated in front of the astounded Pope Urban VIII. After that his indoor and outdoor levitations were seen in Assisi and elsewhere. Johann Friedrich, Duke of Brunswick, a Lutheran and patron to philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, was so impressed by the sight that he converted to Catholicism. Joseph died in 1663 and was canonized in 1767. He is, not surprisingly, the patron saint of air travelers, aviators and astronauts.
Worldwide lore on levitation spans at least two millennia, and it is difficult to dismiss evidence from more than 200 Catholic saints, whose levitations often coincided with religious trances or ecstasies. Teresa of Avila, a sixteenth-century saint, often hovered off the ground for up to 10 minutes. The process frightened her, but she could not prevent it from happening.
Levitation is not exclusive to Catholics. Among Islamic practitioners there was Haudar, a twelfth-century Iranian dervish. In eastern traditions such feats are said to be accomplished using breathing and visualization techniques. Levitation is also alleged to be common among shamans, spiritualists and witches. Modern advanced transcendental meditators claim to perform “yogic flying,” a kind of low hopping, while seated in the lotus position.
No levitating person has been conclusively photographed, and skeptics explain all cases as hallucination, hypnosis or hoax. If levitation is possible, it is increasingly rare. No saint has practiced it since Maria Francesca dell Cinque Piaghe, 200 years ago, but in the 1880s medium D.D. Home claimed that he could levitate.