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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Woman in the Wall

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.

Sister Bertken. At what point in such a long self-imposed incarceration do the stones of the walls disappear to reveal spaces vaster than any previous imaginings? Sister Bertken’s writings describe encounters with the Spirit which are perhaps less accessible to those who enjoy more everyday freedoms. 
The woman is dressed in a loose [1]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.

The stone plaque on the Maarten’s bridge in Utrecht commemorating Sister Bertken, who is shown absorbed in her writing even as she is being walled in by two stonemasons. Sister Bertken is traditionally portrayed in her nun’s habit, although the clothes which she wore in her cell were of the simplest.
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.

Pages from one of the two published books by Sister Bertken. The title informs us that it is 'a book made and written by Sister Bertken who following her vow spent her entire life incarcerated in the Buur Church in Utrecht.’ The woodblock illustration depicts the suffering Christ appearing before her in a vision.
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 [2]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 [3]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.

The interior of the Buur Church as painted by Pieter-Janszoon Saenredam in 1644. We see a very different interior to the church of two centuries previously in Sister Bertken’s time. It is now a very Protestant church which has been stripped of all signs of Catholicism a century earlier in the [4]beeldenstorm’ event. The painting is not without a whimsical touch: a man draws a doodle on the wall depicting four riders on a single horse.
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 [5]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.

Five and a half centuries after they were originally written in her walled cell, the words of Sister Bertken are heard again in our own time, now as an opera written by Rob Zuidam, with soprano Katrien Baerts shown here in the role of Sister Bertken. From a solitary cell to the opera stage: words travelling in time to outlast anything which their creator might have imagined for them.
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)

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] Please see my post Isis in Paris for more about this dramatic event.

[5] 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. 

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Isis in Paris

In the year 1514 the archbishop of the abbey of [1]Saint-Germain-des-Prés, then situated on the outskirts of the city of Paris, ordered a statue in the abbey to be removed and destroyed. The statue must have seemed innocuous enough, for it had the appearance of a typical Madonna and Child. The statue was known to be old – dating from the time when Paris was largely a Roman city. And that seems to have been the problem – at least in the eyes of the archbishop. The statue’s age dated it to pre-Christian pagan times, and there was no place for a pagan statue in a Christian house of worship, however much it might resemble the Holy Mother. And so the offending statue was duly removed and smashed to pieces.

The Roman Isis. The sheaf of corn on her crown links her to Ceres/Demeter. The sistrum which she holds, a jingling temple rattle unique to this goddess, is missing from this statue and has here been recreated digitally from a similar statue of Isis.
And that is how the last known remaining relic that once was housed in the temple of the goddess Isis came to meet its end. Churches in Europe were often built upon the pagan places of worship which the new faith destroyed, and so it was with the abbey. Fourteen years before the abbey existed there was a previous church on the site, and thirty-three years before that – as late as the year 509 – there stood a temple dedicated to the goddess Isis. The foundations of the abbey rested upon the remains of this ancient temple, and the statue closely resembling the Madonna and Child which the archbishop ordered to be destroyed was actually a Romanized version of the goddess Isis nursing her infant son, the god [2]Horus.

Spot the difference. At left: a Romanized version of Isis with the infant Horus. The statue which the archbishop ordered to be destroyed would have been very similar to this one. Centre: the present statue of the Madonna and Child in the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés which would have replaced the destroyed statue. At right: the original Egyptian  'Isis and Horus' version of this theme, the archetypal template ‘Mother and Child’ from which all subsequent versions could have been derived.
Unlike the forces of Christian orthodoxy, the empire-building Romans apparently were happy-enough to absorb the deities of other religions into their own pantheon. Under Roman rule, Anubis, the Egyptian jackal-headed god of the dead, sported the armour of a Roman general, and Isis, the great mother goddess, took on the appearance of a Roman [3]noblewoman. But this Romanized version of Egyptian Isis also absorbed something of the culture of Ancient Greece, having some of the attributes of the Roman goddess [4]Ceres, whom the Greeks knew as Demeter.

The ugly face of iconoclasm. The granite tomb in the Dom church in Utrecht which is - or was - the effigy of Guy van Avesnes, bishop of Utrecht in the 14th-century, defaced by Dutch anti-papal Calvinists in the 17th-century. Iconoclasts might destroy an image, but the idea behind the image lives on.
Iconoclasm – the deliberate destruction of the objects of a belief to which the destroyers are opposed – is nothing new. It was practiced here in the Netherlands during an event in 1566 known as the [5]beeldenstorm’, in which supporters of the new anti-papal Calvinist-Protestantism stormed Catholic churches and destroyed the ‘idolatrous’ statues of the Virgin, saints, and any other items which they considered even to vaguely fall into this ‘blasphemous’ category. And it continues to be practiced in our own contemporary world with the destruction by Islamic State of the irreplaceable cultural treasures of [6]Syria and Iraq, which it also regards as ‘blasphemous’. But what does iconoclasm actually achieve? If you destroy a statue, do you also destroy the idea which that statue represents? Hardly. The physical statue, even the building, might lie in pieces, but the idea still exists, and ideas, like the gods themselves, have proven astonishingly resilient over time. And so it has been with Isis.

