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Psychology and Religion: West and East (The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Volume 11)

Nicholas of Flüe, from the altar piece of the local parish church in Sachseln.


474 Before me lies a little book by Father Alban Stoeckli on the Visions of the Blessed Brother Klaus.2 Let the reader not be alarmed. Though a psychiatrist takes up his pen, it does not necessarily mean that he is going to set about this venerable figure with the profane instrument of psychopathology. Psychiatrists have committed enough sins already and have put their science to the most unsuitable uses. Nothing of the kind is to happen here: no diagnosis or analysis will be undertaken, no significant hints of pathological possibilities will be dropped, and no attempt will be made to bring the Blessed Nicholas of Flue anywhere near a psychiatric clinic. Hence it must seem all the stranger to the reader that the reviewer of the book is a physician. I admit this fact is difficult to explain to anyone who does not know my unfashionable view on visions and the like. In this respect I am a good deal less sophisticated and more conservative than the so-called educated public, whose philosophical perplexity is such that it sighs with relief when visions are equated with hallucinations, delusional ideas, mania, and schizophrenia, or whatever else these morbid things may be called, and are reduced to the right denominator by some competent authority. Medically, I can find nothing wrong with Brother Klaus. I see him as a somewhat unusual but in no wise pathological person, a man after my own heart: my brother Klaus. Rather remote, to be sure, at this distance of more than four hundred years, separated by culture and creed, by those fashionable trifles which we always think constitute a world. Yet they amount to no more than linguistic difficulties, and these do not impede understanding of the essentials. So little, in fact, that I was able to converse, in the primitive language of inward vision, with a man who in every way was even further removed from me than Brother Klaus a Pueblo Indian, my friend Ochwiabiano (“Mountain Lake”). For what interests us here is not the historical personage, not the well-known figure at the Diet of Stans, but the “friend of God,” who appeared but a few times on the world stage, yet lived a long life in the realms of the soul. Of what he there experienced he left behind only scant traces, so few and inarticulate that it is hard for posterity to form any picture of his inner life.

475 It has always intrigued me to know what a hermit does with himself all day long. Can we still imagine a real spiritual anchorite nowadays, one who has not simply crept away to vegetate in misanthropic simplicity? A solitary fellow, like an old elephant who resentfully defies the herd instinct? Can we imagine a normal person living a sensible, vital existence by himself, with no visible partner?

476 Brother Klaus had a house, wife, and children, and we do not know of any external factors which could have induced him to become a hermit. The sole reason for this was his singular inner life; experiences for which no merely natural grounds can be adduced, decisive experiences which accompanied him from youth up. These things seemed to him of more value than ordinary human existence. They were probably the object of his daily interest and the source of his spiritual vitality. It 3 [The Diet of Stans was a meeting in 1481 of representatives of the Swiss cantons at which disputes between the predominantly rural and the predominantly urban cantons were regulated, and as a result of which largely through the intervention of Nicholas Fribourg and Solothurn became members of the sounds rather like an anecdote from the life of a scholar who is completely immersed in his studies when the so-called “Pilgrim’s Tract” 4 relates: “And he [Brother Klaus] began to speak again and said to me, If it does not trouble you, I would like to show you my book, in which I am learning and seeking the art of this doctrine.* And he brought me a figure, drawn like a wheel with six spokes So evidently Brother Klaus studied some mysterious “doctrine” or other; he sought to understand and interpret the things that happened to him* That the hermit’s activity was a sort of study must also have occurred to Gundolfingen, one of the oldest writers on our subject. He says: “Did he not likewise learn in that High School of the Holy Ghost the representation of the wheel, which he caused to be painted in his chapel, and through which, as in a clear mirror, was reflected the entire essence of the Godhead?” From the same “High School” he derived “his kindness, his doctrine, and his science.”

477 Here we are concerned with the so-called Trinity Vision, which was of the greatest significance for the hermit’s inner life. According to the oldest reports, it was an apparition of light, of surpassing intensity, in the form of a human face. The firsthand reports make no mention of a “wheel.” This seems to have been a subsequent addition for the purpose of clarifying the vision. Just as a stone, falling into calm water, produces wave after wave of circles, so a sudden and violent vision of this kind has long-lasting after-effects, like any shock. And the stranger and more impressive the initial vision was, the longer it will take to be assimilated, and the greater and more persevering will be the efforts of the mind to master it and render it intelligible to human understanding. Such a vision is a tremendous “irruption” in the most literal sense of the word, and it has therefore always been customary to draw rings round it like those made by the falling stone when it breaks the smooth surface of the water.

