Perceptive Travel - The Flying Saint

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The Flying Saint
by Graham Reid



The tourist brochure images of the Amalfi Coast don't hold up so well when you head inland, in search of miracles and legends of levitation.


The story of a flying man came to me by chance when flicking the pages of Norman Douglas' 1915 travel book Old Calabria. Douglas tells of seeing an 18th century engraving "which depicted a man raised above the ground without any visible means of support––flying, in short".

Flying Saint

From his readings Douglas learned various stories of this man, including that he would occasionally take passengers with him on his spontaneous levitations. The absurdity of these stories is amusing, but the man who became Saint Joseph was witnessed in flight by no less than Pope Urban VIII, who proclaimed it a miracle. So unless you are calling the Pope a liar . . .

Giuseppe's bird-nest eyebrows look across the top of his newspaper when I tell him I've hired a car and am nervously about to drive in Italy for the first time.

"Just ignore everyone else," he says with a laconic shrug of indifference and downturn of his mouth. "Just carry on and ignore everything around you, and do it for yourself."

This is probably excellent advice, but here in Sorrento streets can be impossibly narrow, wing mirrors are a liability, and vehicles argue for space with slow walking locals, big trucks and inattentive tourists.

Then there is the challenge of the Amalfi Coast. Two days previous I had taken a bus to picturesque Positano on a road where barely 50 feet at a time is straight and the winding route hugs the cliff edge with rocks hundreds of feet below. The bus driver crossed himself a couple of times before particularly sharp, blind corners. This was not encouraging.

At the hire car company the beautiful girl with dark eyeliner is equally indifferent to my fears–– "You don't be to worry, just you drive"––and hands me the keys, documents and a map.

Our trip will take in the Amalfi Coast, considered one of the world's most spectacular drives, and back roads through villages, then along motorways where cars pass at 150 mph. Knowing all this, I take every piece of insurance offered. Then I find the indicator and pull out into traffic. Our journey to the southern region of Puglia has begun.

The small town we are heading for is Copertino––which makes it on to few maps and is halfway down the heel of the boot––and it has an extraordinary claim to fame. A little over 400 years ago Joseph Desa, canonised in 1767, was born here.

And he flew.

There were numerous aerial displays by Joseph. Indeed his levitations so irritated his fellow monks that they were constantly shunting him off to another monastery. And so, armed with curiosity, Douglas' book, and a willingness to drive on Italian roads I am going to the humble birthplace of St Joseph, the flying monk.

Douglas was a rare man: he spoke five languages; was adventurous, tough and resourceful; something of a hedonist; and possessed a sharp wit. He also had a penchant for young boys.

The year after Old Calabria, his most successful travel book, appeared, he wrote London Games, a book about children's games based on close observation. Not so coincidentally, he was arrested for sexual misconduct with a young boy.

It doesn't take any great alertness to note the number of times in Old Calabria that Douglas engages young boys. Not that he needed to. His companion on his journey––never mentioned––was a 12-year old English lad called Eric Wolton whom he had picked up in London. Eric, unfortunately, wrote no book of his impressions.

The Charming Back Roads That Aren't
Less dramatically, I am travelling with my wife Megan. After Amalfi the drive becomes tediously unattractive and small towns where I thought I might drink wine with interesting locals are shabby and unwelcoming. It is increasingly apparent this region isn't going to offer up much other than rock, scrappy land and amaro, the bitter liqueur which is the speciality of the region.

We stop at some two-street village and in the bar I cheerily greet the owner. He puts down our beers and turns away without a word. A group of surly old men playing cards in the front room do the same when I greet them.

We press on through the blank landscape, skirting ugly industrial towns and the autostrada in favour of back roads. In Matera are the sassi, cave dwellings carved into cliffs, where a peasant culture––with infant mortality of over 50 percent––lived in abject poverty until only 60 years ago. We peer into rough-hewn holes where people and animals lived in co-dependent misery. It is depressing.

"You like this very much," says a young man in the piazza later, gesturing towards the sorry sassi. We've been watching a crazy guy shout abuse at strangers.

"Yes, interesting," I say with a courteous evasion.

He walks away and we go back to the car. We drive on and have time to consider the life of St Joseph who has drawn us into this inhospitable region.

A Simpleton Becomes a Saint
The patron saint of pilots, air travellers and astronauts was born Giuseppe Desa in 1603 and was called "bocca-aperta" by his playmates for his constantly open mouth. He was, to be blunt, dull witted. He was absent-minded, a sudden noise would alarm him, he had no conversation, was underfed and sickly, and caught every disease available. Nobody, not even his long-suffering parents according to one account, much liked him.

It is said when he was 17 he still couldn't distinguish brown bread from white. Around that time he saw a wandering friar begging and––because he was unpopular, unwanted and incapable of holding down employment––thought this might be something he could do.

However, on the rare occasions he was accepted in religious retreats he proved so intolerably clumsy the monks who had engaged him to wash dishes would quickly dismiss him. He was illiterate but dedicated––he referred to himself as Brother Ass––but seemed to always be happy. He was a simple soul, and possibly a simpleton.

