Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Sint Pieterskerk

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On October 3, the people of Leiden celebrate the end of the Spanish seige of their town in 1574. It is a day of tremendous celebration, for the ousting of the Spanish was eventually followed by the liberation of the entire Netherlands from Spanish rule. It is a day for celebrating freedom.

This year’s Leidens ontzet (Leiden’s relief), as the festivities of October 3 are called, was a time for celebrating America. It was four hundred years ago, in 1609, that a group of English dissidents moved to Leiden, after spending some time in Amsterdam. Most of these people worked in the cloth industry in Leiden, which was at that time a major center for manufacturing textiles and for shipping them out to other places throughout Europe. The English textile workers lived in Leiden until 1620, when they embarked for Delft. There they purchased a ship called Speedwell to sail for the new world. The ship proved not to be seaworthy, so it was traded in England for another ship called Mayflower and that ship made it to America on November 21, 1640. The pilgrims, as they came to be called, celebrated their freedom in the new world with a feast. The Dutch point out that the feast was modelled on Leidens ontzet and that what Americans came to call Thanksgiving is a Dutch holiday imported to America by the English pilgrims.

The decision to make the journey to America was made at a church in Leiden called Sint Pieterskerk. That church, built sometime around 1100, was already five hundred years old when the pilgrims worshiped there. Buried under the floor of that church was John Robinson, who played a key role in helping the pilgrims make the decision to leave the Netherlands for America but was unable to make the journey himself. Also buried there are relatives of some of the pilgrims who did make the journey. The gravestones are still on the floor of the church, but the bodies were removed and placed in a cemetary some time ago.

On October 3, 2009 my wife and I attended a thanksgiving church service at Sint Pieterskerk. It was a moving experience for me, because at least three of my ancestors worshiped there during their years in Leiden. Two of my ancestors, Francis Cooke and William Bradford, were Englishmen who lived in Leiden and took The Mayflower to America. Another ancestor was Moses Symonson, a native of Leiden who eventually went to America, but not on the Mayflower.

As I listened to the church service, all in Dutch, and struggled to understand what was being said and sung, I could not help wondering how my ancestors had felt as they worshiped in that same place. What went through their minds? What did they believe? (A clue is what is written in the Mayflower compact.) What would they think of all the people in America who are their descendants? If they had been able to see into their future and see our present, what would they think of what America has become? Perhaps if I could understand Dutch better, my mind would have been more on the sermon and less on my own wandering fantasies and imaginings.

Leiden was also visited in the 17th century by George Fox and William Penn, two of the early Quakers. I am not descended from either of them, but I am a Quaker and therefore regard myself as a spiritual descendant. Not a day goes by when I do not think about the fact that I am probably walking along streets well known to the pilgrims and the Quakers who were here. In the greater scheme of things, of course, it is meaningless, but in the small world of my own mind these things take on a significance that I don’t expect anyone else to share.

With the exception of special services on holidays such as Leidens ontzet, Sint Pieterskerk is no longer used as a church. It is a secular building now, a venue for concerts and other cultural events. Like so many of the grand cathedrals and basillicas and churches in Europe, it is a relic of another age, a time that modernity has buried, both for better and for worse.

Just a few meters from Sint Pieterskerk is the building that served as Leiden’s jail. In the courtyard outside the jail public executions used to take place, often to the delight of onlookers. Capital punishment is a phenomenon that modernity has left behind for the better. People are no longer executed in the Netherlands; perhaps someday they will no longer be executed in the United States. What modernity has left behind for the worse are windmills, sailing ships, and machines that were driven by human muscles instead of coal and petroleum and uranium. In Leiden, more than anyplace I have lived before, most people get around on foot and on bicycles rather than in automobiles. Perhaps someday people in the United States will rediscover the power of their own muscles to do whatever work is really necessary to do.

Frankly, I have never been much giving to praying for things. But in Sint Pierteskerk on October 3, 2009, I prayed that America will someday become the place the pilgrims dreamed of when they set out for Leiden on their way to Plymouth rock.

To learn more about the pilgrims visit the Pilgrim Archives website. To learn more about the Mayflower and its passengers, look at the Pilgrims Hall website.

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Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009 at 14:09

Posted in Faith and practice

One Response

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  1. A great article you have written here. It is indeed a very special feeling that everything around you is so old that many people before you have done the some things there as you do now. For many Leidenaars (people from Leiden) it is a special thing that the Pilgrim Fathers have stayed in their city, most are proud of it.

    On my website you find quite some information about Leiden, some of it is Dutch, but I hope that’s not to great a problem!

    Leiden-Info

    Friday, May 21, 2010 at 03:43


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