478 Now what has “irrupted” here, and wherein lies its mighty “impression”? The oldest source, Wolflin’s biography, narrates the following on this score:

All who came to him were filled with terror at the first glance. As to the cause of this, he himself used to say that he had seen a piercing light resembling a human face. At the sight of it he feared that his heart would burst into little pieces. Overcome with terror, he instantly turned his face away and fell to the ground. And that was the reason why his face was now terrible to others. This is borne out by the account which the humanist Karl Bovillus (Charles de Bouelles) gave to a friend in 1508 (some twenty years after the death of Brother Klaus):

I wish to tell you of a vision which appeared to him in the sky, on a night when the stars were shining and he stood in prayer and contemplation. He saw the head of a human figure with a terrifying face, full of wrath and threats. So we shall not go wrong in surmising that the vision was terrifying in the extreme. When we consider that the mental attitude of that age, and in particular that of Brother Klaus, allowed no other interpretation than that this vision represented God himself, and that God signified the summum bonum, Absolute Perfection, then it is clear that such a vision must, by its violent contrast, have had a profound and shattering effect, whose assimilation into consciousness required years of the most strenuous spiritual effort. Through subsequent elaboration this vision then became the so-called Trinity Vision. As Father Stoeckli rightly conjectures, the “wheel” or circles were formed on the basis of, and as parallels to, the illustrated devotional books that were read at the time. As mentioned above, Brother Klaus even seems to have possessed such a book himself. Later, as a result of further mental elaboration, there were added the spokes of the wheel and the six secondary circles, as shown in the old picture of the vision in the parish church at Sachseln.

A plate from the Amtliche Luzerner Chronik of 1513 of Diebold Schilling the Younger, illustrating the events of the Tagsatzung at Stans in 1481. Top: A priest named Heini am Grund visits Niklaus von Flüe to ask him for his advice to save the failing Tagsatzung at Stans, where the delegates of the rural and urban cantons of the Old Swiss Confederacy could not agree and threatened civil war. Bottom: Am Grund returned to the Tagsatzung and related Niklaus’ advice, whereupon the delegates compromised. Am Grund is shown holding back a bailiff who wants to go and spread the good news already: Niklaus’ advice remains secret to this day

479 The vision of light was not the only one which Brother Klaus had. He even thought that, while still in his mother’s womb, he had seen a star that outshone all others in brightness, and later, in his solitude, he saw a very similar star repeatedly. The vision of light had, therefore, occurred several times before in his life. Light means illumination; it is an illuminating idea that “irrupts. Using a very cautious formulation, we could say that the underlying factor here is a considerable tension of psychic energy, evidently corresponding to some very important unconscious content. This content has an overpowering effect and holds the conscious mind spellbound. The tremendous power of the “objective psychic” has been named “demon” or “God” in all epochs with the sole exception of the recent present. We have become so bashful in matters of religion that we correctly say “unconscious,” because God has in fact become unconscious to us. This is what always happens when things are interpreted, explained, and dogmatized until they become so encrusted with man-made images and words that they can no longer be seen. Something similar seems to have happened to Brother Klaus, which is why the immediate experience burst upon him with appalling terror. Had his vision been as charming and edifying as the present picture at Sachseln, no such terror would ever have emanated from it.

480 “God’ is a primordial experience of man, and from the remotest times humanity has taken inconceivable pains either to portray this baffling experience, to assimilate it by means of interpretation, speculation, and dogma, or else to deny it. And again and again it has happened, and still happens, that one hears too much about the “good” God and knows him too well, so that one confuses him with one’s own ideas and regards them as sacred because they can be traced back a couple of thousand years. This is a superstition and an idolatry every bit as bad as the Bolshevist delusion that “God” can be educated out of existence. Even a modern theologian like Gogarten s is quite sure that God can only be good. A good man does not terrify me what then would Gogarten have made of the Blessed Brother Klaus? Presumably he would have had to explain to him that he had seen the devil in person.

