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Saturday 10 February 2018

Levitating Saints - and Others

     During my visit to Bhutan, one of my travel companions made a reference to levitation practised in Tibetan monasteries, and I commented that I wouldn't rule it out. "I'm glad you don't reject it," said our host (or our guide, I forget which).
    "In our society," I replied, "it occurs among two different types of people: Christian mystics, and the demon possessed."
    So let's start from the beginning: Tibet. I have previously referred to Alexandra David-Néel's book, Magic and Mystery in Tibet (1929). This intrepid lady explorer immersed herself in the culture and mystical practices of this mysterious kingdom, but was careful to make a distinction between what she saw and what she merely heard about. She witnessed events best understood as representing telepathy, she learned how to raise her body temperature, and she managed to produce a tulpa, or visible hallucination. What she did not see was levitation, but she was told the theory:
     Amongst these exercises the following one enjoys the greatest favour amongst those many Tibetan ascetics who are not of an especially intellectual type.
     The student sits cross-legged on a large and thick cushion. He inhales slowly and for a long time, just as if he wanted to fill his body with air. Then, holding his breath, he jumps up with legs crossed, without using his hands and falls back on his cushion, still remaining in the same position. He repeats that exercise a number of times during each period of practice. Some lamas succeed in jumping very high in that way. Some women train themselves in the same manner.
    As one can easily believe the object of this exercise is not acrobatic jumping. According to Tibetans, the body of those who drill themselves for years, by that method, becomes exceedingly light; nearly without weight. These men, they say, are able to sit on an ear of barley without bending its stalk or to stand on the top of a heap of grain without displacing any of it. In fact the aim is levitation. [Chapter 6]
     Whether the historic Buddha would have approved is a moot question. One of the anecdotes about him was how he met an ascetic who told him how, after twenty years of various rituals and meditation, he had been able to walk on water. "You poor fellow," the Buddha is said to have exclaimed, "to have wasted so much of your life, when a ferryman would be willing to take you across for a few annas!"
     Be that as it may, Madame David-Néel heard of a test whereby a monk was placed in a pit equal to his height in depth, and topped by a sort of cupola of equal height. The candidate was expected to levitate out of the hole in the top of the cupola. Khampas told her that such feats had been performed in their country, but she never saw it herself. It would be interesting if a disinterested Westerner could witness such a performance under control conditions, because in an interview the Dalai Lama said he had never personally seen anyone levitate. He did, however, mention that an elderly nun had told him of seeing, in her youth, two monks fly from the top of a mountain to the other side of the valley - although he wondered whether she had not been hallucinating. If the head of the religion, who studied its teachings deeply, and is in contact with others of the same quality, cannot confirm it, it is no harm in the rest of us being skeptical.

     Some of the early spiritualists were alleged to have levitated. Daniel Dunglas Home, in particular, was recorded to have levitated out a window and into an adjoining room. However, Houdini, in his book, A Magician Among the Spirits stated categorically that he would have been able to perform the same trick under the same circumstances, and issued a challenge to that effect. It would be tedious to examine every claim of this nature, but it cannot be denied that widespread fraud was a feature of a great many séances and, in any case, their paranormal feats were typically performed under conditions of their own choosing, under poor lighting, before sympathetic, and usually uncritical audiences.
     I am open to further evidence, of course, but I do not think a very good case exists for voluntary levitation. Involuntary levitation, on the other hand, is another matter.

    Demon Possession. Those who watched the 1973 movie, The Exorcist may remember the scene of possessed girl being levitated off the bed. This did not happen in the case history which inspired the book, (the boy's real name is said to have been Roland Hunkeler), although it is reported that a priest, while seated on a chair, was moved across the room. In the 2012 "possession" case in Gary, Indiana, a girl really was levitated off her bed, and a boy was seen to walk backwards up a wall.
    Again, we can take the case of "Julia", as recorded by the psychiatrist, Dr Richard Gallagher. Julia used to fall into trances during which an evil personality emerged. It would be easy to write her symptoms off as simply a dissociative disorder, except that she exhibited ESP and involuntary psychokinesis ie poltergeist phenomena. In particular, according to Dr Gallagher:
Remarkably, for about 30 minutes, she actually levitated about half a foot in the air.
     I shall admit, however, that when I made the statement in Bhutan, I was thinking of the Great Amherst Mystery in Nova Scotia, 1878-9, which was really a poltergeist infestation. Rereading the evidence, I see that the entire body and limbs of 19-year-old Esther Cox, the focus of the phenomenon, were several times seen to visibly swell up and then, after several loud reports, just as suddenly deflate. But she was not levitated.  Just the same, there have been occasional poltergeist cases in which children have been levitated.
     The phenomenon is therefore rather complex, but the vast majority of cases involve:

