Lenten Thoughts – 21 March – Thursday of the Second week of Lent, Year C and the Memorial of St Nicholas of Flue (1417-1487)
The Primacy of the Spiritual: Saint Nicholas of Flue (Excerpt)
By Christopher O Blum
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 “comprehend the drama of this great soul”? 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!”
Nicholas had initially thought to join a monastery, perhaps one in nearby Alsace known for its austerity. But a chance conversation with a peasant helped him to understand another of his mystical visions – this one of the nearby town of Liestal wrapped in flames. His good works were needed in his own neighbourhood. And so, he built himself a hermitage one valley over from his home and spent the next twenty years there, clad only in a tunic, with bare feet and a bare head, to do penance for his beloved people. His piety was simple, for he was illiterate. A neighbouring priest had taught him the practice of meditating on Christ’s Passion in stages to match the seven canonical hours of the Church’s daily prayer. This method bore good results. He soon became known for the wisdom and holiness of his counsel and pilgrims flocked to his hidden valley to listen to his simple, direct words: “O man, when the world hates you and is faithless toward you, think of your God, how he was struck and spat upon. You should not accuse your neighbour of guilt but pray to God, that he be merciful to you both.”
Writing during the Second World War, Cardinal Journet saw in Nicholas of Flue the “supreme incarnation of the genius of Switzerland.” By this he did not mean that the hermit was a pacifist. He was something higher and more important. His greatness “was to have affirmed the primacy of the spiritual life.” “For the saints”, the Cardinal explained, “are sent to us by God as so many sermons. We do not use them, it is they who move us and lead us, to where we had not expected to go.” Those were years of exceptional trial for the Swiss but they were also years in which men and women of good will prepared the ground for spiritual renewal and rebuilding.
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.
My Lord and my God
St Nicholas of Flue (1417-1487)
My Lord and my God,
take from me everything
that distances me from You.
My Lord and my God,
give me everything
that brings me closer to You.
My Lord and my God,
detach me from myself
to give my all to You.
The above prayer of St Nicholas, is cited in the Catechism of the Catholic Church in paragraph #226.
CCC 226 – It means making good use of created things: faith in God, the only One, leads us to use everything that is not God only insofar as it brings us closer to Him and to detach ourselves from it insofar as it turns us away from Him.