Levitation. Apparitions. Mystics with visions and encounters with the supernatural. For Carlos Eire ’79 PhD, the T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies, these and other marvelous occurrences are the subjects of both his lifelong fascination and a great deal of his scholarly work.
“I’ve been interested in the experiences of mystics for basically all my life,” Eire says. “When I was in graduate school at Yale, I read The Physical Phenomena of Mysticism by Montague Summers, and that set me down this path.”
Eire specializes in the social, intellectual, religious, and cultural history of late medieval and early modern Europe, with a focus on both the Protestant and Catholic reformations; the history of popular piety; the history of the supernatural; and the history of death. Before joining the Yale faculty in 1996, Eire taught at St. John’s University in Minnesota and the University of Virginia. He was also a member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton for two years.
He is the author of multiple books, including War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin (1986) and a book-length examination of The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila. Eire, who fled Cuba at the age of eleven without his parents, has also ventured into the twentieth century and the Cuban Revolution. His memoir Waiting for Snow in Havana (2003) won the National Book Award in Nonfiction in the United States and has been translated into more than a dozen languages. His second memoir, Learning to Die in Miami (2010), explores the exile experience. All of his books have been banned in Cuba, where the communist dictatorship has declared him an enemy of the state, a distinction he regards as the highest of all honors.
A History of the Impossible
His latest work is titled They Flew: A History of the Impossible. “This project actually began about forty years ago,” Eire says, “on a visit to the convent of St. Teresa of Avila, when a tour guide pointed in a matter-of-fact way to the spot where St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross had levitated together.” I started collecting materials and accounts then and kept at it throughout my career.”
Once he began looking, Eire found evidence of similarly “impossible” miraculous events throughout history. “I chose to focus on the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries and the time thereafter,” Eire says. “This is a peak period of flying in Western history. We have numerous accounts of levitation from mystics and holy men and women, as well as demoniacs and witches, along with eyewitness testimony.”
One such display of levitation dates from colonial America. In his research, Eire uncovered a 1693 case in Boston of a demonically possessed girl who was levitating. Cotton Mather, an influential figure in Yale’s early history, brought in burly men to hold her down, and they failed. Mather made the men sign affidavits attesting to what they had seen.
Spiritual events like the one Mather witnessed occur across the world and throughout history. Eire readied himself for several research trips to examine primary sources, but the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted his plans. “Libraries and archives started digitizing more materials,” Eire says. “The older a book, the more likely it was to be digitized. I was able to do a great deal of research from home. Most of the primary texts I used were placed online by libraries and archives from across the globe. For the first time, geography didn’t matter to a researcher. I could access in minutes what would have taken me months.”
Modern technology has allowed Eire to be in archives, collections, and libraries in the blink of an eye. This echoes some of the miracles he has encountered in his work. “Padre Pio, the great Catholic mystic of the twentieth century, was said to be able to bilocate and appear in two places at once. The seventeenth-century nun Maria de Agreda, who wrote The Mystical City of God, was both a Franciscan abbess in Spain and someone who appeared regularly to people in the American Southwest. To this day, Eire points out, there are legends in the area of the “Lady in Blue” who visited them as a missionary.
Throughout all of his work on mystics, miracles, and religious history, one thread runs clear. Eire says: “We historians need to break free from the grip of dogmatic materialism, that is, from the assumption that all that there is or can be must be solely material in nature. It is a denial of spiritual forces and events, both of which have a long and deep documentation in human history. These things occur across cultures and times. Those in the past did not think the way we do today. They lived in a world open to the direct experience of spiritual truth and they encountered that truth in marvelous and fascinating ways. We owe it to ourselves to study what those people experienced and ponder what it could mean for our own lives.”
Scholar and Teacher
At his work’s fundamental level, Eire grapples with subjects that have been the center of the human experience. Eire’s research and teaching have brought the wonders of the past to today’s students and readers around the world. “We’re dealing with ultimate questions of human existence, its nature and purpose,” Eire says. “Is there more to life than the material world? Or is this it? You must know the past to understand the present. Understanding the past on its own terms, not ours, can reveal more to us about ourselves than most think possible.”
Eire sees his endowed chair as integral to his mission as a scholar and teacher of the coming generation. “T. Lawrason Riggs was the first Catholic chaplain at Yale,” Eire explains. “The first scholar to hold this chair—established in 1963—was Stephen Kuttner, a historian of canon law. The second, Louis Dupré, was a philosopher who helped shape my thinking. This position has given me the opportunity and the responsibility to teach courses on Catholicism, one of the most influential intellectual traditions in human history, and many of our students are eager to learn about it.”
“Yale students always impress me,” Eire continues. “They give me an amazing hope for the future. They’re brilliant, and many of them have a real interest in transcendence, as well as great appreciation for history. It is an honor and a joy to teach them and to do this vital work as the T. Lawrason Riggs chair. I consider myself immensely fortunate and am so grateful.”