The Life of Brother Klaus
"The name of Jesus be your greeting and we wish you much good and may the Holy Spirit be your last reward"
With these words greets us a mystic and politician who lived more than 500 years ago and is still revered in Switzerland as peacemaker and saint. His name: Nicholas of Flüe (1417-1487). Till his fiftieth year he lived as a respected member of his village in the canton of Obwalden, taking an active part in the political life of the time. After a deep spiritual crisis he withdraws from public life and spends the remaining 20 years as a hermit, praying and fasting. Men from near and far come to him seeking counsel. They call him lovingly Brother Claus. The mystic becomes more and more a political adviser and his fame spreads over all Europe.
In the 15th century Switzerland goes through a stormy period of development: wars at home and abroad. Corruption and bribary are rife. The situation in the church is disastrous, forshadowing the reformation. In Sachseln , Nicholas of Flüe’s parish, there is neither priest nor church service from 1415 – 1446. Nor are there any schools in the country. Nicholas of Flüe is a self educated man, he learnt from life. At decisive moments of his life occur dreams and visions revealing to him the inner way and helping him to interpret prophetically the needs of his time. After the death of the hermit friends, neighbours and acquaintances record in the church book of Sachseln (1488) how they have experienced Nicholas of Flüe. In addition other literary sources contain hundreds of contemporary reports. (Standard work: Durrer / Amschwand, see note on literature.)
Nicholas of Flüe, son of Heini of Flüe and Hemma Ruobert, is born in 1417 and baptized in the neighbouring village. Later he says that he could remember his birth and his baptism. Already in his mother’s womb he had seen a star which lit up the whole world, as well as a great rock and an oil-jar. This vision recalls Jeremiah 1,5: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you for my own: before you were born I consecrated you. I appointed you a prophet to the nations." At 16 Nicholas sees a high tower at the place where later his cell and his chapel will stand. Thus from his youth he is prepared to seek a "mystical union with God" ("einig wesen", church book 1488). The mystical union with God ("einig wesen") is, as it were, Nicholas of Flüe’s life motto: it is his desire to bring God and the world together. And like a living tower he will later guide and support the people.
Life in the world
Nicholas becomes a farmer. In youth he is also a soldier, but "he had always loved moderation, punished injustice and in war caused little injury to his enemies but had rather, as far as possible, protected them" (church book 1488). At almost 30 he builds a house and marries the 16 year old Dorothee Wyss. Five sons and five daughters are born to them. Nicholas is councillor and judge. He has a special gift to arbitrate between contending parties. But he has no false respect of persons. 1457 he conducts a law-suit for his villagers against a priest who demands too much tribute. 1462 he arbitrates between the people of Stans and the cloister Engelberg and he pleads for the rights of the people to elect priests. Nicholas has experienced that judges and councillors are also bribable. He withdraws from all civil posts and experiences a deep inner crisis. More and more he seeks solitude and fasts.
Facing the Truth
Nicholas recognizes clearly what is wrong with his time. He sees into the hearts of the people who in private and in public life always seek only their own advantage. Once in a dream he sees the great Pilatus mountain sink into the ground: "the whole earth opened and sin was revealed. Great crowds of people appeared and behind the people Truth. And they bore on their hearts a swelling as big as two fists. And this swelling was selfishness which led the people astray". This vision is as significant today as then. The sinking Pilatus mountain may stand for our threatened environment, for the ever widening gap between rich and poor, for the millions of homeless. Are we prepared to face the truth that stands clearly behind this phenomenon?
Crisis and parting
Nicholas wrestles with the problem of his future way. On the one hand he is bound to his family, on the other hand the urge to relinquish all earthly goods grows. After two years of tormenting doubt Dorothee gives him her liberating "Yes" to the step into an uncertain future. On the 16th October, the anniversary of Saint Gall, Nicholas leaves house and farm (1467) dressed in a penitential robe. Many people cannot understand how Nicholas could leave his wife and ten children. Such a decision cannot be explained. It is a unique act scarcely to be imitated. Later Nicholas often says it was by the great grace of God "That he received the consent of his wife and children to his hermit’s life" (Church book). In spite of this separation the family remained united in love. Dorothee’s share in the saving way of her husband may not be undervalued. To her belong thanks and honour no less than to Nicholas.
In his brown penitential robe Brother Claus sets off towards Basle. At Liestal, near Basle, he is called to a halt: The town seems to be in flames. A peasant coming along the way advises Nicholas not to go abroad but to serve God at home. Nicholas spends the night in the open. A flash of lightening strikes him causing a pain as if his body were being cut open with a knife. Nicholas turns back. Without food and drink he reaches his home and is found by huntsmen in the mountains. He seeks further till four lights show him the place where he should settle: on his own land only a few hundred metres away from his house and family on the bank of the stream in the deep gorge of the Ranft. He spends the winter in cold and poverty. Next winter peasants build him a small house and a chapel. The farmer Nicholas of Flüe becomes the hermit Brother Claus.
