The feud between St. Joseph of Cupertino, patron Saint of the American Air Forces and me, is over at last. It was initiated, by me, several years ago; maintained, by me, in a state of smoldering animosity for several years, broke out at last into open hostilities, and was concluded, after several months of protracted negotiations, with a formal Declaration of Peace, ratified on March 27, 1948, which happened to be Holy Saturday.
Does this startle you? Are you one of those who think that a saint won’t fight? If so you are mistaken my friend! A saint will fight. What is more he will choose his own weapon, his own times and his own games; he will fight with a thunderbolt, or if he chooses to make the contest one of skill, will come into the game with an ace up his sleeve.
Benjamin Disraeli once complained of his rival Gladstone, saying he did not mind this gentleman’s habit of concealing a card up his sleeve, he only wished that he would not act as though he believed God had put it there. Well, God will give his saints what they require, cards, spades, . . . and sleeves, if necessary!
So be warned by me. If compelled, go ahead, pick your saint, start your fight, but when things begin to get hot — as they will -don’t complain that due notice of the consequences has not been given.
It is strange enough that St. Joseph and I ever should have tangled, in the first place. We really had so little in common!
He was a saint from a small village called Cupertino in southern Italy, way down in the foot of the boot, and born in the year 1603. In 1663 he died, as he had lived from early youth, a member of the Franciscan order. He was first a lay-brother, later a priest. I was born in Savannah, Georgia, U.S.A., in a year that is strictly my own business, but is yet well within the memory of many living men, of a Methodist-cum-Episcopalian mother, and a father raised a Presbyterian, who fled from the doctrines of Predestination and Infant Damnation into the sad refuge of agnosticism, and took me with him there. Does it not seem that enough difference in time, history, geography, and faith had stretched between the little Franciscan Joseph and I to make us at the very least indifferent, not to say disinterested, in each other?
But not at all! On the contrary! Through time and space we encountered one another and the hostilities were both lively and immediate; on my part at least. I am not quite sure when it was that St. Joseph began to fight back but it is certain that once his attention was attracted, into battle he surged and with a right hearty good will.
I first read something about St. Joseph in Mr. Norman Douglas’ extraordinarily erudite and witty travel book called “In Old Calabria.” Any one who knows Mr. Douglas’ work — (and there was a time when “South Wind” was practically a missal for the would-be wit), will at once guess, even without reading his “Calabria,” that his version of the history of a seventeenth century Calabrian monk is at once hilarious and bitterly prejudiced, for Mr. Douglas is a fearsomely intelligent mixture of scholar and scoffer — renaissance scholar and Calvinist scoffer.
However, even after subtracting a great deal on account of obvious bias, Mr. Douglas does make out quite a case against St. Joseph, the times in which he lived, and the people who believed in him, for St. Joseph was born, never left, and, as the pious books say, “flourished” in that sad and disastrous country south of Naples, the prey of every pirate since the days of Hannibal.
My Roman and Florentine friends, in the days when I lived in Italy, used always to refer to St. Joseph’s home-land, (with an unusually expressive shrug) as “Ah! que porcheria!” Shrug and words together may be translated as “What a pig-sty!” and were not meant nearly as kindly as the word “Damnyankee” in the mouth of a Georgia cracker whose grandma was “burnt-out” by William Tecumseh Sherman.
What Calabrians call Northern Italians I don’t know. But I should like to. They were ever a lively-tongued folk! But the facts remain, Malaria and the Mafia, bad water and the Blackhand, these are the modern gifts of this land to the world — or so say the Tuscans, and so says Mr. Douglas, adding that in the seventeenth century conditions were unspeakably more horrible, for to these modern amenities were added the incessant raids of Berber pirates, the rule of the Spanish Kings of Naples, and hordes of monks and nuns whom the people supported from what was left to them after the pirates and the princes had taken their share. The residue couldn’t have been much, for if the Moors were wolves — and they were — then the Kings were tigers. The Moors ravished your women, burned your village, enslaved your children, but they were only occasional nuisances, they came and they went. If your heels were fleet, and the forests near enough, with luck you could run away to fight again another ‘day. But the Kings were resident. They came (Ah! Me!), but on the other hand they never, never went. They did not burn, nor enslave (except when antagonized), but they’d tax your village to starvation and then thrust your people into their unspeakable dungeons for the impertinence of being hungry.
Once upon a time Calabria had known a brief flowering, during the time of the Crusaders and the Norman Kingdom of the Two Sicillies and when Charles Barbarossa, and Conrad his unlucky son, had fallen in love with the sun of the South and lived there as much as they could.
In those days abbeys and convents and cathedrals had crowned the fertile hills, richly loved and richly endowed by emperors, popes and people. In St. Joseph’s time the hills were not fertile any more and (as the Protestant accounts always say) “the land swarmed with idle monks.” The question, never put by these authors, is where else could a man or a woman swarm to, except a convent or a religious order? For anyone with a longing for a life of any peace or dignity or beauty it had to be the church; the only other existence offered was one in some fever-ridden village where after suffering a few years a man could shake himself to death with mingled malaria and hopelessness.
