An excerpt from Butler's Lives of the Saints, New Full Edition,
© Burns & Oates/Search Press Limited 1999, for March 21st.

St Nicholas of Flüe, Hermit (1417-87)

Nicholas von Flüe (Bruder Klaus) holds a unique place in the esteem and affection of the Swiss. He was born near Saschseln in Unterwalden in 1417 to a much-respected family of well-to-do farmers, owners of the Klüster Alp in the Melchthal and of the estate of Flüeli on the Sachsterberg, from which they derived their surname. His father, Henry, also held a civil post in the cantonal service. His mother, Emma Roberto, was a native of Wolfenschiessen, perhaps of Italian ancestry.

Emma was a deeply religious woman who initiated her two sons, Nicholas and Peter, into the spirituality and practices of the "Friends of God" (Gottesfreunde). A movement begun in the previous century by mystics and preachers such as Johann Tauler, Henry Suso (25 Jan.), and Henry of Nordingliden, it sought the personal sanctification of its practitioners through a deep interior life. Its aim was union with God through prayer, meditation on the passion of Christ, renunciation, and the service of one's neighbour. Although there would in time issue from the Friends a society with heretical, separatist tendencies, this was not characteristic of the generality of Friends, who set out to avail themselves of all the helps of the Church, however much its image might be defiled by unholy clergy. The brotherhood of Friends, loosely held together through personal contacts or existing in groups around a spiritual director, was to be found all along the Rhine, in Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, among clergy and religious but predominantly among the laity. Nicholas never sought to evade the military duty that his position in a family of landed farmers imposed on him. Fifteenth-century Switzerland was not yet a single country but a collection of cantons at war with each other, forest cantons especially at loggerheads with the cantons of the towns. When occasion arose, all farmers had to take to arms against the towns in an expression of solidarity. In his twenties Nicholas was alternately farming and fighting, taking part in the battles of this period whether against the towns, the Austrians, or the French. He is recorded as intervening dramatically in the battle against the Austrians in 1460. An attempt by these to lay claim to Swiss territory had provoked a retaliatory invasion of the Thurgau. The Austrians were routed, but the town of Diesenhofer held out stubbornly. In the end the Austrians rushed to take refuge in a Dominican convent, where, according to the convention of Sempach drawn up by the Swiss themselves for the conduct of war, they should have been safe from enemy fire. The convent was fired on anyway. Seeing this, Nicholas is said to have cast himself before a crucifix, praying for the safety of the inmates. He then argued the illegality of the action with the officers and obtained a cessation of fire. The convent was indeed burned, but those within were spared.

By this time Nicholas had married. He was to leave his wife and children twenty-five years later, but he could hardly forsee this at the time, and there would have been compelling reasons for him to take such a step. The spirituality of the Friends was a lay spirituality above all. Nicholas himself was illiterate, and there could have been no question of joining the ranks of the clergy or even religious. As the elder son he would have been expected to marry and to carry on the family line and the work of the farm. The marriage was probably arranged by his parents as a matter of course, and he would have felt obliged to obey. Be that as it may, his marriage to Dorothy Wissling, from the village of Sachseln, proved to be a happy one. She bore him ten children, five boys and five girls. Marriage did not in any way affect Nicolas' ascetic habits. He fasted as he always did and every night after a short sleep rose to pray, going out-of-doors to do so or remaining indoors in bad weather. While he was still with his family he underwent a trial, the nature of which remains obscure but which may have been one of doubts against the faith. Fr lmgrund, parish priest of Stans and his director, helped him through it, teaching him also to meditate on the passion of Our Lord, an exercise that was to become a staple of his spiritual life as a hermit.

Nicholas' standing was high in the canton of Unterwalden. He sat on a board of fourteen magistrates to dispense justice, although he was to resign when a majority opted for what he considered an injustice. Asked to be mayor more than once, he steadfastly refused, saying, "One is safer below than on the heights." However, he was always in demand as a counsellor and an intermediary. He was chosen as one of five arbiters appointed to settle a dispute between the parish of Stans and the monastery of Engelberg and even to make representations to the clergy over a question of excessive tithing.

In obedience to what seemed to him a supernatural call to contemplation — he was the recipient of many visions and revelations — at times he used to withdraw into solitude in the valley of the Melch. When he was about fifty he felt irresistibly drawn to abandon the world altogether and to spend the rest of his days in solitude, far from home. His wife made no objection, seeing in it a call of God. In 1467, then, with the consent of his director and family, he left everything and set off barefoot and bareheaded, dressed in a grey-brown tunic and armed only with a staff and a rosary. His destination seems to have been Alsace, where there was a settlement of the Brothers. Before crossing the frontier he received hospitality from a peasant, who turned out to be one of the Friends of God and who dissuaded him from going on. He explained to him that the Swiss, with a reputation of being savage soldiers, were regarded with hostility. Nicholas turned back to seek a corner in his own part of the world.

