Dreams and Visions of St. Niklaus Van Der Flue by Marie-Louise Von Franz
The Dreams and Visions of St. Niklaus von der Flue By M. L. von Franz, Ph. D.
This is not a verbatim report.
The lectures have been written up from notes taken at the Course, and though Frau Dr. von Franz has glanced through them briefly, it has not been possible for her to do more.
I have tried to be as accurate as possible but am responsible for any errors in reporting.
Lecture 1 Jung Institute May 8, 1957.
On reading the title of my lecture you might wonder what a Swiss local peasant has to
do with Jungian psychology, but I hope by the end of the Course, when you have
studied the life of this most interesting personality, that-you will see that he is an amazing example of an individual who went through the process of individuation in a very difficult situation and in his own very lonely way.
If we ask ourselves what a saint is psychologically, we naturally involuntarily look further back in history and compare the saints of the Christian Church with the medicine men priests of many primitive and semi-primitive civilizations.
At a Congress of Psychotherapists and Theologians in Germany this spring a discussion arose over the problem as to whether we should once more have priest-doctors.
That is a big problem.
On the one hand theologians in practicing the cura animarum naturally come up against the problems of the psychotherapists, while the psychologists, on the other hand, encounter religious problems in the souls of their patients, and so the two fields intersect giving rise to certain difficulties.
A theological professor at the Congress stated, for instance, that he had recommended meditation exercises to a small group and that one of the participants had had a rather dangerous break-down and had rung him up at midnight in an awful state and the poor theologian had had a terrible time.
A psychotherapist said that what we really needed once more was the original type of personality of the “priest medicine-man”, which aroused a storm in both fields represented.
So you see, this is a very modern problem.
Actually, if we go back in history we do know that in primitive societies generally the function of the religious priest and that of the psychotherapist was usually united in the one person of the medicine man or Shaman, for primitive healing is mainly psychic.
In M. Eliade’s book Le Shamanisme you find innumerable examples where the medicine man, called the Shaman in the circumpolar tribes, are usually individuals who of necessity and for inner reasons were forced to go into their own unconscious and meet certain tremendous experiences, thereby becoming Shamans.
This type of medicine-man is especially interesting because there is a minimum of learnt tradition and no literature, so there is the maximum of undirected inner experience.
Though in certain tribes the function is inherited and goes from father to son, in others people become Shamans because the spirits have called them, and the diagnosis is usually reached very early in their lives.
If a young man at the time of puberty, or before, tends to isolate himself, or become melancholy, and is unable to take part in tribal practices, it is suspected that he should become a Shaman, and one of the older men of the tribe accepts him as an apprentice and introduces him to the known traditions.
One Shaman, as a young man, was in such a situation and was told by an older man to dig a hole in the snow and sit there for over three weeks, practically without food, as the old man only brought him a cup of warm water and a very small piece of meat daily, and there he had to remain without any further instructions.
After a state of inner crisis he had a vision of a beautiful woman who promised to guide him.
When he told the old man this the latter said that that was what had been expected, and that the woman of the vision would teach the young man the rest.
The old man had just helped him on his way and he was afterwards left to his own inner experiences.
Many ethnologists say that you cannot distinguish these Shamans from pathological and hysterical people.
But among them there are just as many strong and healthy persons as elsewhere, including good hunters and well adapted people, and it might be better to ask the Golds or Jughakirs their opinion, because they do know the difference and their definition seems to me better than any we can make from the outside.
They say that there is a certain parallel, because pathological people are possessed by demons, but they remain possessed, while the Shaman, though also possessed, finds a way of curing himself.
The one becomes a Shaman and the other is a fool for the former instead of succumbing has found a way to do something positive.
There are great and small, male and female Shamans.
There are small female Shamans who assist at childbirth and who help little children, but cannot deal with other problems.
One young Shaman, after some initiation experiences, asked his teacher how far one could go in becoming a greater Shaman and was told that it depended partly on the will of the gods, and partly on how much he himself was willing to suffer because all progress depended on the amount of suffering which could be accepted, for each initiation meant another step in suffering.
The African and Australian medicine men present the same situation.
