Thought for the Day – 21 March – The Memorial of St Nicholas of Flue (1417-1487) and Wednesday of the 5th Week of Lent 2018 (this reflection includes our Lenten Reflection for today.)
Although our minds are limited in their ability to attain God in this life, we are capable of “greater desire and love, and pleasure in knowing divine matters” than we are able to find in “the perfect knowledge of the lowest things.” Thus far Aquinas, who taught as one who knew. Saint Nicholas of Flue (1417-1487) was in perfect agreement. “God,” he once said, “gives us such a taste for prayer that we yearn for it as if we were waiting to go to a dance.”
The likeness was more than a bit incongruous, for the speaker was a true hermit, a man who had given up not only dances but nearly everything else that bound him to this world, even food. Born to a pious, upstanding peasant family, young Nicholas stood out for his goodness, simplicity and mortification. While still a young man, labouring in the fields and meadows of the valleys south of Lucerne, he fasted four times per week, explaining himself, when pressed, by saying, “Such is the will of God.” Until his fiftieth year, his life was that of an exemplary Swiss free man. Like many of his fellow countrymen, he served his canton both under arms and by holding civic office. And this pillar of the community raised up five sons and five daughters with the help of his exemplary wife Dorothy. Yet God persisted in calling him to a life beyond that of the domestic holiness he had already embraced and sent visions to him in his late-night prayer vigils and his moments of afternoon solitude in the fields, visions that beckoned him to leave all.
As the eminent Swiss theologian Charles Cardinal Journet (1891-1975) explained in his biography of the hermit-saint, “it no longer sufficed for him to walk along the roads of the world with God in his heart; he had to take the path set aside for him, that he might be taken by the hand and led to where he knew not.” What praise of Dorothy of Flue could be lovelier, Journet asked, than to admire her magnanimity in being able to They parted friends, just thirteen weeks after the birth of their youngest child and remained so. Several years later, a pilgrim visitor to Nicholas’ hermitage saw the saint, with joyous mien, lean out of the window of his tiny cell after the morning Mass to greet his family with a blessing: “May God give you a blessed day, dear friends and good people!” One is glad to know that his wife and children attended his deathbed. After all, she had never lost her husband completely. Honoured 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 canonised by Pope Pius XII.
What lesson might Nicholas of Flue hold out for our generation? Were he alive today this simple Swiss peasant would doubtless be startled by our wealth. The recession of recent years seems to have done little to dull the edge of our consumption. The adjective “worldly” is now being used as a term of approbation, to signify the savoir-faire of the person who knows the latest fashions and ways of thinking. It is a telling linguistic development. Nicholas of Flue spent the last twenty years of his life in a tiny room with two windows. Through one of them, he could see something of the beauty of his native land, a beauty that nourished his reflection and piety: “O man, think of the sun so high in the sky and consider its splendour: but your soul has received the splendour of the eternal God.” Through the other, he saw the altar, whence came the very food of his soul. “We should carry the Passion of God in our hearts, for this is the greatest consolation to a man at the hour of his death.” The one thing needful indeed.