Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
St. Joseph of Cupertino
Saint of the Day, Friday, October 25, 1968
Today we should talk about St. Joseph of Cupertino (1603-1663). As you remember, he was Friar Donkey. He was so thick and incompetent that he was a good-for-nothing and couldn’t even handle pans or dishes. As a punishment, the Franciscans would sow on his habit the pieces of dishes he would break. Yet he became a real saint and ended up being very much consulted and heeded, an outstanding figure even while retaining his stupidity.
For the sake of the most sacred virtue of unpretentiousness, nothing is better than for us to see that we can be Friar Donkey and still be worth a lot more than a very intelligent member of the Group albeit perspicacious, clairvoyant, sly, diplomatic, agreeable, capable, efficient, a top manager who knows, can and does things but is not blessed by Our Lady because of his pretentiousness.
They say that at a certain point they stripped Joseph of his religious habit and obliged him to leave the Order – that’s how useless he was. Later he commented that at that moment he suffered the same pain as if they had torn off his skin.
You see the wisdom of this man and the difference between him and so many of today’s theologians who know Aramaic, make remarkable interpretations of holy Scripture, and later tell us that God does not exist or take off their cassock with all naturalness, showing no love for the religious habit. Yet he suffered as if they had torn off his very skin. The text says:
“To make matters worse, he had lost some of his lay clothes and when obliged to take off his cassock he had no hat, socks or shoes.”
What a time that was, he was missing his hat!
“He fled as he was. A few dogs from a nearby stable attacked him and tore to bits the rags he was wearing.”
You see how Our Lady handles the lives of the saints. A person used to the happy-end mentality would say that was exactly the thing that should not happen. He entered a convent. As conventional wisdom wold have it, if he joined he would pretty soon become the Provincial Superior of the Order, because he is naturally a genius. No way! He is cast out and has to shed the habit. But he had already lost part of the clothes he brought when entering the convent.
And then dogs... of the worst kind because they are not the clean and prestigious hounds of the local feudal lord but filthy mutts from a stable that attack him and tear up the rags he still had on. It’s all over: his pretentiousness is reduced to zero.
“Some shepherds, having mistaken him for a thief, tried to attack him as well.”
Happy the times when thieves were so poorly dressed! Today, on the contrary, if a person is dressed like that it is because he did not steal. That is not the way thieves look like today.
“But one of them protected him from the fury of the others, and he went back on his way.”
God gives a cross but helps carry it... The shepherd who protected him showed a pity that his religious superiors lacked. Every episode of his life is a lesson for us.
“A horseman appears before him, sword in hand, and pushes him back, accusing him of being a spy.”
He has to put up not only with the torn rags he’s wearing but also with insecurity and fear. Everybody seems to have a kind of furor against the poor man who is penniless, unarmed, ugly, and in rags. This is the time when all ‘heroes’ want to pick a fight with him. I guarantee you that this horseman is a coward. And of course, when a coward meets a poor man like St. Joseph of Cupertino, he immediately turns into a ‘hero’.
“Joseph arrives in town and begs for help from his uncle, who expels him from the house.”
Don’t you find this beautiful? I know it really is, but it is beautiful post factum, after the fact. I would even say more: the only truly beautiful things are beautiful post factum. When they happen, they are ugly things and no one finds them beautiful; but later an explanation appears which renders them beautiful.
One sees how great a confidence this man needed to have in God and in Our Lady in order not to lose courage in those circumstances. Of course he figured he was cast out because he was dumb, ugly and dirty. People would certainly tell him, ‘you’re a stump of a man, a good-for-nothing. Get out of here!’ And he could not answer that he was neither dumb nor dirty or a stump. You know what his answer had to be? Apologize and leave, otherwise he would be in for a licking. And leave he does, thinking about Our Lady and about God.
Is this not more beautiful than all of Europe, than the whole world? I know very well that the modern mentality shudders looking at this. I brought it up precisely to cause these shudders; because certain things can only be cured with shuddering. I wanted to produce this holy shudder, as we are exceedingly used not to analyze things in depth.
What did St. Joseph of Cupertino suffer in comparison to what Our Lord Jesus Christ suffered? He, Who was Who He was, with a capital W so big it could reach all the way from here to the sun! And yet, did He not suffer a thousand times more out of love for us? Out of love for each one of you present in this room?
So Joseph appeals to the one person who is the image of Our Lady on earth, who is the source of all help and mercy: he looks for his own mother and throws himself at her feet. She answers:
“You got yourself expelled from a holy house. Choose prison or exile, because all that’s left for you is to die of hunger. Get out of this house.”