Eliade describes the same symptoms here of an individual becoming melancholy, etc., and of being “called”, and of then having to deal with his inner problems.
I shall return to this later, but wanted here only to point out that the idea of the priest-healer is found all over the world.
If we now look at our special European historical tradition, you will see that the whole idea of saints in the Catholic Church has the same psychological roots.
The worship of Catholic saints goes back to the early days of Christianity and derives directly from the worship of martyrs among the early Christians.
The crowd tried to get possession of the bodies of martyrs and distribute parts of the body, with the idea that some of the healing mystery of this individual Christian might remain in them, or in their clothing, or their books, so they distributed or sold such things.
They tried to get at the mana.
Before the 10th century there was no official organized canonization of saints as we know it, but from then on the Church decided that indiscriminate worship, such as then existed, should be checked, and that it should not be left to the masses to choose and worship people as saints, but that this should be decided by the Vatican.
Previously it had been the unconscious mana and the personality of the Christian martyrs which had had such an effect on other people that they were worshipped during their lifetime, as well as after their death.
Churches were built over their tombs and relics, and miracles occurred at their graves.
If we enquire where the strange tendency comes from, that out-standing impressive personalities who died for their faith were worshipped even after their death, you will find that it goes back to pagan antiquity.
It can be traced back through Greek history and the cult of the tombs of heroes in the different Greek countries back to the Mycenaean and even to the Stone Age.
In most places like Olympia, Delphi, Delos, etc., we find the tomb of a “divine hero” who was worshipped like a god.
What precisely happened in these places we do not know, we only know that there was a cult with games and sport and that great sacrifices were offered and in some places oracles were established, for it was believed that the dead heroes would send dreams or give other signs for the guidance of living people.
In Epidaurus, for instance, there is the tomb of Maleas where the oracles were consulted before the incubation dreams were started.
Though we know so little about the Greek cult of dead heroes the interesting thing is that these heroes were, in the ordinary sense of the word, men who had performed outstanding deeds and after their death were held to be equivalent to the gods with whom they have been directly identified; here there is the idea of a human personality who, in some way, is divine, or even a god.
In Olympia where there was the tomb of Pelops, there was also the tomb of the “unknown hero” and you can still see the excavated foundation of it, it is a circle within a square, a wonderful mandala.
The worship of the divine man, or the unknown hero, is an archetypal idea of which you find traces all over Greece and it is this which is the foundation of the strange behavior of the early Christians who started the same thing in the worship of the martyrs and so continued the tradition.
If we deal with the problem of the saints from this more psychological angle we run as you see into strange depths and a great many problems.
In certain anti-Catholic Protestant literature the worship of saints in the Catholic
Church is condemned as a sort of pagan polytheism.
The Church actually always had some difficulty in defining a saint and in establishing the exact amount of worship due to saints.
A saint may not be worshipped, but may intercede for you with God.
Such rules constituted an attempt by the theologians to bring order into what had become an established practice by which people could have immediate contact with a divine figure.
If we then study the different Christian saints, especially those canonized after the 10th century, about whom we have personal documents, it will be observed that the earlier saints chosen by the people are more “medicine men” personalities, while many of the officially chosen saints are rather of intellectual or “political” importance.
Still the older type continued too and our St. Niklaus von der Flue belongs definitely to the former type.
He was elected a saint by the simple people and only canonized much later.
The conditions for canonization were that the saint must be of outstanding personality, must have shown a heroic attitude, have possessed outstanding moral and spiritual qualities, and that posthumous miracles must have taken place at the tomb.
Therefore nobody could be canonized during lifetime, not even the most saintly person.
As might be expected, those people chosen by the simple folk and popular tradition show more similarity with the primitive characteristics which we can study in the traditions of pagan peoples.
They are closer to the archetype of the medicine man or the Shaman than those who have been canonized for their theological merit.
This is a personal valuation, but this type of saint seems to me to be more interesting because he has the characteristics of being genuine and more rooted in this earthly reality and less “spiritual”, in one sense of the word.
I have therefore chosen to study more deeply this Swiss saint, St. Niklaus von der Flue, because it seems to me that of all the saints whose biography I know, his is one of the most genuine.