     Christian Mystics. What is mysticism? In English, unlike some other languages, we make no distinction between knowing a fact and knowing a person. A mystic seeks to know God in the second sense through a personal, emotional bonding. At its lowest level it can be considered commonplace, even normal, for even the irreligious recognize that a "religious experience" is more than just an acceptance of doctrine. But what we are here concerned about is the sort of altered state of consciousness investigated by neurologist, Dr Andrew Newberg, in which the mystic experiences a union, or oneness, with God and the universe linked, in the case of a Christian, with the sense of overwhelming love. In its deepest state, he will cease to be aware of his physical surroundings. Needless to say, "ecstasy", to use the theological term, is more likely to be experienced by monks or nuns who spend many hours in prayer and meditation, rather than someone, however pious, who must deal with the problems of the world, such as a parish priest or pastor, or layman.
     Although only a tiny proportion of them have been recorded as levitating, their situation is quite different to that of alleged levitating mediums. The latter deliberately performed it before sympathetic audiences, typically under poor light, in conditions under their control. The saints seen to levitate did so spontaneously, normally under good lighting conditions and, significantly, they did not desire the "gift", and as often as not, requested silence on the part of any witnesses, for public adulation was an enemy to humility.
     Levitation, as far as I am aware, was not included in the many highly imaginative legends of the saints common during the Middle Ages, but references to it start to appear in the 12th and 13th centuries. The first incident may have been with the kindly and gentle soul known as St. Francis of Assisi (1181/2 - 1226), who may also have been the first to introduce the Christmas crib, and the first prominent person to display the stigmata.
The Blessed Francis, one day while he was in fervent prayer, was seen by the friars raised above the ground with his whole body, his arms extended heavenward: and a bright cloud enveloped him.
Giotto's mural in the Basilica of St Francis in Assisi.
     Well, so said his official biographer, St. Bonaventura in the Legenda Major, written in 1261. To be sure, an earlier biography in 1245 makes no mention of such events, and by 1320 the stories had grown in the telling such that he was being frequently levitated to the height of a beech tree, or even almost completely out of sight.
     My feeling is that, if this story were unique, it might be dismissed as a pious legend. However, since levitation does not appear to have been included in earlier legends of the saints, and since there are well documented later cases, I think we might let it pass.
     It is possible that his claim to have been the first saintly levitator might have to pass to Christine the Astounding (c 1150 - 1224), who was known to have practised extraordinary austerities. Her career is said to have commenced after she suffered a seizure in her early 20s, and woke up at her own funeral, having been granted a guided tour of purgatory. In an earlier article, I recorded several cases of people experiencing detailed hallucinations while in comas, so this account cannot be airily dismissed. Just the same, I note that it is supposed to have occurred "sometime in her early 20s", which implies that the exact date was not recorded. This casts a bit of doubt on the subject. In any case, when she woke up, she is said to have levitated almost to the ceiling. However, as this is the only case I know of where the levitator was not in an altered state of consciousness, I would prefer to see the full documentation before I would accept it. (It may, for instance, be a garbled account of an out-of-the-body experience during a near death experience.)
     The situation becomes a lot more certain when we leave the period of manuscripts and enter the age of the printed word. Here it is possible to follow a paper trail right back to the eyewitnesses, many of whom were interrogated during the investigations for canonisation.
     Take the case of St Bernadino Realino (1530-1616). At the inquiry held in 1621, a Signor Tobias da Ponte deposed under oath that, about 1608, he had come to seek spiritual advice from the priest. While seated in the lobby, he noticed that the door of the priest's room was slightly open, and a radiant light was streaming through. Was there a fire inside? he thought. Peeking inside, he was amazed to see Bernadino at prayer, rapt in ecstasy, his eyes closed and his body lifted four palms, or 75 cm, above the floor. Having given the evidence, he was asked by the investigator whether he was sure the light wasn't an hallucination, a fancy of the brain, or simply the sun's rays. (That's another thing: preternatural light, often from the face of the ecstatic, is another well attested phenomenon of mysticism.) No way! da Ponte affirmed; the rays were like those from a blacksmith's forge, and he saw the saint raised off the ground as clearly as he saw the interrogator. The latter then admonished him not to exaggerate, for a saint requires no exaggeration. Again, da Ponte insisted he was reporting the absolute truth. A third time he was questioned, but he stuck to his evidence. So don't ever imagine these phenomena have not been thoroughly investigated.
     Of course, the one everyone speaks about with respect to levitation is Joseph of Copertino (1603-1663), for the details of whose life I am indebted to the biography by Fr. Angelo Pastrovicchi. Admittedly, it was written in 1753, at the time of his beatification, but it was based on the official documentation prepared from eye-witness accounts taken a just a few years after his death.
     Personally, I was not impressed by Joseph the man. The view of monasticism common at his time (and still today?) was that, if simplicity is good, then self-denial is better, and self-torture best. Thus, he used to coat his food with a sauce so foul-tasting that no-one else could swallow it. He fasted seven times a year for forty days each, and wore a heavy chain around his waist (but not heavy enough to keep him on the ground).
