Saint Nicholas of Flüe (German: Niklaus von Flüe) (1417 – 21 March 1487) was a Swiss hermit and mystic ascetic who is the patron saint of Switzerland. He is sometimes invoked as “Brother Klaus.” A farmer, military leader, member of the assembly, councillor, judge and mystic, he was respected as a man of complete moral integrity, Brother Klaus’s counsel to the Diet of Stans (1481) helped to prevent civil war between the Swiss cantons (states). As a layman with family responsibilities who took his civic duties as an ancestral landowner seriously, Brother Klaus is a model of heroic manhood for many concerned with the flourishing of local communities and sustainable use of open land.
He was born in 1417, in the canton of Unterwalden, the oldest son of wealthy peasants. At the age of 21 he entered the army and took part in the battle of Ragaz in 1446, and distinguished himself as a soldier in action against the canton of Zurich, which had rebelled against the confederation. He later took up arms again in the so-called Thurgau war against Archduke Sigismund of Austria in 1460. It was due to his influence that the Dominican convent St. Katharinental, whither many Austrians had fled after the capture of Diessenhofen, was not destroyed by the Swiss confederates. At around the age of 30, he married Dorothy Wiss, a farmer’s daughter. They farmed in the municipality of Flüeli in the alpine foothills, above Sachseln on the Lake Sarnen. He also continued in the military to the age of 37, rising to the position of captain, reportedly fighting with a sword in one hand and a rosary in the other. After serving in the military, he became a councillor and judge for his canton in 1459 and served as a judge for nine years. He declined the opportunity to serve as Landamman (governor) of his canton.
After receiving a mystical vision of a lily eaten by a horse, which he recognized as indicating that the cares of his worldly life (the draft horse pulling a plough) was swallowing up his spiritual life (the lily, a symbol of purity) he decided to devote himself entirely to the contemplative life. In 1467, he left his wife and his ten children with her consent and set himself up as a hermit in the Ranft chine in Switzerland, establishing a chantry for a priest from his own funds so that he could assist at mass daily. According to legend, he survived for nineteen years with no food except for the eucharist.
Symbolic visions continued to be a feature of his contemplation, and he became a spiritual guide whose advice was widely sought and followed. His reputation for wisdom and piety was such that figures from across Europe came to seek advice from him, and he was known to all as “Brother Klaus.” In 1470, Pope Paul II granted the first indulgence to the sanctuary at Ranft and it became a place of pilgrimage, since it lay on the Jakobsweg (English: Way of St. James), the road pilgrims travelled on to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. His counsel prevented a civil war between the cantons meeting at the Diet of Stans in 1481 when their antagonism grew. Despite being illiterate and having limited experience with the world, he is honored among both Protestants and Catholics with the permanent national unity of Switzerland. Letters of thanks to him from Berne and Soleure still survive. When he died, on 21 March 1487, he was surrounded by his wife and children.
Of the many spiritual insights Nicholas received in his visions, one in particular is reproduced often in a reduced logographic format, as a mystical wheel. Nicholas described his vision of the Holy Face at the center of a circle with the tips of three swords touching the two eyes and mouth, while three others radiate outwards in a sixfold symmetry reminiscent of the Seal of Solomon.
A cloth painted with the image, known as the meditation prayer cloth, associates the symbol with six episodes from the life of Christ: the mouth of God at the Annunciation, the eyes spying Creation both in its prelapsarian innocence and redemption from the Fall at Calvary, while in the inward direction the betrayal by his disciple Judas in the Garden of Gethsamene points to the crown of the Pantocrator sitting in the judgment seat, the glad tidings of the Nativity scene’s “Glory to God in the Highest and Peace to his people on Earth” echoes in ear on the right of the head, while the memorial of the Lord’s Supper “This is my body, which will be given for you” at the prayers of consecration in the Divine Liturgy of the Mass echoes to the ear on the left of the head.