St Joseph, to be sure, did not flee this world because it was horrible. His was one of those genuine vocations, which turn a man from a palace as easily as from a hovel. He became a monk when he was only a boy, and his holiness, simplicity, and ardor were recognized at once by his superiors. Nevertheless he seemed, even to them, a singularly unlikely candidate for any save heavenly honours.
You see, he was stupid — so stupid that the best his superiors could do for him — with all the good will in the world — was to let him remain on in his convent as a lay-brother after his successive failures at learning those things which a priest must know. Indeed he was finally raised to that honour only because of his many miracles, not because he was ever capable of passing an exam, because he wasn’t.
And these miracles? Of what sort were they? In this ravished country of his did he heal the sick or feed the poor? Did he teach the ignorant, or rebuke the tyrant? Well no. What then did St. Joseph do?
St. Joseph flew.
He did not levitate — many saints in ecstasy have been seen to rise in the air to varying heights — he flew. Often he had to he called down from the ceiling of the chapel because he was “distracting the congregation.” (And small wonder!) Once he flew into an apple tree, where he perched, rejoicing and praising God. Once when some workmen were having a hard time raising a stone figure of a saint to the roof of the Church, St. Joseph, taking the statue in his arms, wafted it upwards and set it in its place.
It is true that he did not cross the Atlantic on a non-stop flight, nor drop a bomb on a city a thousand miles from his base, but don’t let’s quibble, St. Joseph flew.
Norman Douglas found the accounts of these and other wonders in an ancient pamphlet in a bookshop in Naples and reprints parts of this work with enormous and quite undisguised delight in what he considers a unique record of human credulity. Implicit in his recounting is the question which every reader — of a like mind to mine — must ask himself — “granting all the people who testified to having seen St. Joseph fly were neither lying nor self-deceived, still, was this the sort of saint required at the time? Surely, what was wanted then was bread and quinine, not the spectacle of an illiterate monk tangled in an apple-tree?”
From that time on St. Joseph became for me a symbol of all that was basely superstitious, useless and absurd. “You can believe in anything — you can believe in St. Joseph of Cupertino!” I would say.
The time came when I said at the top of my voice and in a passion of distaste to Clare Boothe Luce, when I read that the British and American flyers had adopted St. Joseph of Cupertino as their patron saint:
“Have you and the Church gone stark mad?” I asked her. “Do you know that you are giving, as patron saint, to as gallant men that ever lived, a flea-bitten, illiterate, mangy, parasitical, village-idiot? Do you know anything about him? Do you know anything about Calabria? (I told her heaps). Have you honestly got the nerve to land bird-men in a B-29 with this Bird-brain on a flying trapeze?”
At this she murmured something in defense of saints as such, adding with deceptive gentleness, (such being her way) that after all it was a moot question whether anybody who flew in any airplane, which had been especially designed to be shot at, wasn’t an idiot himself — even though a brave one — and so maybe St. Joseph was a pretty good choice, and on two counts at that.
There was a thoughtful gleam in her eye as she said this, a gleam fixed on me. She was, it was evident, up to something. It’s my guess that this was the moment that St. Joseph, invoked by her, entered into the battle.
Mind you, this is only a guess. He may have been on hand, and what’s more in there pitching, all the time. For instance, it may have been his idea, not hers, to enlist the aid of a whole convent of nuns (bless their hearts!) and to set them to praying for my conversion from that day on.
Yes, St. Joseph was on my trail, he was wheeling up the long-range guns of prayer and marshaling faith’s big battalions — and it is well known that God is on the side of the big battalions.
Just the same two long years passed while all the while those devoted women, who had never seen me in their lives, and my dear Clare, and St. Joseph, were forced to maintain the siege. And to all extents and purposes they never made a dent.
Then there came a hot night, in an old Long Island house when my friend Marienne and I were drying the dinner dishes together. Usually she and I together made quick and merry of such a task. Tonight there was something very wrong, for Marienne, the gayest and most valiant of women, was obviously as near the breaking point as one can get and still keep functioning at all.
“What’s the matter?”
“Nonsense! Tell me”
“Tell you? Why you know I never could tell anybody what’s the matter with me. Sometimes I want to. But I can’t. It’s a physical impossibility.”
I searched my heart and head for something that might help her. A Catholic would not have had to search, of course, but it’s different for agnostics. An agnostic can do a lot of things. He can earn a living, and love a child, and even die without a whimper, but when it comes to comforting another’s troubled spirit there is no doubt but that he’s limited. Still I tried.
