Would you believe? A Yale historian reconsiders the seemingly impossible

In a new book, Carlos Eire evaluates once-common accounts of seemingly impossible phenomena — and challenges readers to suspend their own disbelief.
Carlos Eire in front of an old oil painting.

(Portrait by Allie Barton, photo illustration by Michael S. Helfenbein)

The inspiration for Carlos Eire’s latest book struck him while visiting a medieval convent in Spain 40 years ago. At one point during a tour, a guide informed Eire and the other visitors that the room where they were standing was the very place where Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross levitated together for the first time in the 16th century.

The guide did not equivocate on this point. The two beings hovered in the air. Period.

For Eire, the certainty with which the guard spoke was a “eureka moment.” It defied his training to never, ever take the miraculous as fact. He began digging deeply into the mounds of ancient, archived accounts of seemingly impossible mystical phenomena like levitation and bilocation (being in two places at once) that were associated with religious experiences. “They Flew: A History of the Impossible” (Yale University Press) is the result.

A fascinating and richly detailed history most closely focused on the 16th and 17th centuries, the book is deliberately provocative. Eire asks readers to suspend disbelief, and to instead consider these accounts objectively and not reflexively rule out the notion that the power of collective belief could enable the seemingly impossible.

Carlos Eire
Carlos Eire

Eire is the T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. His 2003 memoir, “Waiting for Snow in Havana,” won the National Book Award in nonfiction.

Eire spoke to Yale News about Teresa’s mystical ecstasies, a friar who could fly higher, and modern-day skepticism over near-death experiences.

You didn't set out to find rational explanations for the many accounts of these seemingly impossible phenomena. You wanted to explore the collective mindset and religious context around these occurrences. Would you go so far as to say that you can't deny that they occurred?

Carlos Eire: Yes. Since the 18th century, increasingly, the scholarly world and Western culture in general have come to accept these phenomena as absolutely impossible, and to have nothing but doubt about the veracity of all the reports. I'm saying that one should be as skeptical about that attitude as one should be about the claim of possibility that these things can happen.

We historians always have all sorts of testimonies and accounts from the past. And we have criteria for determining how valuable or trustworthy sources might be. These criteria also apply to these reports of the impossible. If we have thousands of accounts or even hundreds of accounts, and these accounts are from reliable eyewitnesses, why are we discounting them? If it were some other event or phenomenon that one was studying, it would be unacceptable to throw out all these testimonies on the assumption that everyone is lying.

You say that levitation had become “a hallmark of genuine sanctity” by the beginning of the 16th century. You focus on a sort of celebrity levitator at the time, Saint Teresa of Avila, in Spain. But you emphasize that her notoriety also put her at great risk. Would you talk about that?

Eire: The 16th century is a watershed in the history of the Christian religion because that's the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Protestants challenged many of the central truths of Catholic Christianity, one of them being the possibility of close encounters with the divine, what we call “mystical ecstasy.” Within Catholic countries, especially Spain and Italy, the idea of mystical ecstasy became problematic against the background of this Protestant denial of these things being possible. Church authorities became much more cautious about accepting these phenomena as necessarily divine in origin.  

In the case of Teresa, when she started having these mystical ecstasies, there weren't that many Protestants in Spain, but there were many in Spain known as Alumbrados, or “enlightened ones,” who were suspected of having heretical leanings. And Teresa was under suspicion about being an Alumbrada, and of maybe believing that these mystical ecstasies and her closeness to God granted her the ability to not commit any sins — in other words, the ability to be perfect. Humility was the chief virtue for any nun, and anyone who didn’t behave in an adequately self-effacing way was suspected of the sin of pride, or perhaps even of misleading others.

The other dimension to this is the demonic aspect. Throughout the Middle Ages, the devil was very real and continued to be so in the 16th and 17th centuries. Teresa had a whole string of confessors who told her, “these visions you’re having when you see Jesus — that’s not Jesus, that’s the devil.” So she had very good reason for fearing that her levitation could be interpreted as demonic.