Most saints, as you know, have had personal experiences and visions, which are worked over with the Father Confessor, since the Church does not publish them in their entirety and original form.
St. Theresa of Avila, for example, worked over her visions with her Father Confessor and the human side in them has been to a great extent excluded. St. Niklaus, who was such a small local saint, had the good fortune to find a sympathetic Father Confessor in his parish so that his visions were written down as he had them, but the manuscript was lost in a Swiss monastery and has only recently turned up again.
With it we have a genuine document of his inner experience and can trace the course he followed, with the visions in their original unrevised form.
It is said that the Church does not very much like the visions of saints, but they emphasize the moral and ethical merits of the personality.
The Church is probably as helpless as we are in the interpretation of visions and therefore some theologians prefer to ignore them.
It is the tendency of our time not to take these things seriously and not to be able to understand them.
Seventy years ago someone wrote to the Pope about St. Niklaus’ visions, saying that they should be officially interpreted, and received a positive reply, but, so far, no interpretation and no official publication has appeared showing how the Vatican would judge the visions of such a saint.
They, however, constitute a genuine picture of his inner life.
As a Catholic publication, I can warmly recommend to you a book by M. B. Lavaud: La Vie Profonde de St. Niklaus von der Flue for, of Catholic biographers Lavaud goes most into the visions and his interpretations, on the whole, are very remarkable, though he brushes aside those which he does not understand.
The book is out of print but there is a copy in the library.
In Protestant literature, I would recommend Fritz Blanke’s Bruder Klaus von Flue.
Blanke wrote from the more personal standpoint and also makes an attempt at psychological interpretation, though not very adequately, but the biography is good. (The book is obtainable from the Evangelist Bookshop, Sihlstrasse 33, Zurich, price Fcs. 6.05.)
In English literature I cannot yet recommend any publication, they are all of the type of sentimental biography, benevolent and nice, but meaningless for us.
As you know, Professor Jung has frequently referred to the visions of St. Niklaus, and
wrote an article which appeared in the Neue Schweizer Rundschau (August 1933, No. 4) and has also written about him in his book Von den Wurzeln des Bewusstseins.
<The Roots of Consciousness>
If we apply the methods of interpretation of Jungian psychology to this material, without prejudice, i.e. if we look at the visions as at the dreams of a modern analysand, it will be discovered that there is a tremendous number of pagan motifs in them which cannot be disputed and which clearly go back to the roots of old pagan Germanic representations.
Niklaus came of Germanic roots and the archetypes came up in this special form in his unconscious.
This might be expected, and in itself would not be interesting, but there is another fact which fascinated me, namely that the purely pagan elements in the visions are built into the Christian images in a way which makes it impossible to interpret them only in a reductive way; you cannot say that you have there the Christian symbols with certain roots belonging to an earlier time, but you will get the impression, I hope, that in the unconscious of this saint there is a tendency to bring up pagan symbols and merge them with the Christian symbols in a way which gives both a new character so that we have to ask not “Why” he has Germanic representations, but “For what purpose.”
Why does the unconscious produce such a creative reorganization of inner Christian symbolism by relating it in a strange manner with pagan symbolism and what is its mysterious aim in this case, and then, I hope we shall come to interesting conclusions.
Before I begin to interpret the visions, I want to give you a short sketch of the time and of the historical situation in the 15th century in which St. Niklaus von der Flue lived. In the inner nucleus of our Swiss country where this saint was born and lived, a peculiar struggle was taking place in the 15th century which one could describe in the following way.
The Swiss, in the wars of Sempach, had freed themselves from the Austrian Habsburg rule and had substituted the first nucleus of democratic self-government.
They had taken away the land from the Austrian and German nobility and had distributed it among the peasants so that instead of large estates owned by the nobility, there were small lots owned by free peasants who now, instead of growing corn, turned to breeding cattle and making cheese.
This began in the 15th century and involved the need for an export market for the cheese and cattle to enable the import of other necessities, which resulted in an extension of commercial activities across the Gotthard into northern Italy towards the south over the Alps.