     Also, although his kindness and virtue were widely acknowledged, he appears to have been one of those people who are so heavenly minded they are of no earthly use. He was forever suddenly going into raptures. In 1645, when he was stationed in Assisi, the High Admiral of Castille and his wife came to see him, with their numerous retinue. However, as Joseph entered the church to meet them, his eyes suddenly alighted on a statue of the Immaculate Conception on the altar. Immediately, he went into ecstasy, flew twelve paces over the heads of the company to the foot of the statue, remained there in prayer for some time, then gave his customary shriek and flew back to his cell.
    The devout Princess Mary of Savoy frequently witnessed his ecstasies in Assisi - not always involving levitation, admittedly. Once, in his private chapel, she saw him hover three palms from the floor while elevating the host, or communion bread. Another time, after mass, she watched him fly onto the altar and remain there in ecstasy.
    At Naples, at the command of the Inquisition, he said mass at the church of St Gregory of Armenia, belonging to the nuns of St. Ligorio. Suddenly, while he was engaged in private prayer in a corner, he let out a cry, then flew up to the altar, where he stood, bending over the flowers and candles with his arms outstretched like a cross, till the nuns cried out that he would catch fire. But, giving another shriek, he returned to the centre of the church.
    On his first visit to Rome, he was led by the Father General to meet Pope Urban VIII. Upon kissing the Pope's foot, he went into ecstasy and was raised aloft. But his last six years were spent at Osimo, where his fellow religious frequently witnessed his levitations, a very lengthy one of which occurred at the last time he celebrated mass, a month before his death. The very day before his death, when he heard the bell announcing the approach of the viaticum, or communion for the sick, he rose from his bed and flew from the door of his room to the stair above his chapel. All these events, I need to remind you, were attested under oath just a few years later.
     Joseph's levitations were famous in his own lifetime, and seventy were recorded in the acts of his beatification. The sheer number should be sufficient to overcome any legitimate skepticism over any individual instance. And needless to say, it doesn't matter if it happened seventy times, or just once, whether he levitated ten feet or ten inches, it is still a violation of the laws of nature as we know them.
     The way so people write, you would think he was the only levitator. Far from it! Let us consult The Physical Phenomena of Mysticism by Herbert Thurston. In a previous essay I related how it contains a massive amount of documentation on anomalies you will not read about elsewhere. It can be downloaded at the Archive website and, furthermore, you can purchase paperbacks and even Kindle editions from Amazon, and I would highly recommend you do so.
    Thurston commenced with levitation for the obvious reason, as he pointed out, that whereas a medical miracle requires certification from a medical practitioner, you don't need much in the way of qualifications to tell whether a person's feet are off the floor. Such were those who, on several occasions witnessed the "rapture" of Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582). Once, when she was prioress, she was on her knees about to take communion, when she was carried into the air by an irresistible force. She mentioned this particular incident in her autobiography (Thurston had access to the facsimile of her manuscript in Spanish), where she explained how she was completely unable to resist it, although she was both frightened by the act of being suspended, and distressed at the idea of the talk it would provoke. She also reported that after such events she felt buoyant, as if her feet were not touching the ground. Note that she was completely aware of her surroundings during levitation.
     Among those who have not been declared saints (yet), the "Blue Nun", Mary of Jesus of Ágreda (1602-1665) made such efforts to resist levitation that she vomited blood, but unlike Teresa, she lost awareness of her surroundings. According to Bishop Samaniego, who knew her well:
     The raptures of the servant of God were of this nature. The body was entirely bereft of the use of the senses, as if it were dead, and it was without feeling if violence was done to it; it was raised a little above the ground and as light as if it had no weight of its own, so much so that like a feather it could be moved by a puff of breath, even from a distance. . . . She frequently remained in this state of ecstasy for two or even for three hours.
      Space forbids a full description of all the case histories Thurston examined, not to mention his assessment of the documentation. Indeed, even he was limited by space to recording only a couple of dozen, which he followed by a list of twenty-two others, admitting that even that was hardly comprehensive. Nevertheless, there is one further case I feel deserves discussion.
      Mary Magdalene de'Pazzi (1566 - 1607), like quite a few others of these mystics, had an unusual psychological profile. Once, while in ecstasy, she shouted at the top of her voice in answer to a question, and commented to a bystander, "They can't hear me down there; it's too far off." In other words, she imagined she was in the air when she wasn't. Nevertheless, she possessed a rather loose relationship with gravity. If St Teresa felt buoyant after her levitations, then de'Pazzi, according to her confessor, Fr. Cepari, was known to move around the convent with incredible swiftness, negotiating stairs with such speed and agility that it seemed her feet hardly touched the floor. In 1532 she ran into the choir and leapt up to a cornice to take down a crucifix there. The cornice was approximately 30 feet or 9 metres above the floor.
     The reason I mention this is because, although Madame David-Néel failed to witness any levitation while she was in Tibet, but she did witness lunggom runners, who were able to run at extraordinary speed for long periods of time, in a state of deep trance. One she watched close up seemed to proceed by bounds, with the elasticity of a ball. Another one she saw while not running was wrapped in heavy chains to weigh himself down, because the exercises these runners practise is supposed to make them light, although I suspect it is more a case of the power of the mind over the body. But it was not recorded that they could jump nine metres in the air.