The nurturing Isis of the Bastille is hailed by an enthusiastic crowd at her inauguration in 1793. At right: Isis holding her sistrum as she appears on the façade of the Louvre. 
As an underground river continues to flow unseen, so the spirit of the goddess Isis apparently has continued to flow through the city of Paris. How else to explain the wealth of symbols associated with the goddess which insistently push their way to the surface? In August of 1793 a huge statue known as the Isis of the Bastille was inaugurated. The seated female figure spouted water from her breasts to symbolize the nourishment provided by the goddess to her citizens. A bass relief statue of Isis which faces the rising sun decorates the façade of the Louvre. The Louvre itself is orientated along an axis which extends towards a point on the horizon from which rises the star Sirius, the star sacred to Isis. The city’s coat-of-arms commissioned by Napoleon featured a ship with Isis being led by that same star.

The colossal pyramid proposed by the French architect Éttiene-Louis Boullée. Boullée’s genius produced projects that were more visionary than practical, and this towering structure was never realized.
And signs of the original culture from which the goddess sprang are ubiquitous in the city. There is the actual obelisk brought from the Egyptian sacred site of Luxor. There have at various times been pyramids. The unique genius of the architect Éttiene-Louis Boullée proposed a monumental pyramid ‘in the Egyptian style’. The pyramid was never realized – although the elegant [7]glass pyramid at the Louvre by architect Ming Pei has become a familiar landmark. During the Napoleonic era the rage for all things Egyptienne was in full swing. And the city plan itself is modelled on that of Luxor, with the same axes of alignment as its sacred counterpart. Significantly, the city has a specific gender. Paris is not an ‘it’. Paris is definitely a ‘she’.

Yet another grand pyramid, this time designed to be built in the grounds of the Louvre for the centenary celebrations of the Republic in 1889. A hundred years later the glass pyramid for the Louvre by Ming Pei has become a familiar landmark.
Terrorism is the bluntest of blunt instruments. It ranges itself against forces which it has little to no hope of ever actually defeating. The machineries of state are simply too powerful, too overwhelming, with all the massive resources and information, both covert and conspicuous, that governments and their armed forces have at their command. That is why terrorism is as it is: it can only ‘achieve’ some sort of an impact through the brutally crude tactics of shock and human grief. I doubt that anyone reading this post down to this paragraph will now be unaware of the irony that an acronym for Islamic State is ISIS – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The title Islamic State is itself a misnomer. It is of course anything but a ‘state’, and the inclusion of that word in its title is more of a wishful dream for its dubious future than an indication of anything which it has actually achieved.

French armed forces patrol in front of the glass pyramid in the grounds of the Louvre following the November 2015 attacks by Islamic State.
So why, of all the major European cities, did Islamic State last month choose to target Paris? There clearly was an active terrorist cell there with connections to other such cells in Brussels, and that cell laid its plan and followed through with that plan, and innocent men and women, many of them with most of their lives still ahead of them, were killed. In Paris the outcome was multiple murder. In the Middle East, Islamic State also have included torture in their ‘doctrine’. But apart from their iconoclasm and [8]torture, what tends to be overlooked is how deeply misogynist Islamic State is: Islamic terrorism is also specifically a campaign of violence against women.

Rape has been a consistent weapon used against the women who have been the victims of Islamic State. Violence against women is as much of a practice by IS as any of its other crimes. Knowing the above history and connections which Paris has to the goddess, what does emerge is that there is a lingering sense that, however unconsciously, the Paris attacks were a violation, certainly against the innocent citizens there, but also against the ‘she’ that is Paris.

A single rose placed in a bullet hole in a pane of glass fronting one of the restaurants that were attacked. The bullet hole has itself been enclosed by a painted heart. The simple but expressive gestures hint at a force which the brute power of mere bullets can neither comprehend nor withstand. 
Smashing a statue to pieces might have satisfied the archbishop’s affront at such a ‘pagan’ presence in his abbey. But what subsequent history establishes is that it is as if the goddess herself has arisen as a presence in the city even more assertively than when her temple stood on the south bank of the Seine. Whether you believe in gods and goddesses or not, whether you hold a belief in a deity – any deity – or not, what circumstances reveal to us is that there would seem to be forces – archetypes, if you will – so powerful, so assertive, that they will push their way through to our consciousness and manifest themselves in whatever forms they choose to adopt. The goddess Isis was not a statue. She was not banished by a mere archbishop, but lived on, creating new forms for herself in the hearts of her citizens. And Parisians are no more likely to bend a knee to terrorism than a goddess would deign to bend a knee to a mere mortal.