Several attempts were made at settlement, but the Tessin is the only part which has remained Swiss, and, as you know, Mussolini claimed that that should be taken back by Italy.
At the same time, the Swiss also became famous as mercenaries in other countries.
This is a habit which still persists and still causes trouble, inasmuch as rather wild young Swiss run away and are mercenaries abroad and have to be put in prison when they return.
The Swiss mercenaries were known as brave and loyal but cruel soldiers, and they demanded high wages.
But the neglect of their own country while they served as mercenaries in Europe did not have a good repercussion on Switzerland.
It also led to Swiss soldiers fighting against their own countrymen.
Also the constant sojourn in strange countries often demoralized the men.
They, for example, collected corpses after the battles and melted out the fat which they sold for good prices – something which is not told in schools, but which is true.
This demoralization brought about a difficult situation at home.
Swiss citizenship was sold to rather dubious people and criminals and it was a point of honour to defend such persons against the Austrians.
Ordinary criminals, later proved to have thieved or murdered, were accepted as Swiss citizens and their defense almost led to further wars.
The Swiss were such good soldiers and valued so highly by fighting powers in Europe, that the demand for them had the disastrous effect that there was the possibility that this little democracy in the heart of Europe might disappear.
Added to the above difficulties, was the fact that the Catholic Church was constantly
involved in worldly quarrels and by that lost much of its authority.
Efforts were being made to break away from the worldly rule of the Church and its jurisdiction was in jeopardy.
If a monastery had a disagreement, say about a meadow, with a neighboring peasant, a neutral board gave the decision, the Church being merely one of the parties in the case.
Internal quarrels within the Church had also to be settled by a Board. But often should the Church be defeated in a dispute with another country, perhaps over taxes, then it would retaliate by excommunicating that country with the result that that place had no local priest.
Such situations inclined people to doubt the authority of the Church all-together.
From this condition the Reformation afterwards profited, but for individuals for whom their religion was of great importance, the situation was extremely difficult.
It was at this time of political and economic crisis, in the year 1417, that the little peasant boy, Niklaus von der Flue, was born in Sachseln.
He had to be taken a considerable distance for baptism because, there having been a dispute about the dues for a newly appointed priest, his birthplace had been excommunicated.
St. Niklaus’s father, Heinrich von der Flue, was a well-to-do peasant of good standing and respected by the people around him.
St. Niklaus had visions from the very beginning of his life. A certain Heiny am Grund,
or Haimo, a man of a good local family and at that time priest at Kriens and Stans,
was St. Niklaus’ Father Confessor, and it was to him that St. Niklaus went whenever
he was in trouble about his inner visions.
As this priest was tactful enough not to interfere but only to listen and give St. Niklaus general advice as to meditation exercises, and so to allow his inner development to take place without too much guidance, St. Niklaus had great confidence in him.
The notes taken by Heiny am Grund of the visions were later of great importance when the saint was canonized. St. Niklaus says that from childhood he had a great veneration for the vocation of a priest and that when he saw one it was as though he saw an angel of God approaching.
Psychologically, we can say that he projected a father figure and the image of his own future greater personality onto the priest and to Heiny he had a kind of father transference.
Heiny says that St. Niklaus told him that he had visions when in his mother’s womb and had seen a small star in heaven which had illuminated the whole world and that later in life in his loneliness he had often seen a similar star.
He interpreted this as meaning that one day he would spread such a light in the world.
Be had also seen a big stone, and the holy oil.
The stone, he said, referred to the stability and strength of his own being, and that he would always stand steadfast to this.
When he was born into this world he had recognized his mother and the midwife and all the other people in his surroundings at once and had remembered exactly how he had been carried to Kerns for his baptism within the first three days of his life and how there he had also seen an old man whom he did not know, though he had recognized the priest.
He thus saw four things, three before his birth: the star, the stone, and the holy oil, and, at his baptism, the old man, whom nobody knew.
This first vision, or visions, naturally give modern commentators great trouble since it is not known that children have visions in the mother’s womb and, from a biological standpoint, this is very unlikely.
Most Catholic commentators either ignore the vision or say that it must be taken symbolically.
