“Let your fasts be moderate.”
~ St. Jerome
Nicholas of Flüe (1417-1487) is a puzzle. On the one hand, he’s a marvelous saint, the patron of Switzerland, and an inspiration for husbands, fathers, soldiers, farmers, magistrates, and many others. Brother Klaus, as he came to be known, not only led an exemplary, even miraculous life, he was also instrumental in preserving his country’s unique confederacy of cantons when it was on the verge of war and splintering apart.
So, yes, a great saint and a great role model, but also a problem – especially for anyone who has wrestled with an eating disorder or has known someone who has. You see, St. Nicholas stopped eating and drinking the last 20 years of his life – twenty years, count ‘em, on nothing but the Eucharist. If you’re Catholic, and you care about somebody with anorexia, what do you do with that? I mean, he was a saint, right?
There’s the puzzle, and it’s an urgent one today. Eating disorders are rampant, and they’re notoriously difficult to treat. What to do with the puzzle of a saint who abstained from food for so long? I think a solution may involve considering how extremes – especially ascetical extremes – impact our sanctification. In Nicholas’s case, extreme fasting was foreshadowed by two other extremes that provide helpful context and contrast.
First, his family life.
After marrying around the age thirty, Nicholas abandoned himself completely to the blessings of fatherhood. He and his beloved wife Dorothy welcomed ten children in the course of their quarter century together. Ten kids doesn’t make them the Duggars, but that’s a huge family by today’s standards, and we might wonder how Nicholas and Dorothy could’ve accomplished much of anything beyond providing for and raising their brood – let alone becoming saints. Yet Nicholas, in line with his robust peasant Catholic upbringing, would’ve recognized that marriage and paternity were a path to heaven rather than a detour or a hindrance. In fact, Nicholas’ experience is an ideal illustration of Pope Paul VI’s description of family life as a “long path toward sanctification which is sustained by the daily joys and sacrifices, by the life that is outwardly most ordinary.”
The question naturally arises: If I’m called to marriage, do I have to have ten kids in order to become a saint? The answer unequivocally is: No. There’s no magic number. The only requirement is that we remain true to our vows and the teaching of the Church. In other words, there’s nothing inherently good in having ten kids, yet there is something inherently good in being generously open to life in our marriages. In Nicholas’ case, that resulted in five sons and five daughters, but I’m guessing he would’ve been become a saint no matter how many kids he had.
The second extreme is Nicholas’ entanglement with worldly affairs, and this, too, can be seen from different angles. To begin with, there’s no question that Brother Klaus made it to the top of the social heap. He was prosperous farmer who went on to become a highly effective arbitrator and administrator in his community. For many of us, worldly success like that might lead to smug self-satisfaction and moral torpor, and instead of advancing in holiness, we’d get only stunted growth. I think that’s why Jesus so frequently and decisively warned against riches and worldly success: Better to be a failure in temporal terms and yet achieve heaven than score the American dream and wind up in Hell.
But then there’s Nicholas of Flüe. For him, worldly success seemed to simply stoke the flames of his goodness, justice, and piety. Like a Swiss Thomas More, Nicholas reluctantly navigated the byways of secular power and wealth because be deemed it God’s will, and yet he remained aloof from associated temptations – truly “in” the world, but not “of” it. Klaus was well known for his moral integrity as well as a strict neutrality when it came to arbitrating conflicts. Even in his youthful service as a soldier – normally a serious drag on spiritual progress – Nicholas found opportunities to grow in holiness. One of his comrades testified that the young Klaus “did little harm to the enemy, but rather always went to one side, prayed, and protected the defeated enemy as best he could.”
Then we come to the third extreme in this saintly tale and the one most troubling for us moderns: Nicholas’ absolute abstinence from food and drink. Before initiating this total fast, Brother Klaus experienced intense interior promptings to abandon his temporal and even domestic responsibilities in order to entirely withdraw from the world. This he did in 1467 after providing for his family’s future livelihood and with Dorothy’s explicit permission – husband and wife remained on amiable terms for the rest of their lives. His affairs settled, Brother Klaus then set out to wander the country and hillsides of his native land, settling in a valley he had previously foreseen in a dream.
Nicholas adopted a solitary life of a hermit, and systematically reduced his already limited nutritional intake – from the single weekly fast day he had begun in his youth, to four fast days a week as a married working man, to his final regimen of avoiding food and water completely. This apparent miraculous regimen was confirmed by the local bishop and other authorities at the time – hidden observers kept watch for long periods of time in order to catch the saint sneaking food – and the local community embraced as their own this holy, abstemious saint.
Can such severe self-denial be a good thing? If it leads to moral laxity, spiritual sloth, or (as it would for most mortals) ill health, then certainly not. Once again, however, the opposite of what we’d expect actually occurred in Nicholas’ case. He remained vigorous in his prayer and engaged with those who sought his counsel until he died on his seventieth birthday, March 21st, 1487.
Here’s the thing though: Whereas Nicholas generous paternity can be held up as exemplary, as can his disinterested engagement with worldly affairs, his extreme asceticism cannot. Even if we can trust the historical record with regards to St. Nicholas’ decades long total fast, it wasn’t in itself virtuous. Moreover, given the modern world’s obsession with body shape, thinness, and dieting, we should clarify for our teens that they should not aspire to Nicholas’ brand of asceticism or anything remotely resembling it. Nicholas of Flüe was a saint, to be sure, and refusing food and drink could well have contributed to his sanctification. Yet it would be a terrible mistake to draw the conclusion that we, too, could become saints by adopting a similar discipline.
In his treatise on beatification and canonization, Pope Benedict XIV addressed this very issue when discussing various forms of excessive mortification:
All this was indeed very happily accomplished by some saints, but doubtless it proceeded from a special inspiration of God; and it has been committed to writing, not for our imitation, but that we may show forth herein the infinite power and wisdom of God, Who is wonderful in His saints, and Who sometimes commands things to be fulfilled by some, while He would have it in the meantime kept secret with what design He does so.
Prolonged fasting, in other words, is the exception, not the rule. Sure, self-denial is a part of saintliness, but so is self-care. “Life and physical health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God,” the Catechism teaches us. “We must take reasonable care of them” and “avoid every kind of excess.”
Now we’re talking finding balance, and oddly enough, our extreme-prone Brother Klaus offers us guidance here as well. Whether we apply it to the heights of saintly excess or to the ordinary humdrum of everyday life, this prayer of St. Nicholas provides us an exquisitely proportioned path to heaven:
My Lord and my God, remove far from me whatever keeps me from you.
My Lord and my God, confer upon me whatever enables me to reach you.
My Lord and my God, free me from self and make me wholly yours.
Anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders are serious and life-threatening. If you or someone you care about requires help and support, you can find it here.