Realms of Nature. As an Armchair Sailor I love the sea, but I am actually currently living in Switzerland of all the landlocked places. This means that I have come to also appreciate the mountains. When you live by the seaside, you can walk down to the coast whenever you need the sea breeze to keep your thoughts fresh or when you want to cry out loud to the sound of the roaring waves. The mountains have a different magic: They calm you. I experienced that most impressively when I walked down from the Alpine foothills of Obwalden to the valley of Flüeli-Ranft a few weeks ago.
Flüeli-Ranft is the place where Nicholas of Flüe (1417-1487), the patron saint of the Swiss, lived as a hermit in the late Middle Ages. 2017 marks the 600th birth anniversary of “Brother Klaus” and today (16 October) is the day when, 550 years ago, this famous man decided to trade in his life as an esteemed farmer for the solitude of the Ranft Valley.
While most Saint’s Lives from the Middle Ages are distant to us – collections of recurring motifs and topoi which betray little about their subjects’ actual human existence – Brother Klaus is uncommonly accessible due to Heinrich Wölfli’s intimate biography published only 30 years after his death, in 1517.
The man that emerges from the sources is a strikingly modern, torn soul who fascinates psychologists. He was a traumatized veteran of the cruel Old Zürich War (1440–46), suffered from depression and anorexia and wrestled for years with his decision to leave his wife and family to become a recluse. Time and again, he would vanish for nights and days into the valley of Ranft a few miles away from his home in Flüeli. And although it is hard for us to understand how he could abandon his beloved wife Dorothee and his ten children, the eventual decision must have come as a relief to his family and as a healing process to Nicholas.
For twenty more years, he would live in his humble hermitage by the river Melchaa, quickly becoming a mystic, popular saint and destination point for pilgrims even during his own lifetime. Throughout the past 500 years, Nicholas’s image was appropriated by various ideological and political groups in Switzerland for all kinds of (propagandist) purposes. This year’s anniversary runs under the motto “More Ranft” (“Mehr Ranft“), though, and by turning away from the man to the experience, I think, it has just struck the right chord.
For when I took the silent path from the convent of Bethanien down to the valley of Ranft, I could also feel the calming spirit of this place. Walking by traditional wooden farm houses and green pastures, passing cows and sheep grazing peacefully with their bells gently ringing, I descended slowly down into the canyon suffused with almost sacred silence. There is a majestic beauty in steep slopes, ravines and waterfalls. And this I know now: While your inner turmoil sometimes needs the solidarity of the stormy seas, it also craves the calming comfort of the motionless mountains.
The public web page for the 600th anniversary of Nicholas’s birth, Mehr Ranft, provides valuable information about Brother Klaus as well as a rich event calendar. Even more background information about the Swiss patron saint is available on the Bruder-Klaus Website.
The SRF recently aired a 60-min documentary, “Von Flüe” (by Luke Gasser). Historians and psychologists locate Brother Klaus in the historical context of the Late Middle Ages as well as analyze his mental condition. Find the trailer (German) here.