You connect this strong belief in the devil with witch-hunting, which took off in this period.

Eire: Yes, from about 1550 to 1650, there was almost an entire century of very intense witch-hunting throughout Europe. And witches were hunted with equal ferocity by Catholics and Protestants. Historians have been puzzling over this for the past century and more intensely than ever in the past 50 years or so. There’s no agreement as to why exactly this happened, but there's no denying the fact that it happened. The interesting dimension of the witchcraft persecutions for me, and for this book, is that if you look at Protestant accounts of demonic levitation, they’re strikingly similar, if not in many cases identical, to the Catholic accounts of divine levitations.

Saint Joseph of Cupertino, known as the “Flying Friar” in 17th-century Italy, topped Teresa in that he levitated far more frequently, flew higher, and could hover in the air for hours. But he ended up getting hidden away by the authorities. Why was that? Was he just too much?

Eire: For the last 10 years of his life, he’s in a very secluded and hard-to-reach monastery. And even within that monastery, he’s sequestered in his room, except for one time per week when he can attend Mass with his brethren. The original documents say that the main reason he kept being sent to ever-more-remote locations, and increasingly forced to spend much of his life alone behind locked doors, was that he was too great a distraction for his fellow Franciscans. Monasteries are very carefully regulated societies in which there’s a certain order of things. Joseph would just blow apart any community schedule, not just because of his constant levitating but because of the laypeople who flocked to see him. Plus, there was the pragmatic problem of the number of important people who wanted to see him. How do you say no to dukes and counts and even queens?

But you also have to wonder, like you asked, was he just too much? There is such a thing as too much, even of a good thing.

Speaking of too much, Maria de Ágreda, in Spain, was reportedly able to bilocate, something that was confirmed by people in both locations, sometimes in other countries. This got her called before the Inquisition more than once.

Eire: Yes, because it’s such a huge claim, it had to be checked out.

And yet she wasn’t found to be a heretic or a tool of the devil.

Eire: And, you know, I analyzed that. Why was it that she escaped unscathed when there were other nuns who were making the same claims and all of them were determined to have been frauds or at least highly suspicious? Well, she happened to be a very close friend and advisor to the king of Spain, King Phillip IV. They wrote over 300 letters back and forth. So, much like it’s difficult for Franciscan friars to say no to a duke who wants to see Joseph, it’s also very difficult for the church to go after the king’s spiritual advisor.

At the conclusion of the book, you say that these many accounts of levitation and bilocation “reveal the power of belief to shape mentalities and the power of social facts to shape thought and behavior.” Can you connect that statement with phenomena in present-day life?

Eire: Yes. One of them is near-death experiences a phenomenon that is extremely well documented. These experiences involve people who are clinically dead, yet come alive again with these memories of what happened to them while they were clinically dead. There’s a great degree of skepticism about these, not only in the medical community but in general. It was in the 1970s that this phenomenon began to be reported often as a result of the practice of CPR. Books began to appear on the subject, as well as movies, television shows. And all of a sudden, many of the people who have fatal heart attacks describe near-death experiences. Were these happening all along and people didn’t know it was happening, or is there some degree of learning about these things?

Then there’s something like apparitions of the Virgin Mary. One of the most amazing such cases took place in the 1970s in a very unusual place: Cairo, Egypt. The Virgin Mary would appear on the roof of a Coptic church. And this went on for months and months and attracted over a million people. Most of them were, of course, Muslims. Why were so many Muslims flocking to see the Virgin Mary? That’s truly weird. Obviously, some belief was generated in the reality of this event. And lo and behold, anomalous events such as this continue to occur.

I think with these miracles that a certain amount of belief is required. People in the 16th and 17th centuries didn’t think that levitation and bilocation were impossible because of widespread belief in the ability of supernatural forces to alter the known laws of nature, which modern science was just beginning to investigate.  

Are you saying that once people stop believing something is possible, then that makes it less likely to happen?

Eire: Yes, I am saying that. And the reverse is also true: Start believing something can happen, and the chances of it happening will increase.

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