Covering the Air with Prayer: St. Joseph of Cupertino

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Most know St. Joseph of Cupertino as the patron saint of test-takers. What many do not remember is, that due to numerous episodes of spiritual ecstasy that led to levitation, St. Joseph is also the patron saint of air travelers and pilots. 

I was first introduced to St. Joseph the summer that I worked on a polo pony farm. Having grown up in the country with horses, I have always found them a source of comfort, and apparently, so did St. Joseph. That summer, as I tended my charges, St. Joseph and I became better acquainted.

One of my assignments that summer was to write a short piece on a lesser known Franciscan saint. I could choose from a long list and as I began to research St. Joseph, to put it simply, I fell in love. This innocent, pure soul whose was life was marked from the very beginning by rejection and struggle, eventually found his peace working in a stable. I was deeply drawn to the humility in that.

Born Joseph Desa on June 17, 1603, he entered the world impoverished and mostly unwanted. His parents were so poor that their home had been put up for sale, and Joseph was born in a shed behind the house. Some accounts actually refer to it as a stable. 

Although he was noted for his religious fervor, even as a child, in other aspects of life, Joseph developed an unusual absentmindedness and inertia. His widowed mother treated him with “great severity” and rejected him as a nuisance. As he wandered the village, sometimes open-mouthed and aimless, he earned the nickname “Boccaperta,” or “The Gaper.” 

It was not an easy task to find his place in the world and Joseph struggled painfully as a young man. He was apprenticed to a shoemaker without success, despite his best efforts. Several attempts to join a religious order also proved unsuccessful for Joseph. His absentmindedness made him a poor worker and his frustration was sometimes expressed in temper-tantrums. He could forget even the simplest of tasks and often dropped dishes or broke things in his clumsiness. However, through the influence of an uncle, a Conventual Franciscan, Joseph joined the Franciscans as a servant. They offered him a tertiary habit and put him to work in the stables. There, in the quiet company of a barn full of farm-beasts, Joseph began to change, and to find his way to the pure heart of God. 

His work in the stables not only appears to have altered his temperament, giving him a greater sweetness and humility, but it also appears to have acted as the gateway to a lifetime of ecstasies and miracles of healing. Any reference to God or the mysteries of religion would catch St. Joseph up into profound contemplation, causing him to lose his bearings with the world around him. 

In one of the more noted stories of St. Joseph and his absolute innocence, the sight of a lamb is said to have caught him up into so pure a contemplation of the spotless Lamb of God that he was physically carried into the air with the lamb still in his arms. 

Eventually, though he struggled terribly as a student, he was ordained when, during one oral exam, his examiner asked him the one question whose answer he knew very well. Thus his patronage to test-takers.

Given to levitation (over 70 episodes were recorded in one seventeen-year period), especially during Mass or the Divine Office, St. Joseph was often considered an outcast and an oddity. He was the focus of several inquisitions, one that led to the chambers of Pope Urban VIII himself. But upon sight of the Vicar of Christ, St. Joseph went into ecstasy and Urban declared that he would offer evidence to the experience. 

In another well-authenticated instance, his fellow religious saw him fly up seven feet into the air to kiss the statue of the infant Jesus that stood over the altar. They then watched as he gathered the statue in his arms and floated away with it to his cell. 

More impressive than his physical levity, St. Joseph possessed a childlike emotional and spiritual levity. His extraordinary command over animals reportedly surpassed even St. Francis himself. Sheep were said to gather round him and listen to his prayer, a sparrow at the convent came and went at his command. 

He was often sought out for counsel and prayer and assisted many in growing in holiness through his purity and simplicity. When asked for spiritual direction, St. Joseph would often tell the weary-hearted, “Pray. If you are troubled by dryness or distractions, just say an Our Father. Then you make both vocal and mental prayer.” 

He died September 18, 1663; was beatified by Pope Benedict XIV in 1753; and was canonized by Pope Clement XIII in 1767.

Like many of the saints, St. Joseph’s life is not without some historical controversy and there are those who reject the possibility of levitation, citing instead “hallucinations,” mental illness, and the like. But that does not change the import of St. Joseph’s life as an encouragement to greater childlike faith and purity of heart. He is a constant reminder that though the world may reject you, the Lord loves the pure of heart and he is never far from those with childlike faith.

St. Joseph of Cupertino, pray for us.

SaintsElizabeth Kelly