Had Nicholas not been a saint, or had he eaten and drunk like other saints, Switzerland with all it has meant for peace and humanity would probably not exist today. For Nicholas’s entire life was ordained in view of his vocation to save his country.
Nicholas von Flue was born on March 21st, 1417 in the Canton of Unterwalden on the lake of Lucerne, a citizen of a peasant democracy and a farmer’s son. As he grew up he proved himself a capable farmer, and the ability he displayed in the local parliament, of which every male citizen was a member, led to his election at an early age as councillor and judge. He also proved himself a capable commander of troops. In the war against the duke of Tirol he persuaded his compatriots to respect a convent of nuns. Though willing to perform his military service, Nicholas condemned as immoral, wars of aggression and the slaughter of non-combatants inevitable in any major modern war. About the age of thirty he married a farmer’s daughter, Dorothy Wiss, and built a farmhouse to receive her. The couple had ten children and descendants survive to this day.
Nicholas had thus approved himself to his countrymen as a thoroughly capable man, as farmer, military leader, member of the assembly, councillor, judge and father of a family—also a man of complete moral integrity. All the while, however, he led a life of contemplative prayer and rigorous fasting. He was the subject of symbolic visions and a diabolic assault.
After some twenty years of married life, in 1467 Nicholas received a compelling call to abandon his home and the world and become a hermit. Though she had just borne his tenth child his wife heroically consented. His neighbors, however, even his older children, regarded his action as indefensible, unbalanced, immoral and irresponsible. He set out for Alsace, where he intended to live. Had he carried out his intention his vocation would have been missed. A storm, however, symbolically interpreted, and friendly advice not to settle where the Swiss were detested made him turn back from the border. At the same time he became incapable of eating or drinking—a condition which continued for the rest of his life. As an act of obedience to a bishop he once ate with acute agony a piece of soaked bread. (The problem of prolonged fasting is more fully discussed in the account of St. Lidwina of Schiedam.)
He resumed to his native canton, passing the first night undiscovered in the cow-shed of his farm and settled in a hermitage at Ranft within a few miles of his home. It was no temptation to return home, as he never felt the least desire for his former life. Symbolic visions continued to be a feature of his contemplation, and when, after a month’s strict surveillance, his countrymen were convinced that his fast was genuine, they recognised his sanctity and vocation, and he became a spiritual guide whose advice was widely sought and followed. Pilgrims came from distant parts to consult him. He acquired influence with Duke Sigismund of the Tirol, whom he confirmed in his neutrality when the Swiss confederacy met and defeated Charles of Burgundy. Everything was ready for the climax of Nicholas’s life: the accomplishment of his unique vocation.
The victorious cantons were at loggerheads. The rural cantons opposed inflexibly the demand of Zurich and Lucerne that Freiburg and Soleure be admitted to the confederacy. A conference held at Stans, December 1481, failed to reach agreement. Next day the delegates would disperse and a civil war ensue which would presumably have destroyed the confederacy. The parish priest, once Nicholas’s confessor, hurried to Ranft and laid the matter before the hermit. During the night Nicholas dictated suggested terms of agreement. The priest resumed in time to persuade the delegates to give a hearing to the proposals of a man so widely respected for his well tried practical abilities and so widely venerated for his holiness. The terms suggested—the conditional admittance of Freiburg and Soleure—were unanimously accepted and embodied in the agreement of Stans. Switzerland had been saved.
Nicholas survived his achievement almost six years, universally revered, visited and consulted. On March 21st 1487, his seventieth birthday, he died, apparently of his first illness. One is glad to know that his wife and children attended his deathbed. After all, she had never lost her husband completely. Honored by Swiss Protestants, venerated by Swiss Catholics, Nicholas’s cult, uninterrupted since his death, was officially sanctioned by Clement IX (1667-9). In 1947 he was canonized by Pope Pius XII.