He was ordained by curious chance: with a group of candidates he was presented to the bishop for an oral examination. But after hearing the first few candidates speak so persuasively the bishop cut short the questioning and announced they would all be ordained. Joseph was never questioned.

(This perhaps explains why he is also the patron saint of test takers.)

But then began his remarkable transformation. He would go off into strange reveries in which he was impervious to pain. Annoyed fellow monks would poke him with pins and burning embers to try to rouse him, and over time these intensified and he would levitate. It is said that in Copertino alone he flew more than 70 times.

He was transferred to Assisi and in 1645 flew before the Spanish ambassador to the Pope, his wife, and a company of others. After that it seemed impossible to keep him down.

Joseph became so well known that towards the end of his life––during which he apparently also drove out devils, healed the lame, caused the blind to see, and made wine and bread multiply––his superiors confined him to a convent at Osimo. He died there at age 61. Or 60, depending on who you read.

A simpleton from a small town in impoverished Italy, Joseph was an inspirational figure for the peasant constituency of his time. He was someone from the ranks of the illiterates in the remote hillside towns whose miraculous life gave hope to those who believed a benign God could intervene in their lives and protect them. He may, of course, also have flown.

Fighting a Lack of Wonder
"We live in a time where there is a lack of wonder," Marco said ebulliently as we sat in a bar in Sorrento the day before we drove south. I had told him about my plan and he had warmed to it immediately. Something in the idea of a flying saint, but more likely in the wine, made him expressive and poetic.

"This is a time when ecstasy is mistrusted and simple souls invite derision. Scepticism has hardened into a cynicism which allows us to refute out of hand the possibility of the divine." I added my bit, that the American essayist and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson had said, "If we meet no gods it is because we harbour none".

A Statue of St. Joseph in the town of Copertino
A Statue of St. Joseph in the town of Copertino

In a time bereft of miracles we agreed it might be pleasant to be open once more to the impossibility of it all. Maybe, just maybe, Joseph did fly––and with that half-formed hope I was going to Copertino to feel something of him.

Torpid Copertino is dozing in the midmorning heat when we arrive. I park near a great arch with a statue of a beatific St Joseph on the top. As I get out of the car a kid on skateboard nearly bowls me over, the little bastard.

Down a narrow lane opposite between shuttered houses is the Santuario S Giuseppe da Copertino, the church built on the site of his Joseph's modest birthplace. An old woman sees us coming and scurries back inside. The whitewashed houses are silent, a few curtains discreetly open as occupants peer out when we pass, and only a dog trots in the narrow streets.

Joseph lived in a corner house here and came from a family that was reasonably wealthy, but his altruistic father Felice Desa regularly got into debt. When his wife, Francesca, was about to give birth to Joseph, the bailiffs arrived for him yet again and she sought refuge in the stable across the lane.

And so Joseph was born in a stable. This seems a convenient, later fabrication since Jesus was also born in such humble circumstances, but it adds to Joseph's cachet. Whatever the truth, a church was built to enclose the stable and now contains the relic of his heart. It is a moving little shrine in the corner of the large church which has paintings on each side of the bright altar, both depicting St Joseph in flight.

We poke around for a bit, but really, there isn't that much to see. And nothing to feel, no frisson of flight or saintliness. I feel defeated.

Later a few old men and a middle-aged woman come in to offer prayers and the priest holds confession. After it is over I try for some brief conversation with the priest. "Good day father," I say in respectfully quiet, well practiced Italian, but he sniffs in my direction and puts his head down.

The relic of his heart
The relic of his heart

I want to grab him and explain just how far I have come, literally from the other side of the world, but he scuttles off. Outside one of the old men spits casually in my direction, the old bastard.

Rain starts to fall and Megan steps in some gritty and gummy dog shit.

It has been a dreary and fruitless journey. Saints. Who needs 'em?

That night we drive to Lecce, the home of bizarre baroque architecture and, as it turns out, a motel room with an unimpeded view of a parking lot for longhaul trucks. On the way through the city we get caught in a downpour and Saturday night traffic. For an hour I drive around lost and confused, getting increasingly angry with dead-end streets, roadworks, rain and sullen people who refuse to understand me when I ask for directions.

I am cursing that this trip has been a waste of time but I try to remember the world of Giuseppe Desa the flying saint, and of miracles. I wait for some epiphany in the night. But nothing comes. A flying man? Yeah, I wish.

As I negotiate narrow streets and a hundred honking horns I think of the other Giuseppe, the one in Sorrento, and his much more practical wisdom. I realise he may have had the lesson I was looking for: so I just carry on and ignore everything around me, and do it for myself.




Graham Reid is one of New Zealand's most prominent and award-winning journalists whose work has covered international and domestic politics, the arts, and travel. He is a recipent of the prestigious Media Peace Award for a series of articles on the volatile politics of the Solomon Islands, and his first book Postcards From Elsewhere won the 2006 Whitcoulls Travel Book of the Year award. To find more, visit Elsewhere: www.elsewhere.co.nz




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