481 And here we are in the midst of that ancient dilemma of how such visions are to be evaluated. I would suggest taking every genuine case at its face value. If it was an overwhelming experience for so worthy and shrewd a man as Brother Klaus, then I do not hesitate to call it a true and veritable experience of God, even if it turns out not quite right dogmatically. Great saints were, as we know, sometimes great heretics, so it is probable that anyone who has immediate experience of God is a little bit outside the organization one calls the Church. The Church itself would have been in a pretty pass if the Son of God had remained a law-abiding Pharisee, a point one tends to forget.

482 There are many indubitable lunatics who have experiences of God, and here too I do not contest the genuineness of the experience, for I know that it takes a complete and a brave man to stand up to it. Therefore I feel sorry for those who go under, and I shall not add insult to injury by saying that they tripped up on a mere psychologism. Besides, one can never know in what form a man will experience God, for there are very peculiar things just as there are very peculiar people like those, for instance, who think that one can make anything but a conceptual distinction between the individual experience of God and God himself. It would certainly be desirable to make this distinction, but to do so one would have to know what God is in and for himself, which does not seem to me possible.

483 Brother Klaus’s vision was a genuine primordial experience, and it therefore seemed to him particularly necessary to submit it to a thorough dogmatic revision. Loyally and with great efforts he applied himself to this task, the more so as he was smitten with terror in every limb so that even strangers took fright. The unconscious taint of heresy that probably clings to all genuine and unexpurgated visions is only hinted at in the Trinity Vision, but in the touched-up version it has been successfully eliminated. All the affectivity, the very thing that made the strongest impression, has vanished without a trace, thus affording at least a negative proof of our interpretation.

484 Brother Klaus’s elucidation of his vision with the help of the three circles (the so-called “wheel”) is in keeping with age old human practice, which goes back to the Bronze Age sun wheels (often found in Switzerland) and to the mandalas depicted in the Rhodesian rock-drawings. These sun-wheels may possibly be paleolithic; we find them in Mexico, India, Tibet,and China. The Christian mandalas probably date back to St. Augustine and his definition of God as a circle. Presumably Henry Suso’s notions o the circle, which were accessible to the “Friends of God,” were derived from the same source. But even if this whole tradition had been cut off and no little treatise with mandalas in the margin had ever come to light, and if Brother Klaus had never seen the rose-window of a church, he would still have succeeded in working his great experience into the shape of a circle, because this is what has always happened in every part of the world and still goes on happening today.

485 We spoke above of heresy. In Father Stoeckli’s newly found fragment describing the vision, there is another vision which contains an interesting parallelism. I put the two passages side by side for the sake of comparison:

There came a handsome majestic There came a beautiful majestic man through the palace, with a woman through the palace, also shining colour in his face, and in in a white garment. . . . And a white garment. And he laid she laid both arms on his shoulboth arms on his shoulders and ders and pressed him close to her pressed him close and thanked heart with an overflowing love, him with all the fervent love of because he had stood so faith his heart, because he had stood fully by her son in his need, by Ms son and helped him in his need.

486 It is clear that this is a vision of God the Father and Son, and of the Mother of God. The palace is heaven, where “God the Father” dwells, and also “God the Mother.” In pagan form they are unmistakably God and Goddess, as their absolute parallelism shows. The androgynity of the divine Ground is characteristic of mystic experience. In Indian Tantrism the masculine Shiva and the feminine Shakti both proceed from Brahman, which is devoid of qualities. Man as the son of the Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother is an age-old conception which goes back to primitive times, and in this vision the Blessed Brother Klaus is set on a par with the Son of God. The Trinity in this vision Father, Mother, and Son is very undogmatic indeed. Its nearest parallel is the exceedingly unorthodox Gnostic Trinity: God, Sophia, Christ. The Church, however, has expunged the feminine nature of the Holy Ghost, though it is still suggested by the symbolic dove.

487 It is nice to think that the only outstanding Swiss mystic received, by God’s grace, unorthodox visions and was permitted to look with unerring eye into the depths of the divine soul, where all the creeds of humanity which dogma has divided are united in one symbolic archetype. As I hope Father Stoeckli’s little book will find many attentive readers, I shall not discuss the Vision of the Well, nor the Vision of the Man with the Bearskin, although from the standpoint of comparative symbolism they offer some very interesting aspects for I do not want to deprive the reader of the pleasure of finding out their meaning by himself. ~Carl Jung from Psychology and Religion