A few years before St. Nicholas of Flue died, a monk from the Abbey of Einsieldeln went to visit him at his hermitage. Back in his monastery the monk wrote down his impressions of Nicholas: he was a tall man, his skin wrinkled and tanned a dark shade of brown from years of living outdoors. He wore his beard short and his hair long. Asked by his visitor which virtues he especially prized, Nicholas had replied, “obedience and peace.”
St. Nicholas, whose feast day is today, learned to value peace the hard way. In the 15th century his homeland, Switzerland, was not a unified nation but a region of rival cantons or provinces; often this rivalry erupted into open warfare. Making matters worse, France and Austria made frequent attempts to expand their borders by seizing Swiss territory. In his late teens and early twenties, Nicholas fought in several wars, witnessing first-hand all of its horrors. Even late in life he was called up to fight: he fought his last battle when he was 43. The Swiss won that day, chasing a band of defeated Austrian troops into a Dominican convent dedicated to St. Catherine. Under the laws of medieval warfare, soldiers who sought refuge in any holy place were safe, yet the Swiss soldiers, their blood still up from the battle, fired on St. Catherine’s. Nicholas appealed to his commanding officers and kept arguing with them until they ordered a ceasefire.
At age 25 Nicholas married a devout young woman named Dorothy Wissling from the village of Sachseln. They had 10 children five boys and five girls. As a prosperous, hard-working farmer Nicholas provided a good life for his large family. As a religious man of unshakable integrity he won the admiration of his neighbors. He was named a councilor of his canton and appointed a magistrate (a type of district judge). His reputation for fairness caused him to be called upon to arbitrate the most difficult local disputes.
Then, after 25 years of marriage and public service, Nicholas kissed his wife and children good-bye, bade farewell to his neighbors and went into the forest to live as a hermit. When he left he was barefoot, he wore only a grayish-brown robe, and the only things he took with him were his walking stick and his rosary. He settled in a nearby valley called Ranft where he tried to live in a hut of his own making, but the local people insisted upon building him a wooden cabin and a stone chapel. The auxiliary bishop of Constance consecrated the chapel and even sent a priest to serve as Nicholas’ private chaplain so he could attend Mass every day.
It is said that Nicholas lived only on the Blessed Sacrament, that he took no other nourishment. Our skeptical age finds it hard to believe such a thing, yet there are a remarkable number of documents from the period by both secular and ecclesiastical witnesses testifying that Nicholas was no fraud.
In 1481 representatives from several Swiss cantons met to try to hammer out a union, but the old enmities and suspicions got in the way. When it seemed likely that the conference would end not in a confederation but in a civil war, wiser heads among the delegates suggested that they call upon Nicholas of Flue to mediate and reconcile the different points of view. Nicholas came to the conference and within an hour showed them how to resolve their differences. Then he went back to his hermitage.
Six years later Nicholas died peacefully in his cabin, attended by his priest, and surrounded by his wife, children and grandchildren. His body lies buried in the Sachseln church and is still a goal of Catholic pilgrims from throughout Switzerland.
Thomas Craughwell is the author of Saints for Every Occasion (Stampley Enterprises, 2001).
(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)