The bishop stands watching as the two workmen cement the stones into position. Course by course, each row gradually adding to the height of the whole, the stones rise from the cold floor of the church interior. But the bishop’s gaze is not so much focused on the activity of the workmen as it is upon the woman who is gradually being lost to view behind the rising wall of stones.
The woman is dressed in a loose garment of coarsely-woven cloth, and is seated on a simple wooden stool with her hands resting calmly in her lap. Her eyes do not meet the bishop’s gaze, but instead are directed towards the flagstones on the floor. The few paces of space that separate the woman from the bishop seem vaster than reality, as if she already is lost to the world beyond her increasingly limited view. The workmen work on, until only the top of the woman’s head is visible above the highest course of stones. Then only the far wall of stones is dimly seen in the darkness beyond, and then… nothing. The bishop affixes his seal to the masonry. At the age of thirty Sister Bertken has begun her life of voluntary seclusion, walled-up in a cell less than four meters square: a life of prayer and meditation that she will follow for the rest of her days.
These preparations of final commitment are actually a culmination of what has come before, for the bishop has previously listened attentively to the sister’s wish to be voluntarily incarcerated before giving his permission, satisfying himself that her commitment is one that is driven by faith and devotional service alone. A small aperture in the stones which aligns with the church altar has been left so that Sister Bertken may follow the services, and another opening at the rear of the cell allows for the necessary food to be passed through to her – and presumably also for the equally necessary emptying of the chamber pot with which she has been provided. She is allowed neither meat nor dairy products, and her food is of the simplest fare. Her bed is a palette on the floor. She wears no shoes, and is allowed only the comparative luxury of a pelt of fur in winter to stave off the freezing cold from the flagstones beneath her naked feet.
We are in the city of Utrecht in the Netherlands of the 15th-century, and Sister Bertken, born Berta Jacobsdochter, is not the only recluse to have herself walled up alive in such a way. It seems that such recluses strove to emulate the examples of the recluses of former centuries who chose to abandon their former lives for the solitary privations of the desert. In northern Europe there are no vast desert wildernesses, so solitude was sought in the hearts of the cities – and what more profound solitude is there than a small dark cell with no way out? We know some of the names of these other walled-up recluses, but Sister Bertken has become the best-known of them because of what she bequeathed to posterity.
Sister Bertken’s seclusion appears to have been more productive than most. She was allowed to spin yarn, and apparently at some time she was granted access to writing materials, because her works have survived in printed form to come down to us: a volume about the suffering Christ, and a collection which includes a number of prayers, a dialogue of the soul’s mystic marriage with Christ as the ‘bridegroom’, and eight hymns. And it seems that Sister Bertken’s activities were not confined to her writings and meditations. Over the years many would come to her cell, whispering their stories to her through the tiny aperture in the stones, asking her advice about the things which were troubling them – and in turn receiving that advice. It seems that the advice of the recluse became both valued and respected – and acted upon.
But what also sets Sister Bertken apart is the astonishing length of time of her seclusion. She was walled up inside the Buur Church in 1457, and remained within the sealed walls of her small cell until her death on June 25, 1514: a near-incomprehensible total of fifty-seven years of voluntary incarceration. Her birth year was either 1426 or 1427, making her perhaps eighty-seven years of age at the time of her death. Her seclusion, as we know, was an entirely voluntary one. We also know that she herself paid for the construction of her cell within the church with an inheritance from her father, and that this inheritance, although she was born out of wedlock, must have given her some social standing.
Historians have attempted to unravel what Sister Bertken’s motives might have been for such a willing incarceration, with little conclusive success. As with Mary of Egypt, Sister Bertken’s predecessor and perhaps also her example, who subjected herself to forty-seven years of pitiless hardships of isolation in the Jordanian desert, merely to dismiss her incarceration as crazy or misguided seems hardly adequate. Her life in confinement demonstrates that she was both wise and articulate with her experiences and sympathetic to others.
But to say that Sister Bertken’s actions were motivated by simple faith is to presume that we know what ‘faith’ actually is. We think that we can discern faith by the outward actions of someone, and we ascribe those actions to faith, and the term is so familiar that there is a general assumption that we understand it. But we do not. Not really. When it comes to such extreme examples as Mary of Egypt and Sister Bertken we have arrived at the threshold of the unknown, and are left to wonder.
There is a tradition that Sister Bertken was buried beneath the floor of her cell. Perhaps this seems fitting, for even in death, how after so many decades of confinement could she return to the outside world, even for her own burial? But all traces of her cell in the Buur Church have now long disappeared, and its precise location remains unknown. The time-worn flagstones keep their secrets well, as does the elusive mystery that we call faith.
Ick voelde in mij een vonkelkijn
Het roert so dic dat herte mijn
Daer wil ick wel op waken
Die min vermach des altemael
Een vuur daeraf te maken.
I felt a tiny spark within
It reached into this heart of mine
And I will guard its light
The spark that love will kindle
To a fire burning bright.
~ Sister Bertken (verse translation from the 15th-century Dutch by Hawkwood)
 Portrayals of Sister Bertken traditionally depict her in her nun’s habit, although the simple clothing that she wore while in her cell was as I have described here.
 Sister Agnes was walled-up in the Geerte Church, Alyt Ponciaens in the Jacobi Church, and Peter Gijsberts in the Predikheren Church in the same cell which his sister had previously occupied. All these churches are in Utrecht.
 Curiously, the format of this dialogue is similar to some Gnostic texts. Since this is perhaps the most mystic of Sister Bertken’s works we are left to speculate that, as with the writings of Julian of Norwich and other Christian mystics, these themes tend to converge at a common point of revelation whatever their original radius of belief, which in turn leads us to speculate that even beliefs which might seem distant from each other have a common truth. But it is the deeper truth of mysticism, not the fixed doctrinal language of orthodoxy.
 Please see my post Isis in Paris for more about this dramatic event.
 Please see my post Mary of Egypt: A Heart in the Wilderness to read the remarkable life story of this desert recluse. As with Sister Bertken, Mary (left) began her life as a recluse at the age of thirty, although her life up to that point could not have provided a more extreme contrast to her years of solitude. It is in the lives of these extreme examples of faith-motivated privations that we are confronted with what faith itself might mean, and how faith manifests itself in such situations. But while we can see the outward manifestations of faith in such lives as those of Mary and Sister Bertken, what faith truly is becomes a less certain mystery.
Utrecht: Middeleeuwse Kerkenstad (Utrecht: Medieval City of Churches). Werkgroep PPP, 1988.
Additional material from the Koningklijke Bibliotheek, Nationale Bibliotheek van Nederland (webpage in Dutch). Interior of the Buurkerk in Utrecht by Pieter-Janszoon Saenredam in the collection of the National Gallery, London. Photo of the commemorative plaque on the Maartensbrug, Utrecht, by Kattenkruid. Photo of Katrien Baerts in the role of Sister Bertken by Hans van den Bogaard. Imagined portrait of Sister Bertken painted for this post by Hawkwood for the David Bergen Studio, © All Rights Reserved.