Few have the courage to say that it was a miracle.
We have no other records of children’s visions when in the mother’s womb, but it is a rather wide-spread mythological tradition with many Red Indians and in African folk-lore there are reports of the hero having experiences in the mother’s womb and being able to speak to the mother there.
We could therefore say that it is a mythological though not a biological fact.
I do not think that St. Niklaus invented the visions, but I have another hypothesis, for I have heard of people having dreams about things which happened before they were born.
These are very impressive, archetypal dreams and in the 15th century such dreams were generally taken naively and literally as actual fact.
Therefore I think it is probable that St. Niklaus had had a dream in which he had seen the star, stone and oil, and he took it as a fact, which would be quite legitimate.
In Jeremiah I, 4:5, the prophet says: “…the word of the Lord came unto me, saying: Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee, and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.”
Here there is the idea of the announcement of the vocation before birth.
St. John the Baptist also “leaped in his mother’s womb” when Elisabeth, his mother, heard the salutation of the Virgin Mary, which would be a Christian parallel.
We could therefore take the statement of St. Niklaus as symbolically true.
It was a vocation dream, the motif of the heroic life, for the birth of the hero is announced by a star appearing in heaven.
The four symbols of star, stone, oil, and the unknown old man also show the typical structure of the totality, with the fourth holding a different position.
The first three are impersonal and the fourth has human personality.
That a star announces the birth of an outstanding personality is instanced in the Bible where the star of Bethlehem announced the birth of Christ to the three wise men.
In many civilizations you meet the idea that the human soul was a star before birth and becomes one again after death.
The Egyptians speak of the Ba, which for them is a symbol of the nucleus of the pre-conscious individual personality.
The Ba is represented either by a human-headed bird, or by a little flame, or by the picture of a star.
In Egypt, after death, man becomes Ba-like, and one of the circumpolar stars which never set and are eternally visible; they represent immortality, for if you have become one of these stars you have attained immortality and circle around heaven in happiness.
This is an example of the idea of the personality being a star before and after death.
The Fathers of the Church say that the stars represent the saints because they surround Christ.
In this Christian parallel, there is a nuance of poetical allegory, while the Egyptian still has the full meaning, for they really believed that the person was connected with a star.
Children also often have this fantasy of being connected with a star.
Much later, St. Niklaus had a vision that four lights like candles came from heaven and showed him where he should live, but in this first stage the star is far away in the sky.
In dreams something often happens in heaven and such dreams are difficult to interpret because people say that they do not see where the symbol connects with them.
It generally means that they must wait and refers to a later period in life for it cannot connect until it has entered the field of one’s personal reality – in heaven it is very far away.
The star announces the principle of individuation in the case of this peasant boy.
Apparently from the very first he had the possibility of becoming an individual personality.
The second symbol is the big stone, or rock. It is interesting to note that the name “von der Flue” means “from the rock.” “Flue” is an old Germanic name and the “von” means “from” and is a local designation.
In the arms of the family there is a rock with a roebuck standing on it.
Klaus himself said that the stone represented the firmness and the stability of his own being, and that he would never give up his inner vocation.
He actually interpreted it as we too would interpret the stone in a dream, as that part of the psyche which is incorruptible.
Stone symbolism occurs frequently in alchemy and those who have read Psychology and Alchemy will know something of the tremendous meaning of the symbol of the stone.
I would therefore like to remind you shortly of what Dr. Jung says in Von den Wurzeln des Bewusstseins which has not yet been translated and in which he sums up in a few pages most of the essentials of the symbolism of the stone.
He says that according to the alchemists it represents the inner, spiritual man, whom the alchemists tried to free from matter.
They had the idea that within the chemical matter with which they experimented there was a divine man who had to be freed through their heating – or cooking – process.
Therefore the stone, Jung says, is for the alchemist the God of the Macrocosm in matter.
We are accustomed to think of matter as being dead, inorganic, without any psyche or divine element in it, and it is difficult for us to adjust our minds to this medieval attitude.
