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Nicholas of Flüe

(1417—1487)


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(1417–87),

hermit and patron saint of Switzerland. Born at Flueli, near Sachseln (Unterwalden), of a family of farmers who owned the estate of Flueli, Nicholas was a member from an early age of the lay association called the Friends of God. By living strict lives and meditating on the Passion of Christ, they aimed to achieve the Imitation of Christ. Although he could neither read nor write, he early developed judgement and wise counsel, for which he was much esteemed. Both he and his father were prominent in public service and twice Nicholas fought in the army, first in 1439 against Zurich and again in 1453 in Thurgau, where he prevented the destruction of a nunnery. In 1447 he had married Dorothy Wissling, by whom he had ten children, one of whom became a governor of a province and another a priest. Nicholas himself acted as magistrate and judge; meanwhile he also followed a life of prayer, especially at night, experiencing visions and revelations.

In 1467, with his wife's consent, he resigned his offices, left his wife and children, and set out to be a hermit near Strasbourg, the headquarters of the Friends of God. Deterred by a severe thunderstorm and by reports that the Swiss were unpopular in Alsace, as well as by severe gastric pains (possibly caused by an ulcer), he decided to stay in Switzerland and lived for twenty years at Ranft, not far from his home. In a lonely cottage, situated above a narrow gorge within earshot of the mountain stream, he spent the hours from midnight to midday mainly in prayer and contemplation, but in time many visitors used to come and see ‘Brother Klaus’ seeking his advice on both religious and worldly matters. His reputation was enhanced by the belief that he never ate or drank.

Near the end of his life he exercised an important role in the history of Switzerland. Just after they had fought successfully for their independence from Charles the Bold of Burgundy in three battles, the Swiss suffered acute internal divisions over sharing the spoils, over whether to include Fribourg and Soleure in the confederation, and on the sharing of power between urban and rural interests. Most of the differences were resolved by the Edict of Stans, which, however, did not settle the destiny of Fribourg and Soleure. The deputies, when passions were running very high, sent a priest to obtain Nicholas' advice. This was decisive in obtaining a unanimous decision within the hour in favour of the two provinces. Indeed, some suggest that the Edict of Stans itself was inspired by Nicholas and drafted under his direction. What seems certain is that this saintly hermit, detached from all worldly interests, mediated effectively in a crisis which was resolved so as to lead to permanent national unity.

Nicholas died on 21 March after eight days' severe illness. He was immediately honoured as patriot and saint; the cult was approved in 1669 and he was canonized in 1947. Several accounts survive of visitors' memories of him: one described him as tall, brown, and wrinkled with thin grizzled locks and a short beard, bright eyes, white teeth, and a shapely nose. This corresponds closely with a Fribourg portrait of 1492. Just as he had exhorted the Confederates to peace, so also did he recommend peace and obedience to all his visitors. He was buried at Sachseln, where his tomb survives. Feast: 21 March, but in Switzerland, 25 September.

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Subjects: Christianity.


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