Church history includes the stories of many saints who could fly
The year was 1967, and actress Sally Field, who would go on to be an Academy Award-winning star, landed the lead role in a series called “The Flying Nun.” The premise of the show: Sister Bertrille (Field) was a novice in a religious community in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The sisters wore a cornette-styled habit, similar to those worn by the Daughters of Charity. That style of habit features large starched pieces of white cloth that jut out like a wing on either side of the head.
Creature of Habit
When wearing her habit, Sister Bertrille, who was small and lightweight, found that when the strong winds around San Juan kicked up, she was able, with the help of that habit, to rise up and fly. The theme song as sung by Field in the first episode of the show sums up the premise: “Who needs wings to fly? Certainly not I … as long as there’s a habit standing by, who needs things like wings to fly?”
Yes, a ridiculous premise; but a show that is well-remembered by many. And the show was not a fly-by-night enterprise, but lasted three seasons on ABC.
One may snicker at the idea of a “Flying Nun,” but I tell you: snicker-no-more. There has been, in our Catholic tradition, an actual flying nun and several other saints who possessed the power to levitate or fly. This is the topic of this article: Saints who flew. Back in 1978, when “Superman – the Movie” was advertised, its tagline was “You will believe a man can fly.” It is my hope that this article has that same effect on your belief.
Why would a saint fly, you may ask? Good question. The miraculous actions and deeds that are attributed throughout history to the saints are outward manifestations of God working through one of his servants. So, when a saint is said to fly, it’s God at work; He is working through the saint to make known his presence and power in our world. Or more simply put: the transcendent reality of God exists outside of time and space, and when a human comes in contact with that reality, in even some small dose, that person may find him- or herself in a miraculous mode of being: having an ecstasy, flying, healing. But no matter what the miraculous action: It is God working through that holy person.
Who are these Flying Wallendas of faith? There are too many to cover in one article, so I will limit myself to a handful of whisking wunderkinds.
• St. Teresa of Avila. She was the original flying nun. St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) was a nun in the Carmelite Order. She wrote that during moments of spiritual rapture she would experience levitation. One of her fellow Carmelites, Sister Anne of the Incarnation, said that she saw St. Teresa levitate for some 30 minutes, staying airborne about a foot and a half off the ground. Sometimes these incidents took place during Mass, one time it occurred just after Communion at a Mass celebrated by the local bishop.
• St. Alphonsus of Liguori. It is said that during the preaching of a homily at Foggia, St. Alphonsus (1696-1787) levitated several feet off the ground in front of all of the folks in the crowded church. I guess it was a very uplifting homily.
• St. Joseph of Cupertino. When it comes to the topic of flying saints, St. Joseph of Cupertino (1603-63) is the most prolific in aeronautical activity. He experienced so many levitations, and flew so often, all witnessed by fellow Franciscans and by many others, that he is noted as the patron saint of airplane passengers (perhaps he should also be the patron saint of frequent-flyer programs). His superiors prohibited him from being in processions or choir, as his proclivity for levitation proved distracting to his brother Franciscans as well as to visitors. In his formal beatification (and canonization) process, the church documented some 70 levitations and flights.
One such incident found St. Joseph of Cupertino, processing to the main altar for Mass in mid-air down the length of the main aisle. Several of his levitations occurred during ecstasies (profound encounters with God), and lasted six to seven hours — with many witnesses. There were some doubters of the airborne prowess of St. Joseph; among them were Pope Urban VIII, and the leaders of the Court of the Inquisition. During a visit to Rome with the superior of the Franciscan Order, St. Joseph knelt before the pope prayerfully, and suddenly rose airborne while still in kneeling posture.
During a challenge in Naples by the Court of the Inquisition, St. Joseph was ordered to say Mass in their presence. He came to the Church of St. Gregory where the officials were; once there he flew to the altar, he remained standing in the air with his arms spread in the form of a cross. He returned to the floor unharmed and said Mass. He was ordered to be kept in seclusion and was for most of the rest of his life.
There are many, many writings about the flying and levitating of St. Joseph of Cupertino, more than could fit in this column. His holy status wasn’t “up in the air,” by 1767 — he passed through the canonization process with flying colors.
• St. Gerard Majella. St. Gerard (1726-1755) was a brother of the Redemptorist Order. Similar to St. Joseph of Cupertino, St. Gerard was found airborne during times of prayer, contemplation or gazing upon a sacred image. His flights and levitations were numerous, and had many witnesses. Two of the most famous of these: on Good Friday, 1753, in a Benedictine church in Corato, Italy, St. Gerard was praying. As a procession carrying a picture of our Lord Jesus on the Cross came into the church, St. Gerard experienced a spiritual ecstasy, and before the eyes of the congregation, he was elevated high up from the ground, with eyes transfixed upon the painting. Another time, he was witnessed flying for over three-quarters of mile, making his way back to the Redemptorist monastery for prayer.
• St. Gemma Galgani. In the late 19th century, St. Gemma (1878-1903) paused during housework to pray before an image of Jesus on a large crucifix in her family home. At that moment the image of Christ came alive and beckoned the young Gemma to come to him. At that moment, with her family looking on, Gemma was suddenly and joyfully levitated off the ground, rose up to the crucifix, embraced it and kissed the wood of the Cross. A few years later, in 1903, at the age of 25 she passed away; Gemma Galgani was canonized in 1940.
• St. Christina the Astonishing. St. Christina (1150-1224) had suffered from seizures during her life. After one major seizure, at age 21, it seemed she died. During her funeral Mass, Christina sprung from her casket and flew up to the rafters of the church. She told the priest, after coming down to the ground, that she returned to earth to pray for the suffering souls in purgatory. Christina levitated other times, but more often sought prayer silence by hiding away from people; she often climbed up in trees or hid in ovens. She lived to be 74 years of age, dying in 1224.
• St. Paul of the Cross. The Founder of the Passionist Order, St. Paul of the Cross (1694-1775), experienced several instances of levitation and flight. The most famous was in the sacristy of Ss. John and Paul Church in Rome. There he was engaged in conversation of spiritual matters, when according to a written deposition of witness, his face lit up, his body trembled, and “he clung with both his hands to the arms of the chair, and leaned his shoulders on the back of it; as soon as he had done this, he began to rise, together with the chair … to the height of five or six feet … [Later] as the rapture passed away … [He] with the chair, descended and rested on the ground.”
Gonna Fly Now!
And so, these saints that I have noted, along with many others, bore witness to God’s power with the gift of flight. These events of levitation and flight show us that in ecstatic prayer or contemplation, God can lift us up; most of the time this is done spiritually. But, in the lives of these saints, God pulled back the curtain that separates the natural and the supernatural realms to show us both spirit and body lifted up and arisen from the earth. Do you believe a man can fly? I sure do, and our church tradition gives us these holy examples.
Father Lentini is pastor of Holy Cross Church in Dover and of Immaculate Conception Church in Marydel, Md.