Sometime in the mid-seventh century, St. Bertilla entered a convent in France. Bertilla’s eighth-century biographer presented her as a model of perfect obedience for nuns and monks. He fashioned the story of her impeccable conduct to encourage them to conform eagerly to their rule of life. But he heaped so much praise on Bertilla’s virtuous behavior that she seemed to be more angelic than human. He did not succeed, however, in concealing completely the real Bertilla:
Once, when a troubled sister spoke angry words to her, Bertilla called down divine judgment upon her. Although the fault was forgiven, Bertilla worried about her curse. Then the sister died unexpectedly, choked by asthma. Not having heard the signal for the funeral, Bertilla asked the reason for the resounding chorus of psalms. When she learned of the sister’s death, she trembled fearfully. She hurried to the place where the little body lay lifeless and with great faith laid her hand on the dead nun’s breast. Bertilla ordered her receding soul through Jesus Christ, the Son of God, not to leave, but before she spoke with him, to forgive her anger against her. And God permitted the spirit that had left the body to return to the corpse. To the amazement of all, the revived cadaver drew breath. Looking at the servant of God, she said: “What have you done, sister? Why did you retrieve me from the way of light?”
“I beg you sister,” said Bertilla humbly, “to give me words of forgiveness, for once I cursed you when you had a troubled spirit.”
“May God forgive you,” said the nun. “I harbor no resentment in my heart against you now and I love you. Please entreat God for me and permit me to go in peace and don’t hold me back. For I am ready for the bright road and now I cannot start without your permission.”
“Go then in the peace of Christ,” said Bertilla, “and pray for me, sweet sister.”
Nestled among Bertilla’s virtues was a problem—anger so strong that it could cause her to damn a sister. Her unpredictable behavior endeared the saint to her charges, but also made them wary. They loved her, writes the biographer cryptically, “when she was angry and feared when she laughed.” As the saint aged she apparently overcame her flaw of anger, as her reputation for humility and gentleness spread widely. She died around the year 700.
Bertilla’s story has a special interest for Christians who are fascinated with near-death experiences. The nun she called back from death spoke of “the way of light” and of “the bright road.” So this ancient account seems to corroborate the testimony of many twentieth-century witnesses who say they “died” and traveled along a pathway to the Light.
from Voices of the Saints, by Bert Ghezzi