Although our minds are limited in their ability to attain God in this life, we are capable of “greater desire, and love, and pleasure in knowing divine matters” than we are able to find in “the perfect knowledge of the lowest things.” Thus far Aquinas, who taught as one who knew. Saint Nicholas of Flue (1417-1487) was in perfect agreement. “God,” he once said, “gives us such a taste for prayer that we yearn for it as if we were waiting to go to a dance.”
The likeness was more than a bit incongruous, for the speaker was a true hermit, a man who had given up not only dances, but nearly everything else that bound him to this world, even food. Born to a pious, upstanding peasant family, young Nicholas stood out for his goodness, simplicity, and mortification. While still a young man, laboring in the fields and meadows of the valleys south of Lucerne, he fasted four times per week, explaining himself, when pressed, by saying, “Such is the will of God.” Until his fiftieth year, his life was that of an exemplary Swiss free man. Like many of his fellow countrymen, he served his canton both under arms and by holding civic office. And this pillar of the community raised up five sons and five daughters with the help of his exemplary wife Dorothy. Yet God persisted in calling him to a life beyond that of the domestic holiness he had already embraced, and sent visions to him in his late-night prayer vigils and his moments of afternoon solitude in the fields, visions that beckoned him to leave all.
As the eminent Swiss theologian Charles Cardinal Journet (1891-1975) explained in his biography of the hermit-saint, “it no longer sufficed for him to walk along the roads of the world with God in his heart; he had to take the path set aside for him, that he might be taken by the hand and led to where he knew not.” What praise of Dorothy of Flue could be lovelier, Journet asked, than to admire her magnanimity in being able to “comprehend the drama of this great soul”? They parted friends, just thirteen weeks after the birth of their youngest child, and remained so. Several years later, a pilgrim visitor to Nicholas’ hermitage saw the saint, with joyous mien, lean out of the window of his tiny cell after the morning Mass to greet his family with a blessing: “May God give you a blessed day, dear friends and good people!”
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Nicholas had initially thought to join a monastery, perhaps one in nearby Alsace known for its austerity. But a chance conversation with a peasant helped him to understand another of his mystical visions: this one of the nearby town of Liestal wrapped in flames. His good works were needed in his own neighborhood. And so, he built himself a hermitage one valley over from his home, and spent the next twenty years there, clad only in a tunic, with bare feet and a bare head, to do penance for his beloved people. His piety was simple, for he was illiterate. A neighboring priest had taught him the practice of meditating on Christ’s Passion in stages to match the seven canonical hours of the Church’s daily prayer. This method bore good results. He soon became known for the wisdom and holiness of his counsel, and pilgrims flocked to his hidden valley to listen to his simple, direct words: “O man, when the world hates you and is faithless toward you, think of your God, how he was struck and spat upon. You should not accuse your neighbor of guilt, but pray to God that he be merciful to you both.”
Soon a chapel was built next to his hermitage, and the place—called Ranft—became a recognized and even indulgenced pilgrimage. The word somehow got out that Nicholas of Flue was not like other men: he neither ate nor drank. The tale may have been told by Nicholas’ own confessor, the local parish priest, of whom he had asked permission to keep a perpetual fast, that he “might be the more separated from the world.” A wealthy abbot heard of it and came to see Nicholas, whom he reproached for the austerity of his life. The hermit was unimpressed. “The testimony of avarice,” he told the monk, “is written on your forehead.” Naturally, the local bishop soon sent his vicar to inquire into the situation. The priest came with a plan: he would present the hermit with blessed bread and wine and require him to eat. Nicholas protested and begged. It may have been the sanctity of a vow that he wished to preserve. But under obedience, he relented, taking a few morsels and a sip of the wine. He was barely able to keep the nourishment down, and the vicar, judging the man’s nausea to be unfeigned, allowed him to persist in his fast. When a learned visitor subsequently challenged the hermit about the wisdom of this practice, the saint said, “provided I have humility and faith, I shall not go astray.” Reflecting upon the phenomenon, Cardinal Journet noted that the fast was approved by his pastor and did not make Nicholas either difficult or vainglorious. He concluded that the Church’s judgment of it as an authentic miracle seems to have been correct.
In December, 1481, Nicholas of Flue became the father of modern Switzerland when his timely intervention between disputing cantons led to the signing of the Covenant of Stans, an agreement that resulted in the union of the French-speaking part of the canton Fribourg to the original German-speaking confederation of the forest cantons around Lucerne. The content of the saint’s intervention is unknown. A local priest convinced the arguing leaders of the cantons to appeal to Nicholas for mediation, but the saint’s message was delivered, by the same priest, to the leaders alone. Something of his counsel to them can perhaps be divined from a letter that he had sent to the citizens of Bern the following December. “Peace is always in God, for God is peace, and peace cannot be destroyed; but discord is destroyed. Seek, then, to keep the peace.” Here is that clarity of vision that comes from contact with God.
Writing during the Second World War, Cardinal Journet saw in Nicholas of Flue the “supreme incarnation of the genius of Switzerland.” By this he did not mean that the hermit was a pacifist. He was something higher and more important. His greatness “was to have affirmed the primacy of the spiritual life.” For the saints, the Cardinal explained, “are sent to us by God as so many sermons. We do not use them; it is they who move us and lead us to where we had not expected to go.” Those were years of exceptional trial for the Swiss, but they were also years in which men and women of good will prepared the ground for spiritual renewal and rebuilding.
What lesson might Nicholas of Flue hold out for our generation? Were he alive today this simple Swiss peasant would doubtless be startled by our wealth. The recession of recent years seems to have done little to dull the edge of our consumption. The adjective “worldly” is now being used as a term of approbation, to signify the savoir-faire of the person who knows the latest fashions and ways of thinking. It is a telling linguistic development. Nicholas of Flue spent the last twenty years of his life in a tiny room with two windows. Through one of them, he could see something of the beauty of his native land, a beauty that nourished his reflection and piety: “O man, think of the sun so high in the sky and consider its splendor: but your soul has received the splendor of the eternal God.” Through the other, he saw the altar, whence came the very food of his soul. “We should carry the Passion of God in our hearts, for this is the greatest consolation to a man at the hour of his death.” The one thing needful indeed.