Zuster Bertken, who really was socially distant


As I write this, we in this country, and in other countries, have been enclosed at home during the COVID19 pandemic.  Most of us think of it as a considerable nuisance or inconvenience.  But our enforced enclosures are nothing compared to those of the anchorites.  Anchorite, a type of religious hermit, is derived from the Greek word meaning “to withdraw” or “to retire”.  They existed as one of the earliest forms of Christian monasticism and today, the Catholic Church says it is one of the “other forms of consecrated life”.  As anchorites, they dedicated their lives to prayer and meditation.  Most anchorites were women who lived during the middle ages. Anchorites would live in a simple, sparsely furnished, small (about 12’ by 15’) cell called an anchorhold built against the wall of a church.  The cell had three windows. One window, called a hagioscope, looked into the church to view and receive mass, and to give spiritual advice to visitors. One on the outside was used to receive food and tend to physical needs, and a third one, covered in cloth, to let in light.  Before committing to this life, the priest would conduct a requiem mass, for the anchorite was considered dead to this world.  They would then be walled in.  If any tried to escape, they were returned by force and their souls damned to Hell.  In my book, Sisters in Song, I included a segment on Julian of Norwich, an English anchorite who lived from 1342 to 1416.  I have come across another anchorite who wrote songs and poetry.  Berta Jacobs, born in 1426 or 1427, in Utrecht, Netherlands, was the illegitimate daughter of Jacob van Lichtenberg, a canon of the Cathedral Chapter and provost of the Chapter of St. Peter, and thus, second in importance to the bishop. Her writings indicated she got a good education.   When she was about 30, she decided to become an anchorite.   She sold her annuity from her father, and from the proceeds, built a cell adjoining the chancel of Buurkerk, the oldest parish church in Utrecht.  After the requiem mass, she became known as Zuster (Sister) Bertken.  She lived there for the next 57 years.  Her life was even more ascetic than most anchorites.  She was bare-footed and wore a rough garment of hair cloth against her bare skin.  She ate a vegan diet.  When she died in 1514 at age 87, the cathedral bell was tolled twice, something generally done only for the higher clergy.  Six guards had to manage the crowd that came to mourn her.  Death certificates were uncommon in those days, but one was made for her.  This shows how highly she was respected by the religious community.    In her 57 years as an anchorite, she wrote in the vernacular, her writings preserved by three printers after her death.  Her Passion book and other writings were printed at least five times between 1516 and 1520, and indication of their popularity.  In addition to her Passion, she wrote a Christmas vision from Mary’s viewpoint, prayers, and eight songs. Her Christmas vision has been set to music and played even today.  But it was her songs that earned her a place in the literary canon.  Her best known song, Die werelt hielt mi in haer gewout (The World Held Me in Its Power) tells of her separation from the world’s transient power to the eternal spirit of Christ.

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