But the alchemists had the idea that a part of the divinity dwelt in matter and, that everything which is responsible for the strange and mysterious behavior of matter is due to a divine soul living in it – the god does not live outside but is, so to speak, buried in matter, and it is man’s task to free him.
Every human being is the potential carrier, and even creator of the philosopher’s stone.
We could say that the stone is an image of God, and a parallel to Christ.
This means that the image of Christ according to the alchemist’s feeling is apparently too spiritual, too far away – an ideal figure which we cannot live up to for it is too far removed from our everyday existence.
The alchemists also said that if Christ redeemed human beings, why did he not also redeem animals and plants?
Such naive and popular reactions are rather understandable and represent the psychological criticism of the god-man (Anthropos) as too far away from our earthly existence and troubles, and from this tendency the alchemists ventured to build up another idea of Christ which gives an extension towards the lower side of man.
Their image of a savior adds, as it were, feet to the figure of Christ, to the more material side.
Their stone had all those qualities which the too one-sided image lacked, and still they said that somehow it was Christ.
Jung says that in the alchemistic image of Mercury and the philosopher’s stone the flesh has glorified itself in its own way in that it is not transformed into spirit, but, on the contrary, that there is a fixation of the spirit into material reality.
The Christian idea is that our flesh is redeemed at the end of our days, being transformed into a spiritual body and lifted up to the level of the spirit.
The alchemists produce another idea of salvation, namely that the spirit would be condensed or precipitated like rain into a glorified body which exists here and now and for which we do not have to wait till the end of the world, and which would help us now in this life.
This idea appears in all the different fantasies of the alchemists, so that the stone can be looked upon, as Jung says, as a symbol of the inner Christ, not Christ as an established dogmatic figure, but Christ expressed in the concrete reality of a poor human individual, the god in man.
The stone does not replace the image of Christ, it is rather the crowning touch to what Christ began.
We could not put the symbol of the stone in opposition to the image of Christ, to which the alchemists would have objected, but could say that their idea transcends the idea of Christ by extending the idea of salvation – as though Christ had only touched humanity from above and this would go a step further into our reality and be adapted to our situation.
The idea of the stone as the filius macrocosmi does not come from the known spirit of individual man, but from those psychic fields which end in the mystery of cosmic matter.
This is a very short and cryptic allusion which touches upon a problem about which we do not dare to say too much because scientifically we do not know much about it, but I think one is cowardly not to put things in plain words, but you must take what I say as an hypothesis and speculation and not as scientifically proved.
We are not alone in these speculations which are to be found in modern theoretical physics.
In his studies, Professor Jung has found analogies between the unconscious and this unknown factor and you cannot get away from the idea that depth-psychologists and physicists are describing the same living factor.
One might say that actually we are describing a living mystery which is neither matter nor psyche, but which manifests from one angle as matter and from another as the psyche.
A young man, a student of physics, made it his problem, and dreamt that he tried to look at his own inner psyche to see it from outside, not as body but as psyche.
In the dream, by a tremendous effort, he did this and saw his psyche, and it was a metal statue of a human being.
He touched it and it gave a wonderful sound, but he could not stand the effort and swung back.
There you have the idea that if you could look at the unconscious from the outside it would look like matter.
We observe it by looking into the subject, but we are touching on the same living problem.
The alchemists were searching in the same direction and had ideas which are very similar to what we observe in modern man.
Among the Australian aborigines there exists the idea that before birth the souls of children live in so-called child stones.
They think the child souls enter the women and so impregnate them.
This idea of magic stones, Jung continues, exists not only in Australia and Melanesia, but also in India and Burma, and even in Europe.
In the old Germanic civilization they put a stone with a hole in it on the tombs and thought the souls of the dead would live in them and from them be reborn again.
There you see the parallel of the stone and the star, both being the personality before and after death.
In one tradition it is a star, and in another a stone – the symbols overlap, but there is one tremendous difference between the two, for the stone is on earth and you can touch it. Therefore St. Niklaus sees first the star, and then the stone, afterwards the oil and last the old man – the Self approaches him slowly in four big steps.
It is a very deep first vision. ~Marie-Louise von Franz, The Dreams and Visions of St. Niklaus von der Flue, Page 1-9