St. Nicholas of Fluee

(1417-1487)

More than one nation venerates a saint as its national hero. Ireland has St. Patrick, Hungary has King St. Stephen, Wales has St. David.

And Switzerland has its St. Nicholas of Fluee, “Brother Klaus” (Bruder Klaus).

Klaus was the son of a respected farmer and public official of the Swiss canton of Unterwalden. His parents were devout members of a lay religious confraternity called the Friends of God; and they brought up their two sons in that society’s intense devotional traditions. Nicholas in particular grew up to be a pious and sensible young man and a lover of peace.

Between 1291 and 1648, the freedom-loving Swiss mountaineers were battling for their political independence of neighboring powers. St. Klaus was to become an actor in that drama. Though peace-loving, he felt obliged, on two occasions, to soldier for the defense of his Alpine fatherland. After that, he was chosen to be a magistrate and judge because of his sound political judgment. He was even offered the position of “landamman” or governor; but this he declined. He and his wife Dorothea raised a creditable family of ten children.

All along, however, Klaus felt called by God to a more contemplative life. His wife, who shared his devotional ideas, gave her consent. So in 1467 Nicholas set forth in hermit’s garb and migrated to the wild countryside near the town of Ranft. Here the admiring local people built him a little cell with an attached chapel. There he was to spend the rest of his life – 19 years. The hours from midnight to noon were devoted to prayer. During the day he was ready to receive callers – and their number rapidly grew – who came to ask his advice on spiritual or secular matters. Through what seems to have been a supernatural grace, he was able to live without eating or drinking. (Government officials checked on this for a month, and found that nobody had brought him any food.) Gifts from the faithful enabled him to engage a priest to offer Mass in his chapel. Klaus himself always remained a layman.

The Swiss were finally able to throw off the political yoke of Charles the bold, Duke of Burgundy. Unfortunately, what the various Swiss cantons had achieved through united arms, they were close to losing because of bickering among themselves. At length, the separate cantons hammered out an agreement at the Council of Stans; but it still left two major problems unsolved. When the cantonal delegates were almost ready to come to blows over the matter, one of them said, “Let’s ask Bruder Klaus!” Bruder Klaus gave such wise advice to their embassy that when it was reported to the conference, the delegates were able to come to an agreement within one hour. That was December 22, 1481. The government authorities thanked Nicholas profusely for his assistance. The edict confirmed the boundaries of the Republic of Switzerland.

This experienced, weatherbeaten but otherworldly recluse died six years after the Edict of Stans. He left with his fellow Swiss both a counsel and a pattern of national peace. A contemporary churchman who once visited him reported Bruder Klaus’s constant admonition: “He praises and recommends obedience and peace. As he exhorted the (Swiss) Confederates to maintain peace, so does he exhort all who come to him to do the same.”

How easy it is for nations to rattle sabres (or missiles) at each other rather than to dialogue over differences! They could still learn a thing or two about peaceful reconciliation from the statesman-hermit of Ranft.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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