     What can be made of this phenomenon? It appears to be an unplanned by-product of the altered state of consciousness. What about the levitation of non-mystics? Thurston adopted a more favourable attitude towards séances they I am prepared to, but we cannot deny the Batcheldor and "Philip" experiments, which I discussed in passing in an earlier essay:
Basically, in the 1960s a psychologist called Kenneth Batcheldor gathered a group of experimenters to recreate a classic séance, and discovered they could cause the table, not only to tilt, but to levitate and move around the room. Building on this the following decade, a team led by Iris Owen set about conjuring an imaginary ghost called "Philip". And to make sure that the experiment wasn't marred by a real ghost, they agreed upon a life story which contained contradictions. The upshot was the production of typical spiritualist rapping and tapping, which were most pronounced for questions for which the team had already agreed on the answers, whether true or false. More to the point, spectacular "poltergeist" movements of the tables and chairs also occurred - right under an array of TV cameras and the eyes of scholars.
     And, as Thurston commented, if a table can be levitated, so can a human being (well, a small one). Most poltergeist levitations are of small to medium sized objects, but some can be quite big. Some strange natural force is being activated in some mysterious manner. That it can be harnessed by an advanced science should be of no surprise to anyone dipping into the literature on alien abductions, or even simple CE3s.
     I would be interested to know more about the demographics. Accessibility of documents and the languages involved has restricted these investigations to Roman Catholic countries. However, there remains a long tradition of mysticism in eastern Christianity. Are there any documented cases of levitation in (say) the great monastery complex of Mt. Athos in Greece? Also, Tibetan tradition notwithstanding, I am unaware of well attested levitation by non-Christian mystics, although I would not rule it out. Or perhaps their form of mysticism is different.
    This is not ancient history. Thurston undertook his investigations between 1919 and 1938, and the most recent example he could find occurred in the last decade of the nineteenth century. By and large, however, my impression is that the phenomena began in the twelfth century, reached its peak in the sixteenth and seventeenth, and has been petering out since then. Are there trends or fashions even in the paranormal?

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting post. The levitation of the saints is a remarkable fact, and it is clearly a non-voluntary phenomenon that is tied to the realm of the supernatural, not the preternatural. Maybe it could be a release of preternatural potentialities, but without intention and in total harmony with God’s will.