Since the night near Liestal Brother Claus lives without bodily nourishment. Curious questioners about his fasting he answers with reserve: "God knows." But once he says: "when he attends mass and the priest takes the sacrament he receives such a strengthening that he wishes to be without food and drink, otherwise he could not endure it" (Church book 1488). With his fasting Nicholas stands out favourably against the pleasure-loving and miracle-seeking late middle ages. Fasting is for him actually nothing extraordinary, he has always wished for it. His son Hans reports: "as long as he remembers his father has always fled the world. Also he has fasted four days every week and during Lent every day never eaten more than a small piece of bread and a few dried pears" (Church book 1488).
The two windows
The hermit Brother Claus is still very much in the world. The ambassador of Milan, Bernardo Imperiali, writes on 27th June 1483 to his Duke about Brother Claus: "lo trovato informato del tutto." (I found him informed about everything). The hermit is abreast of current developments. He has an alert mind and goes to the root of problems. Through one window of his cell the light shines onto the altar of the chapel. The other window opens out to the people. All that is brought from the world outside to Brother Claus he brings before God in prayer. All that he receives in prayer he gives back to the people. His counsel comes from the depths. Today we are exposed to a flood of information but we remain on the surface and consume more and more. Brother Claus did not consume, he fasted. Where men dig deeply new life grows for the world.
Life out of the centre
"Brother Claus is a simple layman who cannot read" (Heinrich Wölflin 1501). Yet the hermit speaks of his "book". It is a drawing with the structure of a wheel. The movement goes out from the centre and comes back to the centre. The wheel picture is made public in 1487 by an unknown pilgrim with an explanation from Brother Claus: "That is my book in which I learn and seek the art of this teaching." He calls the wheel the figure in which he contemplates the nature of God: "In the very centre is the undivided Godhead in which all the saints rejoice. Like the three rays the three Persons go forth from the one Godhead and have embraced the heavens and the whole world". An illustrated version of this wheel exists already during the hermit’s lifetime (see back side of this brochure). Both pictures bear witness to the deep wisdom and clear judgement of this "simple layman".
Many people come to Brother Claus seeking advice: men and women, young and old, rich and poor. The Dukes of Austria, Milan and Venice keep in contact with him, likewise the cantons. In a time full of intrigues Brother Claus stands above all parties. His convincing life lends him the highest moral authority. After the victory over Burgundy when the confederation stands on the brink of civil war because of the rich booty and political rivalry Brother Claus makes a decisive contribution to peace. (Treaty of Stans 1481). From that time he is recognized as a peacemaker and is more and more often called upon to arbitrate in political and ecclesiastical disputes such as, for example, in the reform conflict about the renewal of the cloister Klingental in Basle (1482) or in the disagreement between the town of Constance and the Confederacy (1482).
Peace in justice
Thanks to Brother Claus the quarreling cantons came to a lasting confederal agreement in 1481. In his letter to the Council of Berne the hermit tells us what peace depends on: "Obedience is the greatest honour in Heaven and on Earth, therefore you must strive to be obedient to one another. Peace is certainly in God, for God is peace." You cannot command peace, it is a gift. Conflicts can only be fruitfully resolved in mutual respect and mutual obedience. This calls on the deepest in men and demands our greatest effort. There is no peace without justice. Ultimately peace is founded in mystical union with God (einig wesen). Since 1981 there is a Peace Village at Flüeli, near the saint’s cell: a place where young and old seek to learn peace.
My Lord and my God
On the 21st of March 1487 Brother Claus dies at the age of seventy. Over his whole life stands his personal prayer:
My Lord and my God,
take everything from me
that keeps me from Thee.
My Lord and my God,
give everything to me
that brings me near to Thee.
My Lord and my God,
take me away from myself
and give me completely to Thee.
The ecumenical Saint
Brother Claus lived before the Reformation but some of his earliest biographers are reformed. The hermit warns our church not primarily to watch over the frontiers, but to concentrate on the centre. In the middle, in the Trinitarian God, is the mystical union with God (einig wesen). The important thing is that we really live from faith. The Zürich Reformer Huldrych Zwingli sometimes cites Brother Claus, especially in connection with the struggle against mercenaries. Brother Claus stands above Parties. "He brings together the different confessions and cultures: he is the better self of Switzerland." (Thus the reformed theologian Georges Méautis.) And on the occasion of the canonization in 1947 wrote Karl Barth: "In spite of the canonization , which we absolutely refuse, Brother Claus is still our saint."
Brother Claus belongs to the whole world
Already during his lifetime his contemporaries call the hermit "a living saint". His fame spreads over all Europe. Probably the most impressive account of a journey to Brother Claus is from Hans Waldheim from Halle in Sachsen. On the 25th May 1474 he meets the hermit with his wife Dorothee and their youngest son. In 1487 an illustrated book about the wheel picture of Brother Claus appears in Nürnberg. Amongst the first pilgrims who seek the grave of the hermit after his death are a fisherman from Denmark and a goldsmith from Erfurt. Both come from Santiago de Compostela to Sachseln and are healed from their sickness. The Swiss poet Heinrich Federer writes in 1921: "Brother Claus is much too great to belong to Switzerland only… he belongs to the whole world." In four continents today there are hundreds of churches, chapels and schools consecrated to the peace-saint Nicholas of Flüe.
Gedruckt am 25.9.2017 / www.bruderklaus.com
© 2017 Wallfahrt Sachseln