The following essay appears in our Autumn/Winter 2020 issue.
Utrecht is a medieval city in the Netherlands, known for its centuries-old city center and its lively cafes and terraces at water level along the canals. Records show that in 47AD, Roman emperor Claudius had a fortress built on the Rhine River, and it eventually grew into Utrecht. During the Middle Ages, it was a religious center of the Netherlands, with dozens of church towers making up the skyline. Today, eight of those medieval churches remain, including the Buurkerk (the neighbor church), built in the 10th century.
I live nearby, and over the years, I’ve walked, biked and canoed into Utrecht. Recently, I went in by bus to take a look around. While wandering through the Buurkerk, I was fascinated to discover that an Anchoress had lived there in the 15th century. Sister Bertken was the illegitimate daughter of a priest. And at age 30, she requested permission to be walled up in a corner of the nave, where she remained 57 years until her death in 1514.
Sister Bertken’s space had three small windows and no door. One window was high in the exterior wall to let sunlight in, another was used for physical needs like nourishment and hygiene, and the last was used by congregation members to communicate with her. Her only furniture was a chair, a desk and a mattress. She lived barefoot in her unheated cell and ate a frugal diet. And she spent her time meditating, praying and writing.
Since I crave at least eight hours of alone-time a day, when I saw her spot, I was like, “Sign me up!” Of course, when I told my husband, Ron, about Sister B, he thought my response was overly radical. He was like, “There’s no way I’m gonna bike into Utrecht every day to relate to you through a window in a stone wall.” This coming from the guy, who spent a below-freezing night, futilely trying to sleep, wrapped like a burrito in an old worn rug, on the floor of the drafty chapel on top of Mt. Sinai.
It is a curious choice. Why do ascetics set themselves apart? And why the need for self-denial? And how far is reasonably far enough?
Grace de Rond writes about effective living at gracederond.com and for sites including Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global. Grace’s focus is on how to use our inner worlds to shape our outer worlds. She’s lived on an Israeli kibbutz, walked on fire with Tony Robbins, attended events with the Dalai Lama and Pope John Paul II, and cooked for Barbara Marx Hubbard and Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. She lives outside Amsterdam with her coauthor/husband. Their new book is called Thoughts Worth Thinking on Life, Career, Lovers and Children.
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