Don’t you find this more beautiful than being a strong man with all the psychological distance in the world? Don’t you think this is more beautiful than being a Churchill?
He leaves and, instead of thinking, poor me, I, myself, look at what’s happening to me etc., he looks at a lily and remembers Our Lady, Who is the lily of the fields and prays to Her with enthusiasm. He keeps on walking along the road and thinking about Our Lady. Is this not incomparably more beautiful than being an intelligent man?
I am certain every one of you would consider it a singular honor to be able to kiss this man’s feet. Who here would want to kiss the feet of Churchill?
“Joseph is finally admitted to the convent of Grotella to take charge of the donkey.”
So there was a donkey there that needed to be cared for... and that was Joseph’s job. So he was admitted. After all, he had managed to be ordained a priest almost by contraband. He returned to the convent of Grotella and spent two terrible years there.
“The material misery to which he had been condemned was compounded by a very different interior misery. The divine consolations that had supported him from his childhood gave way to a sad and somber aridity that increased by the day. He wrote a friend: ‘I was complaining a lot of God with God.’
What a beautiful phrase, complaining of God with God! Saint Therese of Jesus knew how to turn to God and ask, “O my God, why didst Thou this to me?” and so on. Our Lady complained of Our Lord to Our Lord: “My Son, why did You do that?”
Some theologians interpret this as a loving complaint. How beautiful it when a soul complains of God with God and flees from God even deeper inside the arms of God. How superior this is!
“I had left everything for Him, and instead of consoling me He delivered me to a mortal anguish.”
Joseph knew very well the values of the spirit. He couldn’t care less when deprived of all the goods of the earth. But from the moment he was lacking a good of the spirit, spiritual consolation, he turned to God. What a superior caliber of soul!
“One day, as I was moaning and crying – I feel I’m dying just thinking of it – a monk knocked at my door but I did not answer.”
He was in a ‘low’ [‘baixa’].
“He enters and says, ‘Friar Joseph, what’s with you? Here I am to serve you. Here’s a tunic, I thought you did not have one.’ Indeed, my tunic was falling apart. I dressed the one the unknown man gave me and my despair immediately vanished. No one ever recognized the monk who had brought me the tunic.”
Would it not be the case to say, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they labor not, neither do they spin. But I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed as one of these.” What is the mantle of Salomon compared to this humble tunic, obviously brought, in those circumstances, by an angel from heaven or by some virtuous desert hermit transported through the air by the angels with a tunic that some saint had sown for St. Joseph of Cupertino? Later the angels took him back to the starting point – all consolation was restored unto him.
I ask: is this not better than being a Churchill?
“From that moment onward, St. Joseph’s life became one of the marvels of history. His exterior life became at the same time agitated and monotonous. In order to avoid the crowds looking for him, he would be transported from one place to the other and almost kept in prison until the next move.”
In other words, his sanctity ‘exploded.’ Everyone began to perceive it; and in the Middle Ages the crowds would not run after demagogues but after saints. As a result, they began to run after him. And he, who was the last of the lepers, despised by everyone, was now pursued by everyone. So he had to keep fleeing everyone all the time. Those were years of glory but detachment: it was glory without attachment. It was not a mega glory in Dom Helder Câmara’s style, but one in complete detachment.
“His interior life offers a collection of the most varied and sublime phenomena of ecstasies and miracles. Instead of seeing men as they physically look, St. Joseph at times saw them in the form of the animal that represented their state of soul.”
What a marvel!
“He smelled scents that existed only for him; he saw spiritual beings that appeared to him as material figures.”
“When he saw a man in a bad state of conscience he would tell him: ‘you stink really badly. Go wash yourself.’ And after his confession, if it was a good one, he would smell a different scent on the man.”
Not everyone had the courage to get near him, it would seem.
“His person became a sort of living symbol; he dominated the whole visible world by a sensible reflex of the supra-sensitive world.”
In other words, he was a mirror of God – that which a lawyer said of the Cure of Ars, St. John Baptist Vianney. They asked him: what have you seen in Ars? He answered: I saw God in a man! The same is said of St. Joseph of Cupertino.
“Our Lady of Grotella was the place where he left his heart. He would always return there.”
There are so many marvels to comment on that I think it is better to leave it for another Saint of the Day so as not to waste any. That way we do a little mortification, because instead of finding out how the story ends, we accept some suspense in a spirit of mortification.
What shall we ask St. Joseph of Cupertino? That he may have pity on us and look inside our souls, which might have so much pretentiousness, and obtain for us his simplicity and supreme unpretentiousness.