A Visit to Osimo
Famous for his levitations, they had moved the strange friar from town to town, convent to convent. This time they brought him to the edge of the Adriatic to a remote Franciscan outpost. At the entrance to the town of Osimo, he announced this was the place he would die. (And so he did six years later on September 18, 1663.) He then glanced toward the tower of the church of Loreto, believed to contain stones of the house the Holy Family lived in.
According to the chronicles, Joseph at that moment observed a host of angels in flight. It so amazed him that he went into ecstasy and was carried aloft into the air. This was observed by all who were present, as reported in Domenico Bernini’s 1722 biography. Mazzanti represented it in a painting, which belongs to the Sanctuary of St. Joseph in Osimo. I had requested permission to use a photograph of Mazzanti’s painting for the cover of my book on Joseph, which was granted with a request for a copy of the book when published. I decided to bring a copy to the Sanctuary in person, wanting to get a sense of this part of Italy near Ancona where the man who could fly spent the last six years of his life.
I was looking for some sign, a possible hint of explanation, some quality of the landscape or the people, which might shed light on the mystery of the man from Copertino’s ability to levitate. Was there something about the geography, the culture, the cuisine? Anything that might be a clue to the extraordinary phenomena he produced there? (For details see my The Man Who Could Fly on Amazon.)
I found a few hints of what I might call the Copertino effect. As noticed by Joseph and St. Teresa, the levitation force comes upon you suddenly and irresistibly. There is something convulsive about the onset of divine rapture. When I was in Rome on the 25th of November, I had a strange experience sitting on my bed in the Hotel Fiamma. It was around 9 o’clock. I was glancing at the amber curtain that was drawn on the window overlooking Via Gaeta when suddenly my bed and everything around me along with the curtain I was staring at began to ripple in space, and for twenty-five or thirty elongated seconds I felt as if I had slipped into a weird dream. But then the shaking stopped. My first thought was that I had felt the effects of some titanic love-making going on above my head or maybe one flight below.
I turned on CNN and discovered that an earthquake had just occurred near Amatrice where recently a quake wiped out a town and killed 300 people. The reporter said it was felt in Rome. I’ll say! What shook up my room was an earthquake, not any Italian lovers.
Several days later when I arrived at Campodisole, a beautiful house with Bed & Breakfast, I was glad to sleep in the silence of the countryside, surrounded by golden hills under a marine-blue sky. In the morning, I stripped for a shower. Suddenly, the house began to shake and throb. Again, a shock wave that rippled the space I was in for number of seconds – I don’t recall counting how many. It was another earthquake whose epicenter was about 70 kilometers away from where I was in Campodisole. And it was a powerful one. On another day at breakfast there was another, smaller earthquake that we all noticed.
I took this as a possible hint. The volcanic presence, the possibility of the ground shifting – what better way to shatter ordinary consciousness? To live in deep uncertainty about the ground under your feet? That might evoke the hidden forces conducive to preternatural flight. What to do when the ground on which you rest suddenly convulses? It might well concentrate the mind.
There was another element – perhaps kin to the volcanic – that provided a hint, a taste of the spirit that Joseph the mystic aviator possessed in spades: an exuberance that could suddenly burst forth and express itself, perhaps in rare cases in miraculous fashion. One story of Joseph has him in high spirits, and lifting one of his stouter brethren and tossing him joyfully into the air as if he were a rubber doll.
I saw nothing like that in Osimo, but I did (with my comrades, David and Kristi) mingle with the people of Osimo on the evening of All Soul’s Day, a time when the partition that divides the world of the living from the world of the dead is said to be removed. Also known as All Hallow’s Eve and hence Halloween, Osimo was fully Halloweened Americano style. Children and long-haired teen-age girls were wandering about under tall pointy witch-hats.
We were peering into a huge stone bin with a grid roasting crowds of chestnuts, which got tossed around with abandon when five colorfully costumed men appeared before us, brandishing exotic musical instruments. They wanted us to listen and if we felt like it dance along with them.
We gave them the nod, and they launched into a high energy concert that spoke to our legs and our energy angels. Before we knew it we were dancing on All Soul’s Day in the festive Centro of Osimo. We made it to the place we had planned to visit. It felt like a special moment. Where else in the world can you see a road sign with the image of a flying saint pointing toward the center of town?
What I felt as we danced with the minstrels of Osimo was a tremendous rush of life-affirming energy. It crossed my mind that such expansive feelings, carried to extremes, may be associated with accounts of bilocation, instantaneous healing, and other magical and baffling oddities such as levitation.
The most jovial and portly of the town musicians explained to us his philosophy of life. By the way, the instrument this fellow played was a coffee grinder! Going through the grinding motions, his instrument produced a percussive effect. In concert with the wind and string players, he was like the drummer in a jazz ensemble.
I got another hint I was looking for, something to help me think about the mystery of human flight. One fact about Joseph’s levitations I knew for sure. His flights were related to mental states in which one is thrown out of kilter with one’s normal mental outlook – in a word, ecstasy.
The coffee-grinder guy looks at me and says. “Whenever I have a thought that is cattivo – bad – I reach for my coffee-grinder and make music!”
My friends from Berkeley and I look at each other and smile with approval. Kristi is a psychiatrist, a “soul-doctor” who believes in the soul, and David is a neuroscientist on a pilgrimage in search of understanding the mind. And yours truly, a philosopher dazzled by the mystery of levitation.
We were all interested in the idea of music as soul-medicine. (We had been talking about the need for a new health-care paradigm.) After a pause, our high-energy percussionist and native of Osimo, adds, E poi sto lieto. “And then I’m glad, blessed, light.” All three English words translate lieto. The cattivo “bad” can be transformed into the lieto – the blessed -- by means of music. Now that I call real magic.
So the people of Osimo have a method of transforming “lower” into “higher” emotional energies, a handy device in the art of living, given the abundance of lower stuff available for transformation.
Our saint said that the flights of his body – which often embarrassed him – were about one big thing, amore. Who knows? Maybe it’s love after all that moves the stars.
I felt there was another clue to the mystery of levitation. I was reading Robert Hughes’s book on Rome, and Hughes, one of the great art critics, calls the way Bernini handles marble preternatural – that is, beyond or above nature. Rambling around Rome I found myself on the Via di Tre Fontane and entered Santa Maria della Vittoria, which housed Bernini’s sculpture, The Ecstasy of St. Teresa. Inside the chapel, a steady stream of visitors were clicking away with their I Phones. The statue was elevated at least a dozen feet above ground level and a light came on only periodically, so it was hard to get a satisfying look at this masterpiece. I fixed my attention on the point where the angel’s hand seems about to lift the saint’s robe, and a remark of Duke Ellington came to mind: “It’s not music; it’s dreaming.”
Point? Among the scattered peaks of preternatural performance -- in the arts, in sports, in yoga, in mysticism, in life itself -- now and then we catch glimpses of genius that act out some amazing power of the mind over physical reality. San Giuseppe liked to say to his friends: Andiamo compagni, su! su! “Let’s go guys! Up yonder!” Joseph of Copertino’s life was like a flaming arrow of human potential pointing upward, symbolically and literally.