These six medallions contain additional symbols of acts of Christian kindness:
two crutches suggest Visiting the sick as a work of mercy
hiker’s walking stick with travel pouch suggests Hospitality to strangers
a loaf of bread, fish and a pitcher of water and wine represent Feed the hungry, quench the thirsty
chains indicate Care for the incarcerated
Christ’s garments evoke Clothe the naked
a coffin reminds us to Bury the dead
This visual interpretation encapsulates the personal piety of rural peasants, many illiterate, for whom salvation history was expressed in these crucial aspects of God’s loving relationship with us and the Christian duty to love of neighbor. Sanctifying grace flows from the Pascal Victim on the Cross, an image Nicholas described in his vision by the stream, where the Tabernacle sits atop a spring that flows forth covering the earth, echoing the rivers flowing from the Temple in Ezekiel’s visions. Such profound insights on the allegorical, anagogical and tropological senses of scripture are often lost in modern biblical exegesis that focuses too narrowly on the literal sense, the historical-critical method.
In an article entitled The Mysticism of the Swiss Saint Nicholas von Flüe, the author, Remo F. Roth, discusses the implications of von Flue’s most famous vision. A portion of the article is excerpted here:
“Briefly said the new mysticism consists in a completely unprejudiced way of dealing with one’s visions and dreams from the collective unconscious and trying to understand of which individual God-image they speak. More than 500 years ago this was the burden the Swiss mystic Nicholas of Flüe had to bear.
Already in his youth he was overwhelmed by visions that spoke of a God-image which greatly differed from the approved Christian view. We see this fact again in the vision of the frightening face of God. In his consciousness Nicholas of Flüe believed that there were three persons in one God, in the so-called Holy Trinity. This means that God consists of the three male persons; God the father, God the son and God the Holy Spirit. However, in the collective unconscious of Nicholas a completely different God-image was constellated, i.e., one that corresponded to a double trinity, which is symbolized by the two groups of three lance points pointing in opposite directions. During an inner process of several years, Nicholas transformed this vision in his famous image of the wheel.
Besides the very undogmatic double triadic structure, in Nicholas’ renewed God-image and apart from the Holy Spirit a goddess also appears. Nicholas’ image of the wheel corrects therefore the Christian God-image and supplements it with the feminine principle, which had been excluded by the church fathers. Nearly 500 years later Pope Pius XII proclaimed the dogma of the Assumptio Mariae, the dogma of the corporal ascension of the God mother Maria – and was laughed at by most theologians. For Carl Jung this acknowledgment of the female as divine principle was however a large hope for the spiritual future of the Christian world.
Nicholas von Flue spent nearly his whole life with the confrontation with this novel God-image constellated in the collective unconscious, which compensated the Christian Trinity that he consciously believed in. Likewise today there are already many humans, in whom such new God-images are constellated. Since the dreams and visions from the collective unconscious speak an enigmatic and dark language, they cannot be easily understood without a certain skill and a deepened knowledge about the symbols they contain. Therefore modern humans search on the outside and let the treasures of their own soul go unacknowledged. This is the deeper reason why so many people imitate today far Eastern mysticism and the related meditation techniques.
But more and more humans begin to understand that the real wisdom comes from the inside, and that the deepest meaning of one’s life lies in recognizing the individual God-image constellated in the deepest regions of one’s own soul. This is only possible by searching after it in one’s own dreams and visions. Like this these humans become the mystics of our time. They work – all of them in their own way – at trying to consciously realize the individual God-image of the 21st century.”