On his return journey he was suddenly seized with severe gastric pains, after which he became quite unable to eat. He subsisted for another twenty years on only the Blessed Sacrament. To the parish priest of Kerns he once said, "The body and blood of Christ are my only food. He dwells in me and I in him. He is my food, my drink, my health and medicine." Though he had always fasted, this new condition was not one he had willed on himself; he saw it as a gift from God for his own good purposes. Such a prodigy was to bring on him the suspicions of many. Both ecclesiastical and civil authorities spied on him to catch him out secretly eating, but had to acknowledge that his fast was genuine. Thomas, bishop of Ascalon, once set a trap for him. In what seemed an amicable conversation, he asked Nicholas which was the most important of the virtues. Unhesitatingly, the hermit replied that he considered obedience the most important. The bishop then required him in the name of obedience to eat the meal he had brought. Nicholas obeyed, and in a few moments was convulsed in agony.

Later that autumn, hunters who had been looking for game in the Melchthal brought home news that they had come upon Nicholas on his pasture land of the Klüster, where he had made himself a shelter of boughs under a larch. His brother Peter and his friends went to plead with him not to remain there to die of exposure, and he was persuaded to move to Ranft, another part of the valley, where the people of Obwalden built him a little cell with a chapel attached. This was consecrated in 1469. At first he went to Mass on Sundays and holydays to Sachseln, but later, with the alms provided by the people, it became possible for daily Mass to be said in the chapel by a permanent chaplain. The pattern of his life was simple. He rose at midnight and prayed into the morning, when he would walk in the forest; later, when Ulrich of Swabia, a disciple hermit, set up another cell in the region, he would visit him. The afternoons were given to visitors, and then he prayed again until time for his repose, which lasted for a few hours only and was taken on a wooden plank with a stone pillow. Some of the hermit's visitors have left accounts of their interview with him, and that written by Albert von Bonstetten, dean of the monastery of Einsiedeln, is particularly interesting. He describes the recluse as tall, brown, and wrinkled, with thin grizzled locks and a short beard. His eyes were bright, his teeth white and well preserved and his nose shapely. He adds, "He praises and recommends obedience and peace."

As a counsellor both in practical and spiritual matters, Nicholas gained a reputation far beyond the borders of Switzerland, but his impact on his countrymen was immediate and sometimes decisive. At this epoch the Swiss Confederation had just passed through the most glorious phase in its history. In the space of six years the sturdy mountain-folk had vindicated their independence and, at the invitation of Louis of France, had routed the hitherto unconquered Charles the Bold, master of the two Burgundies and nearly the whole of Belgium. However, quarrels arose over the distribution of the payment money by Louis of France to the cantons in return for their victory over his enemy, and again between the forest cantons and the towns over the proposal to include Fribourg and Soleure in the township alliances. At length agreement was reached on most points and was embodied in a document known as the Edict of Stans. On the subject of the inclusion of Fribourg and Soleure, no agreement could be reached, and feeling ran so high that it seemed that the question would have to be settled by arms. Deeply distressed, Fr lmgrund suggested seeking a final opinion from Nicholas of Fl:ee, to which the delegates agreed.

His suggestion was no casual or sudden inspiration. As we know from the protocols of the Council of Lucerne, a city which occupied an ambiguous position between the forest cantons and the townships, it had at an early stage in the strife sent delegates to Brother Nicholas to obtain his advice, and it is quite possible that other districts had done the same. It has even been suggested that the Edict of Stans, a most statesmanlike charter, may have been drafted in the hermit's cell. The delegates were preparing to leave Stans when the parish priest begged them to re-assemble to consider the proposals of the hermit of Ranft. No one could explain how the hitherto unyielding delegates put aside their differences and arrived at an agreement within the hour. Each side yielded something: the forest cantons withdrew their objections to the towns joining the township alliances, subject to certain conditions, and the towns gave up their plans to push further centralization. Nicholas of Fl:ee is credited not only with saving the country from a self-destructive civil war but also with creating an attitude of mutual tolerance that enabled the Swiss Confederation not only to endure but to remain united in the face of the divisive religious controversies of the century to come. Letters of thanks from Berne and Soleure to the hermit are still extant, as well as a letter from Nicholas' son John thanking Berne for a gift, which he said would be used for the chapel.

Six years after the Council of Stans, Nicholas was seized with his last illness, which lasted only a week but caused him intense suffering. He died peacefully in his cell in the presence of his parish priest, Ulrich his disciple, his wife, sons, and grandsons. Nicholas' son John became the parish priest of Stans, while one of his grandsons was to become a hermit in the self-same cell of Ranft. Nicholas was canonized in 1947; his tomb is at Salchsen.

Robert Durrer, a scholar with an unrivalled knowledge of the Swiss archives, published two quarto volumes, entitled Bruder Klaus, in the early part of this century. They contain all the available material on the life of Nicholas von Flüe. See also AS.SS., Mar., 3, pp. 395-437; G. R. Lamb, Brother Nicholas (1955); M. L. von Franz, Die Visionem des Niklaus von Flüe (1959).