“What you need,” I said, “is a good psychoanalyst. You need to talk. And to talk to someone who’s trained to listen, and to draw conclusions, and then to set you straight. I wish I could help you, but I can’t, I don’t know enough. You need a pro.”
“I know,” she said. “But I can’t afford one. Not at thirty-five dollars an hour for goodness knows how many years.”
“Then the only other solution is to turn Catholic and tell it to a priest.” I said it lightly and she answered laughing:
“Me! Why, I’m a hard-shell Baptist! I learned all about those Catholics when I was a girl down in Texas.”
I wonder if my little saint laughed too? I think he did. For this is the sequel to that idle conversation.
Some six weeks later, on the eighteenth of September, my phone rang. It was Marienne wanting to know if I would get her a letter of introduction to Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen from Clare. I assured her — and, of course, I was perfectly right — that to ask help of Mgr. Sheen was introduction enough, but she was shy, suffering from that sort of social self-consciousness which affects us who have never encountered a priest. It’s as though one who had never been to a big dinner party were suddenly plumped down before a great spread of silver implements, none of whose uses one knew. The food is on the plate all right, but how does one get at it? In a word — does one approach Monsignors with a soup-spoon or an oyster-fork?
So I promised Marienne that I would ask Clare for the introductory note and, indeed, called her at once and put the case in her capable, small hands.
Of course, she promised to write Monsignor Sheen, but there was a curious note in her voice.
“What’s the matter? Do you think it’s funny for me to be doing a little proselytizing?”
“I’ll tell you some day,” she said. “Maybe.”
What was wrong? Had I violated some strange Catholic etiquette? Well so what? Thus I dismissed the whole affair.
It was less than an hour before she called me back.
“A little miracle has just happened,” she said. “Mgr. Sheen has just walked in my door. He’s here for the day from Washington. There has been a mix-up about an engagement. He has two free hours on his hands, and that is something that never happens. Now, give me Marienne’s address and he’ll go straight up and see her now.”
And I said: “Well, for one who isn’t working there, I sure do get quick service from Rome.”
Marienne called me after Monsignor had gone. Her voice was like a singing bird’s in the spring; a bird bursting with glad tidings, fairly pouring forth with joy. It was incredible! She had been so troubled, so hard-driven, so sad. If two hours with a stranger could do this…
Again Clare called me. (It was a feverish day for the telephone company).
“I’ve decided to tell you why I was so strange this morning. Actually I was a bit over-whelmed. You see I went to Mass today, and said a prayer for you. It’s St. Joseph of Cupertino’s day. And remembering how obnoxious you are about him, I asked him to do something nice for you, just to show you! I was hardly in the house before you called about your friend. And then Monsignor came strolling in. Don’t you really think it’s rather amazing?”
“Well,” I said, “Joseph does seem to be a hardworking little saint. But he’s still a dope! You ask him to do something for me. He does it for my friend. He got us mixed up. Next time you pray to him, dear, pray in words of one syllable.”
And for the last time that day I hung up, in the full and final conviction that St. Joseph and I were quits.
Monsignor Sheen gave his first instruction to his New York class only a short time after that, and Marienne asked me if I would not like to go with her. I hesitated, but then as I was intensely interested in his personality, and had heard that he was one of the great speakers of the day, I said that I should be delighted, on the condition that it was understood that I was under no obligation, that I was coming once — from a purely intellectual interest, and that I could leave when I liked.
And they said that I could. But now it seems unlikely that I ever shall, for I was baptized at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Holy Saturday morning.
Easter morning, in the Lady Chapel, I knelt at the alter rail with Marienne and forty others who were that day taking their first Communion in God’s House.
It seemed then that for all the rest of my life the only words fitting for me to say were “Thank you — Thank you my dear Lord — Thank you.”
And then, with a kind of snap, as though a great hand had eased and moved a displaced ligament so that the blood might flow freely into a paralyzed limb, realization flowed into me, and I knew why God had sent to His poor, His afflicted, His hard-driven, sad children, someone who felt so strongly the joy of loving Him that the earth had no hold on Joseph’s feet.
Up, up, to the top of apple-tree, to the roof of the chapel, to Heaven, higher than a bird or an airplane, or a rocket ever went, jet-propelled by joy and thanksgiving and faith. My little saint, in his charity, had clasped me, — sad, weary, heart-sick, and troubled — as he did the big stone statue, and for that moment I too, flew, rejoicing in Cupertino.
Patrick Mary Plunkett
THE trees were snarls of golden wire
Or voluptuous purple shade.
The poplars were a spun fire;
All of a midnight spruce was made.
Shining on the ground was laid
A carpet of woven snow,
And I was fain, although afraid,
Into the woods to go.
Each avenue, and quiet track
Was unfrequented, bare.
Oh, quickly I came running back
From the inquisitorial stare
Of angels in a listening pack,
And God invisible everywhere!
(This article was originally published in From the Housetops, Volume III, No.1, September, 1948.)