A sea of candles in a Paris street lights the faces of those paying tribute to the victims. The delusion of terrorists is to imagine that they are in control of the forces which they unleash, and that their actions will lead to a specific goal. But when the blunt instrument that is terrorism lashes out, the perpetrators are no more capable of foreseeing the eventual consequences than their innocent victims.
[9]Terrorism, it seems, is fighting against some power which makes all other forces pale by comparison. It is not the entrenched power of installed governments and the armed forces which those governments deploy. It is greater even that that. It is an ineffable, invisible something, and you cannot fight what you cannot see. Whatever that something might be, it evidently has survived for thousands of years, and has outlived all attempts by mere archbishops and others to subdue it. So perhaps you had better hope that you have the goddess on your side, because her anger is as dark as her heart is loving.

But I, I am compassionate and I am cruel.
Be on your guard!
I am the one whose image is great in Egypt
and the one who has no image among the barbarians.

~ from the text [10]Thunder, Perfect Mind

[1] Literally: Saint-Germain-in-the-Fields.

[2] The Greek name for Horus was Harpocrates, known as the god of silence. The name derives from an approximate Greek version of the Egyptian phrase Horus the Child. 

[3] Please see my post The Emperor and the Eye of Horus for more examples of these hybrid deities and the way in which they persist and continue to exist in our culture.

[4] Ceres, the goddess of harvests and the fertile earth, still survives in our own world when we use the term ‘cereal’.

[5] Freely translated as: ‘Storm against statues’.

[6] Please see my post Empires of Sand, Empires of Dust for a more comprehensive coverage of these events.

[7] The urban legend fuelled by Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code that the pyramid contains 666 panes of glass – the ‘number of the beast’ in the Book of Revelations – is a fallacy. The pyramid contains exactly 673 panes.

[8] To name just one instance: the ringleader of the Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who was later shot dead by French special forces, had in Iraq dragged people to death behind his vehicle.

[9] Terrorism in the context of this post means Islamic terrorism. In fact, terrorism these days does mean Islamic terrorism: a pointer, if any were needed, to the single major achievement of terrorism in our 21st-century world: that it has succeeded in making its religion synonymous with acts of terrible inhumanity which are perpetrated in the name of that same religion. In so doing, it has given decent Muslims the unenviable task of dragging the Quran out of the moral gutter where it has been dumped by those criminals acting in its name. Clearly the most effective way of achieving this is for all other Muslims vociferously and robustly to condemn such acts and those who perpetrate them, and it is heartening that many, including the legendary Muhammad Ali, are now doing so. When inhumanity in the name of a religion reaches such extremes, to keep silent is tacitly to condone such extremes, and a tacit silence can only further undermine the foundations of that religion. Misguided demonstrations such as the one seen at left might not be keeping silent, but the damage they are doing to the image of their own faith is real enough. 

[10] As translated by George W. MacRea. This powerful text remains unique among those found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945, the find which has given us access to many Gnostic and proto-Christian texts which had been lost for 1,600 years. The first-person narrator is unspecified, but the context and style allows us to assume a connection both with Isis and with Sophia, the female embodiment of Wisdom. 

Graham Hancock and Robert Bauval: Talisman: Sacred Cities, Secret Faith. The Penguin Group for Michael Joseph, 2004. Most of the examples cited in this post of Isis the goddess and Ancient Egyptian culture in the city of Paris are taken from this title, which itself cites many more, complete with detailed expositions which this post only briefly mentions. It is difficult to over-emphasise the importance of this book for me personally. My first reading of it some ten years ago was my own wake-up call that history – more specifically, Church history – was not as I had imagined it. Reading for the first time about the atrocities perpetrated by the rising forces of Catholicism, and directly instigated by the papacy, against the Gnostics, and a millennium later also against the Cathars (please see my post A Dark Crusade), which were on the scale of a Holocaust, came as a shock that was mind-numbing to experience.

This is bearing in mind that the authors are dealing, not with a mere personal interpretation of events, but with what actually is part of recorded history, and whose events are related in many other titles dealing with these subjects. That sense of shock reverberated on, and eventually would give rise to this blog, which itself attempts to be a serious investigation into why we believe what we believe, who gets to decide what is ‘correct’ for us to believe, and ultimately, what ‘faith’ actually is.