Looking For God in Amsterdam
Here in Tarrytown, Sleepy Hollow country, we have a wonderful Old Dutch Church that dates from pre-Revolutionary War times when New York was a Dutch colony. Beside the church lies the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. There you will find wonderful and very old graves (some written in Dutch) that mark the resting place of the early and stalwart Dutch founders of Tarrytown. Washington Irving memorialized them in some of his writings and he himself lies buried there a stone's throw away.
On a recent trip to Amsterdam I kept wondering what those hearty Protestant founders of our village would think of their famous city today. Maybe some of them would like to come along with me and revisit their city. As time went by, however, I began to wonder if they just might not turn over in their Sleepy Hollow graves.
Of course the beautiful city of Amsterdam has much to offer: its canals, museums and charm, its handsome and friendly people. One can excuse an occasional sewer smell. After all, Amsterdam is below sea level. If one can survive the hoards of killer bicyclists a stroll through the city streets can be delightful. Trying to buy a post card, however, can be a real shocker. Pornography is rampant at most post card stalls. These cards are not just naughty. Sent to the United States they could cause a mailman a coronary before he finished his route. There are also stores where one can openly shop for his or her drug of choice.
So it was that I had invited some of those strict and devout early Dutch Tarrytowners to rise from centuries of slumber and come along with me to visit the old city of Amsterdam. They probably would have headed for the center of old Amsterdam and the Oude Kerke (Old Church) as I did. Big mistake. This late-Gothic (1250) pre-Reformation church is in the heart of the Red Light District. Visitors here would run smack into the Sex Museum (the Erotic Museum or "The Art of Erotics" as it is called). For five guilders, I was told by a friend who was more courageous than I and who had once visited this curiosity, that one can learn a lot more than one needs to know.
Within the shadows of this stately old church there also extend narrow streets, "red light alleys," where nearly naked women stand in the doorways displaying their wares- eager to ply their trade. My very upright companions and I found this an utterly gross scenario. We were reminded of those meat inspectors you see in films walking down rows of carcasses and grading them accordingly. Our stalwart Dutch Tarrytowners agreed with me: this was really a flagrant dehumanizing of women.
Now, of course, Amsterdam has a great religious and artistic tradition. A visit to the famous Rijksmuseum reminded us of Holland's earlier religious histiory: chalices, statues, vestments, and other great works of religious art from the pre-Reformation era. There is one quiet corner in Amsterdam where one can find a remnant of the old religion. It is the beguinage (begijnhof). This 14th century phenomenon is found in several places in the Low Countries. I lived near one during my university days in Louvain (Belgium). There is a magnificent beguinage in Bruges as well. This enclosed cluster of houses in the heart of town was home to pious laywomen (beguines/beginen) who lived a semi-community life. Sometimes they were widows of crusaders. They could keep a servant and have a private residence while sharing a communal religious life. The old chapel today now belongs to the Reformed church. But there is also a "secret" Catholic chapel built in 1671 in which services are still held. Today, in the words of the tourist brochures, poor elderly women "of the Catholc tradition" are housed in the beguinage. The last of the begijnen died in 1971. Arthur Frommer laments that "too few tourists take the time to see this."
The post-Reformation era produced the wonders of Amsterdam's Golden Age. Rembrandt, Vermeer and so many others produced great art both religious and secular. Amsterdam's historic religious past, both Catholic and Protestant, led my ghostly early Tarrytowners and me to wonder about the present state of religion in Holland.
According to a census taken in the Netherlands in 1900, only one percent of the population said they did not belong to a Christian religion. By 1958 we find that 24 percent said they did not belong to a Christian church. In 1970, 39 percent did not belong and, by 1991, it was 58 percent. Among the age group of 21-30 it was an even higher 72 percent who said they had no Christian affiliation. The state planning bureau predicts that by the year 2020 only a quarter of the Dutch will be Christian. Those in America eager to relegate religion to the ash heap of history would do well to visit Amsterdam for a paradigm of things to come here at home.
We were fortunate to catch the very end of a performance of the Mozart Requiem in the Westerkerk Protestant church (1620) where Rembrandt is buried. A visiting Polish chorus and orchestra filled this beautiful and spacious Renaissance-style edifice with music of faith. As if to spoil our elation my companions from Sleepy Hollow cemetery and I had a really disheartening experience, however, when we tried to visit the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church). This is where Dutch royalty were crowned. Arthur Frommer's guidebook urged us to visit this 14th century marvel. Even though many of its treasures were removed and colorful frescos painted over during the Reformation there remained a lovely nave, carved altar, stained-glass windows and a great pipe organ dating from 1645.
When we tried to enter the church, however, we were told there was an admission fee. Fair enough. But then we were informed that the Nieuwe Kerk was no longer a church. It had been "de-consecrated," said the gentleman at the entrance. Presently there was an on-going exhibit on Mongolia being presented and if we wanted to enter we would have to pay. We informed the gentleman that we had not come all the way from America to see an exhibit on Mongolia. All we wanted to do was see the church.
Why, I asked incredulously, had the church been "de-consecrated"? "Because," he answered (I kid you not) "people here don't believe in God any more." Well, the last time my Old Dutch friends and I had heard, God was very much alive and well. Obviously the gentleman didn't think so and insisted that we pay. He did not wish to pursue any theological discussion. Encouraged by my stubborn Dutch companions, I refused to pay any admission fee and we never did see the church. I had to get in my last licks, though. Why was it, I asked, that so many churches in Amsterdam were closed while all the whore houses in town were open for business? A rhetorical question that remains unanswered.
It was with some sadness that my Old Dutch friends returned disconsolate to their graves in Sleepy Hollow. Did they turn over in them? I haven't heard as yet.