In another article on von Flue’s mysticism, entitled Nicholas of Flue, Hermit of Switzerland, the author writes:
“Popularizations of the life of Nicholas of Flue conflate his influence on contemporary events with his mysticism. Through his hermit life, Nicholas experienced visions, vividly recalled. When still with his family and considering an eremitic life, Nicholas had dreamed of a horse consuming a lily, which he took to mean that the cares of the world (represented by the draft-horse) were consuming the spiritual life (represented by the lily). A significant dream justified his eremitic life, wherein he sees a pilgrim approaching him, who is transformed into Christ but also Wotan, and into a berserker, a wildman in appearance, like a bear, frightening in aspect. C. G. Jung interpreted the dream carefully and explicitly:
‘The meaning of the vision could be this. Brother Klaus recognizes himself in his spiritual pilgrimhood and in his instinctive (bearlike, i.e., hermitlike) subhumanness as Christ. … The brutal coldness of feeling that the saint requires to separate himself from woman and child, and friendship is found in the subhuman animal kingdom. Thus the saint casts an animal shadow. He who was capable of bearing in the highest and the lowest to get this is hollowed, holy, whole. The vision is telling him that the spiritual pilgrim and the berserker are both Christ, and this paves the way in him for forgiveness of the greatest sin, which is sainthood.
To be a saint, in the eyes of Nicholas and the world, was a “sin” in that it required a turning away from filial affection, from family duty, from love of his spouse to whom he was jointed in sacramental union and therefore obliged to care for. But sainthood calls for removing all of this human accretion, and so he has taken this dangerous psychological step. The dream reassures him.’
As Von Franz explains, the vision of Brother Klaus “unites irreconcilable opposites, that is, subhuman savagery and Christian spirituality.” By entering this figure of berserker into his life and psychology, Klaus is capable of reconciling his personal conflicts (and be able to advise anyone else). The eremitic life means reconciling the impulses and instincts of aggression, anger, lust, and pride with the spiritual values of renunciation, disengagement, humility, and non-possession. The Christ-figure has never completely engaged those in the world, never been fully understood as anything but pain and suffering. Von Franz suggests that only the counterpart berserker figure can provoke the psychic energies that could reconcile the terrible cost of sainthood, could integrate our personal shadow, not the collective shadow of the Self, the dark side of the Godhead. Yet if we suffer the problem of the opposites to the utmost and accept it into ourselves, we can sometimes become a place in which the divine opposites can spontaneously come together. This is quite clearly what happened to Brother Klaus.
The bear-skinned pilgrim who is the berserker is also the bear who has attained the honey of love and compassion, who can advise and sympathize with others while retaining his distance. On the personal scale, this attainment allowed Nicholas to feel reconciled to his absence of family life. At the same time opening himself to visitors from many nations and classes. The mature hermit can function like a therapist, as has been seen in hermits throughout history, East and West. Jung went so far as to suggest that Brother Klaus should be the patron saint of psychotherapy.
This famous vision exemplifies Jung’s comment that Brother Klaus’ dreams and visions are largely unadulterated by formal learning other than rudimentary catechetical knowledge of the time. The dreams and visions clearly represent universal archetypes. Thus the famous wheel image found on the cell wall of Brother Klaus’ hermitage in his last year of life, and reportedly described by him as “my book in which I learn and seek the art of its teaching.”
But the image was a remnant of a dream he experienced 10 years before his death, the vision of an angry and terrible God, with six images representing six episodes in the life of Christ — as well as six religious virtues enjoined by the mollifying words of Jesus — again reconciling the psychological opposites represented in Christianity.
As Von Franz notes, ” compared to such holy sages as Lao Tzu or Chuang Tzu, Brother Klaus as a solitary hermit is a humbler figure.” The identification of eremitic solitude as a vocation not only exempted him in the eyes of his Swiss compatriots as a gifted person, but gave Brother Klaus the psychological space to grow as a hermit reconciling the opposing needs of spirituality and sociability, of mystical vision and contribution to others. His abandonment of the world was an abandonment of its false values, but not of his fellow human beings in their simple yearnings.
Nicholas of Flue is esteemed by Christians of many sects. The Swiss Protestant writer Denis de Rougemont wrote a play about the life of Nicholas, and it was set as a libretto to an oratorio by the Protestant Swiss composer Arthur Honegger in 1939. The work was performed in Rome on the canonization of Nicholas of Flue in 1947.”
A website dedicated to Nicholas von Flue (Bruder Klaus) can be found here: