When I mentioned to my friend that Saint Nick’s was going to be celebrated on the 6th of December, he said “Niklaus, the Swiss saint?” “No, Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, the one who evolved into Santa Claus. They are different.” And wow, what a difference! I could see where the confusion had arisen. We had been talking a few months back about the only Swiss saint, the one Carl Jung felt could be the patron saint of psychology.
Niklaus of Flue was born on March 21, 1417 about a thousand years after Nickolas of Myra. Unlike the Greek saint, who was orphaned at a young age and grew up in the monastery, Niklaus was a soldier, who rose to the rank of captain, and a judge, who married and fathered ten children. Perhaps as a result of seeing all the political corruption and violence, Niklaus fell into a depression at age 45. (PTSD perhaps?) It took him five years to convince his wife that he needed to become a mendicant monk. But several spiritual events turned him around at the Swiss border. “With the help of friends and relatives he built a hermit’s cell about two hundred and fifty yards from his house in a deep, shadowy ravine. There he spent the rest of his life. He took no food apart from the sacred host. He had many visionary experiences and gradually acquired such renown as a religious healer and adviser that there were often as many as six hundred people to be found waiting in the neighborhood of his cell for an opportunity to speak to him.” (pp.37-38) So said Marie-Louise von Franz in Archetypal Dimensions of the Psyche (1999).
His most astonishing feat was resolving a dispute between the cantons which could have led to war in 1487. He sent a message to the Congress of Stans, urging them to keep the peace, to accept the two new urban cantons but without expanding their territory too much, and to settle the conflict by means of a treaty. This they did and prevented Austria and France from getting involved in a military/political solution, which von Franz said kept Switzerland intact. Niklaus’ reputation was very strong. The people were in awe of him. That of course, brings a psychologist to wonder what is behind his powerful effect upon people. Von Franz, being an amazing dream interpreter and psychoanalyst, suggests we take a look at
“a significant vision the saint had, which was as follows:
It seemed to Brother Klaus that a man who looked like a pilgrim was coming toward him. He held a staff in his hands, had on a hat with the brim turned back in the manner of a wayfarer, and wore a cloak. Klaus knew within himself that this man came from the east or from far away. Although the pilgrim did not say so, Klaus knew he came from “where the sun rises in summertime.” He stood in front of Klaus singing the word “Hallelujah!” When he began to sing, his voice echoed, and everything between heaven and earth seemed to support his voice. And Klaus heard “three perfect words that stood out from the rest, coming out of one origin,” which then closed up again like something on a spring. When Klaus heard these three perfect words, none of which touched either of the others, they nonetheless struck him as being a single word. When the pilgrim had finished his song, he asked Klaus for alms. Brother Klaus suddenly had a penny in his hand and dropped it into the pilgrim’s hat. “And the man [Brother Klaus?] had never realized that it was a thing so worth of veneration to receive a gift in one’s hat.”
Klaus asked where the wayfarer came from and who he was, and the traveler said only, “I come from there,” and was unwilling to say anything further. Klaus stood in front of him and looked at him. Then the pilgrim transformed. He now no longer wore a hat and cloak, but rather a blue-gray vest. He was a fine, handsome-looking man, and Klaus looked at him with joy and longing. The brownish color of his face gave him a noble look, his eyes were black like a magnet, and his limbs of extraordinary beauty. Although he was clothed, Klaus could see his limbs. As Klaus was looking at him so raptly, the wayfarer also looked back at him. In this moment, great miracles occurred: Mount Pilatus collapsed to the ground and was completely flat; the earth opened up; Klaus thought he could see the sins of the whole world. A huge throng of people appeared to him, and behind them appeared the truth, but all the people had turned their backs on it. In their hearts, Klaus saw a great sickness, a tumor as big as two fists. This sickness was egotism, by which people were so seduced that they were unable to bear the sight of the man (of truth), “no more than people can stand fire.” In great confusion, fear, and shame, they ran hither and thither, and finally fled; “but the truth remained there.”
Then the countenance of the wayfarer transformed “like a veronica,” and Klaus had a great longing to see more of him. He saw him again as before, but his clothing had changed, and he stood before him in a bearskin with coat and pants. The fur was spangled with golden color, but Klaus saw clearly that it was a bearskin. The bearskin was very becoming to the pilgrim, and Klaus recognized his extraordinary beauty. As he stood before the wayfarer, so noble in the bearskin, Klaus saw that the figure wished to bid him farewell. Klaus asked him, “Where do you want to go?” and he replied, “I want to go up country” and would say no more. As he departed, Klaus stared after him and saw that the bearskin shone on him as when someone moves a brightly polished sword back and forth and the reflection of it is seen on the walls. And Klaus thought that this was something whose meaning would remain hidden from him. When the wayfarer had gone maybe four steps, he turned around, took off his hat, and bowed to Klaus. Then Klaus realized that the wayfarer bore him such love that he was quite stricken and had to confess that he was not deserving of this great love. Then he saw that this love was in the wayfarer. And he saw that his spirit, his face, his eyes, his whole body was full of this elevated love (Minne), like a vessel that is filled to the brim with honey. Then he could no longer see the wayfarer, but he was so fulfilled that he no longer desired anything from him. It seemed to him that the wayfarer had revealed to him “everything that was between heaven and earth.”
“Many hours were necessary for the interpretation of this great vision. Here I [Dr. von Franz] can go into a few of its essential aspects. This pilgrim is clearly and image for what Jung called the Self (as opposed to the ego). That is, it is Klaus’s eternal inner spiritual core, something like the “inner Christ” that is described in the writings of the mystics. But although the pilgrim sings the biblical “Hallelujah” (God be praised), his clothes characterize him more as Wotan, the Germanic god of war, of truth, of ecstasy, and of shamanic wisdom. In accordance with a number of myths, Wotan dressed in a gray-blue cloak and a broad-brimmed hat. With his flaming eyes, he looked like a nobleman. Other myths recount that he could continuously change his form. For this reason, he was also called Svipall, “the changeable,” or Grimmir, “the masked one,” and Tveggi, “the twofold.” In Klaus’s vision he comes from the direction of the sunrise, that symbolic location from which arise new enlightenments and revelations of the collective unconscious. This frame of reference is also reflected in expressions like “an idea dawned on me.”
In the further course of the vision, the wayfarer appears behind the backs of people as truth personified. Wotan also had the epithet Sannr, “true.” He is supposed to have had second sight, and according to some sagas, he could open up all the mountains and see and “take what was inside” (Snorri Sturluson). In Christianity, the Holy Ghost is the spirit of truth, but here it curiously fused with the ancient Germanic god of love (Minne) and spiritual devotion. This pilgrim gives Klaus the feeling that he knows what Jung called the “absolute knowledge” of the unconscious, which characterizes many experiences of the Self.
Yet he also confers on Klaus something more, that is, the feeling of boundless love, described as the brimming vessel, overflowing with honey. The honey motif recalls a verse in the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, which says: “This Self is honey for all beings. For this Self all beings are honey. And that which in this Self is that atman—that is, that purusha that arises out of light energy, out of the deathless—is that very primordial Atman, Deathlessness, Brahman. It is the universe. And verily is the Self the lord of all beings, the king of all beings. And just as all the spokes are held in the axle and the rim of a wheel, so all beings and all these selves (of the earth, of the water, etc.) are held in the Self.” In India, madhu (honey) symbolizes the contact of all beings in the universe with the Self, the anthropos (purusha); that means as Max Muller has explained, an objective, complete, and mutual interdependence or connectedness of all things—which is what Jung called “objective knowledge” as opposed to subjective love, which is full of projections and ego-oriented wishes.
The most striking and most unorthodox motif in this vision of Brother Klaus, however, is that of the bearskin worn by the pilgrim. This detail once again points to Wotan, who among his other epithets, as the god of the berserkers is also called Hrammi, “bear paw.” In the Old Testament, the bear represents the dark side of Yahweh, and among the northern shamans, the bear is the most common of the “helping spirits” or allies. In most of the countries of northern Europe the bear was formerly regarded as so sacred that it was spoken of only as “father,” “sacred man,” “sacred woman,” “wise father,” “goldfoot,” and so on.
For the ancient Germans, wearing a bearskin meant one was a berisekr, a berserker. The ability to become a berserker was a parapsychological gift that was hereditary in certain Germanic warrior families. It manifested as a divine ecstasy, a kind of sacred wrath. It was said of such men that they fell in a swoon to the ground as though they were dead, and at this point their soul left their body in the form of a bear. Then it went raging into battle, slaying all foes, sometimes, however, also its own people by accident. The basic state of mind in this “going berserk” was called grimr, which amounts to something like “fury” or “rage.” Going berserk was also called hamfong, that is, changing one’s skin or form as well as one’s shadow or protecting spirit. In sum it can be said that the bear aspect of the holy pilgrim in Klaus’s vision represents the dangerous and uncanny animal shadow of the Self.” (pp.39-42)
Von Franz goes on to quote Jung in regard to Brother Klaus’s vision, noting that the Divine often presents itself in dreams and visions in its theriomorphic forms. These numinous properties reach up into the heights and also down into the depths. The inner Christ appears in two forms, the pilgrim, and also as a bear. The golden luster of the fur alludes to the alchemical “new sun” or new knowledge. Jung continues:
“The meaning of the vision could be this. Brother Klaus recognizes himself in his spiritual pilgrimhood and in his instinctive (bearlike, i.e., hermitlike) subhumanness as Christ. . . . The brutal coldness of feeling that the saint requires to separate himself from woman and child, and friendship is found in the subhuman animal kingdom. Thus the saint casts an animal shadow. . . . He who is capable of bearing the highest and the lowest together is hallowed, holy, whole. The vision is telling him that the spiritual pilgrim and the berserker are both Christ, and this paves the way in him for forgiveness of the greatest sin, which is sainthood.” Later in his life Niklaus had a vision of God’s wrath that horrified him, “for this wrath applied to he who had betrayed his dearest ones and ordinary people for the sake of God.” (Letters, p. 449f.)
Von Franz concludes her analysis with this paragraph. “The Christ-berserker in Brother Klaus’s vision thus unites irreconcilable opposites, that is, subhuman savagery and Christian spirituality, the frenzy of war and Christian agape, the love of humanity. Only because Klaus could make room for this figure within himself was he capable of reconciling these opposites in the outer world, of convincing his compatriots to adopt a peaceful solution rather than letting themselves be carried away into a civil war.” (p. 43)
And that is probably why Saint Niklaus should be the patron saint of psychology. He was able to hold the opposites within himself. This is a tall order, but one which we must all strive to attain, if we are to become whole.