The two windows of Sister Bertken

I had heard the name of Sister Bertken but knew little about her. That changed when I attended a meeting of the Dutch Society for Church History, where the program was a lecture about Sister Bertken. It was a fascinating story.

Sister Bertken was born in 1457 as the illegitimate daughter of Jacob van Lichtenberg, a prominent member of the clergy in the Dutch city of Utrecht. Being the child of a priest was no reason for shame in the late Middle Ages; in all likelihood, Sister Bertken grew up in the home of her father, and received a good education.

Around 23 she entered a convent in preparation for an even more ardent life as a follower of Jesus. She used the money she had inherited to have a cell built adjacent to the Buurkerk, one of the large churches in Utrecht. There she lived for 57 years as a recluse.

Sister Bertken chose a minimalist lifestyle. During the 57 years in her cell, she wore a coarse hairy garment on her naked body, and always was barefoot. She never ate meat or dairy products. Her daily life was structured around the seven prayers which she recited at the prescribed times. She wrote some booklets and a number of hymns, and was the first woman in the Netherlands whose writing appeared in print. She spent the major part of her time copying manuscripts.

Sister Bertken was not the only woman in this era who opted for a life in the isolation of a “cluse” adjacent to a major church. Around that time there were as many as two hundred such women who chose to be locked into a cell, to spend their lives in prayer and meditation in a kind of one-person convent.

Two windows

Sister Bertken’s cell was about 3 by 4 meters. It probably had a small door so that someone could enter with food and take away her chamber pot.

The main feature of her extremely basic abode, which had no heating, was that it had two windows. One window gave a view of the interior of the church, from which she could participate in the holy mass and observe the dynamic of a medieval basilica, which was—to put it mildly—a rather lively affair.

On the other side of her cell was a window that could be opened to the outside world. At set times Sister Bertken was available for pastoral counseling and prayers for passers-by, who could include prominent citizens and even members of the higher clergy. Over time, she gained the reputation of being not only a pious but also a wise woman.

This feature of the two windows was perhaps what struck me most. Religious commitment has a dual vision: a clear view of the church and worship, as well as a clear view on what occurs in the world among those we encounter.

Total commitment

If I were asked to choose one way to characterize the life of Sister Bertken, it would be “total commitment.”

These two words remind me of a remarkable episode in the history of the Adventist Church. In 1997 Robert S. Folkenberg, the president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, pushed for the adoption of a document that expressed the idea of total commitment. Initially this was targeted at the educational branch of the church, but eventually it was broadened to include all levels of church administration and departmental branches.

The final paragraph caused considerable protest. It indicated that there was to be some agency to regularly assess the state of this commitment. The document eventually became Policy A 15 in the General Conference Working Policy, “Total Commitment to God. A Declaration of Spiritual Accountability in the Family of Faith.” You can read it by clicking this link.

There is much in this “declaration” that I agree with. Other parts of it make me uneasy. Why did this statement get the status of a policy? Why does Adventism want to package so many things as “policies”? Is commitment to God not first of all a personal confession of faith rather than a policy that is prescribed by ecclesial authorities?

What also struck me was how this Folkenberg-era commitment is linked to the administrative and organizational structure of the church. Is the church’s administrative structure really the backbone of religious commitment? And why is religious commitment a community statement rather than a personal pledge?

Sadly, Elder Folkenberg, the initiator of this declaration of “total commitment,” had to withdraw prematurely from his leadership role when it became clear that his own commitment to Christian integrity was far from “total.” And isn’t this kind of personal commitment, after all, what counts?

A balanced commitment

I see four elements in Sister Bertken’s total commitment. It was:

aimed at serving people; and
Sister Bergen’s commitment to her faith was certainly connected with her church. Her daily program was embedded in the prayer practices of her time. She chose to avail herself of the opportunity to live in a small cell that was built against the outer wall of a church.

Yet her chosen lifestyle was also highly personal: a life of simplicity and isolation, without being a part of the church’s organizational structure. It seems to me that her commitment manifested a wonderful balance of personal piety and religious culture.

Among today’s Christians (Adventists included), this balance is frequently missing. Too often, in our age of individualism, religious commitment misses the embedment in the rich heritage of the Christian faith. And, on the other hand, it is all too common that religious commitment depends on being organized and given corporate form by denominational organizations.

Two windows, revisited

The two windows in Sister Bertken’s cell are symbolic of the dual nature of her commitment. They represent the horizontal and the vertical aspect of serving God. Through one of her windows she was linked to the worship and rituals of the church: the preaching of the Word, the prayer and praise of fellow-believers. Through that window she watched the eucharist, baptisms, weddings and funerals.

But through the other window she saw everyday life in the outside world. She saw ox-drawn carts, horses, stray dogs, beggars. She saw commerce, children playing, elderly men and women of all walks of life. She saw priests and nuns and everything that was part of medieval life.

Through the one window she talked with God and listened to others communicating with God. Through the other window she listened to the people who came to her with their problems, who told her of their challenges and sufferings, and who asked her for prayer and for counsel.

True Christianity is vertical and horizontal

To blend these two aspects has been a challenge for the church—for some denominations more than for others. Some religious movements maintain that preaching the gospel is the only reason for the existence of the church. Social work may be important but can best be left to non-religious organizations. Nothing should take the place of leading people to the truth!

Other denominations emphasize a “social gospel” so much that the story of the cross and the resurrection of Christ gets obscured.

I know Adventist congregations that have found a balance between the vertical and the horizontal. But I also know of congregations where the only question is: “What can we tell you?” without bothering to ask “What can we do for you?” Too much of what we Adventists do misses true altruism. and is simply part of a member-recruitment program.

At the same time, I have wondered whether ADRA and our hospital systems could do more to emphasize that they are faith-based entities.

The long-term

Sister Bertken’s ministry has yet another message for the church, which happens to also be a very personal message for me: she was blessed with a long life, and persevered for 57 in her cloistered ministry. As I listened to her story, I wondered whether she was ever tempted to leave her cell, start a family, and start a normal life. But no, she persevered in her calling.

Perseverance in commitment, a project, or an ideal is not a strong point in our postmodern western culture. In my church career I have shifted my focus a number of times from one ministry to another. I sometimes wonder: Could I have been more productive if I had stayed longer with a particular ministry?

For example, do we move pastors around too frequently, without giving them the opportunity to really become part of the community of the people entrusted to their pastoral care? Are too many pastors too eager to leave local ministry for administrative offices, where they can travel around as experts on what they’re no longer doing themselves?

The Adventist Church is constantly adopting new strategies, new projects, and new programs, while missing the patience to carefully analyze the results. The Adventist Church thinks in terms of short cycles. The mantra “time is short” constantly echoes in our spiritual ears. We have never learned to think in terms of long-term trends and developments. Think what difference it could have made had we looked at what could be accomplished in the next 20-30 years, rather than just until the next General Conference session!

Yes, Sister Bertken was a Roman Catholic, which may lead Adventists to reject her as a role model. (The Catholic Church was the only Christian church in the city where she lived, as Luther and Calvin had not yet split the church into different segments.) Can we still honor her as a Christian who demonstrated “total commitment”?