Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Amsterdam--The Holy Grail (sort of)

Amsterdam—July 25    The Holy Grail (sort of)

I have a confession: I came here to Amsterdam not certain we would find much to add to our Anabaptist journey. I had scarcely done any research—it had not yielded anything to which I could relate. Besides, where does one even start to look in such a big, sprawling city?

Today is our last day in Amsterdam. Tonight we fly back to Zurich and then home. We have only odds and ends on our agenda today: go back to the Old Church and check it out; then maybe go by “Our Lord in the Attic” on the remote chance my notebook is there. Not too exciting, really.

Do not misunderstand: the past three days have been great. Amsterdam is a fascinating place to visit. Our experiences here have provided some great stories and prompted important thinking. But this is it. No dramatic conclusions—just pack up and go home

My suspicion proved accurate: I don’t really have anything from the past several days that added substantively to my study project. That leaves me with a bit of an empty feeling, maybe even a tiny touch of guilt:  I should have looked harder; I should be doing something more; there should be a good way to wrap this up. I began the day with these feelings but no idea of how to get a grip on them.

First, a little back story: when we were in Langnau, weeks ago, I did an Internet search one evening looking for information on Menno Simons (knowing that we would be coming this direction near the end of our trip.) I came across the webpage of a “Menno Simons Center”. The information as to its “what and where” was vague so I emailed the director of the Center who was listed on the website.

Surprisingly, he emailed back almost immediately and told me the Center was “virtual”; i.e., entirely on-line—there is no “place” to visit. He mentioned, however, that there was a very large collection of Mennonite writings at the University of Amsterdam and that perhaps I should arrange a visit there when in the city. He said the “professor of Anabaptist studies” (who knew there was such a person?!) at the university was on holiday but I might be able to find the curator of the collection, a certain Adriaan Plak.

I essentially dismissed the idea—it is summer, the university is going to be closed and quiet, people will be hard to find, I probably could not get access, I can’t read Dutch. Very likely, the University itself will be hard to locate. (In these ancient cities, the universities typically do not have a central campus—the buildings are scattered all over the place.) The suggestion went into the “good idea but highly unlikely” file. I jotted down the information on the only piece of paper I had at the moment, a corner of a used napkin, and stuck it in my wallet. Then, I basically forgot about it.

Now, back to today. We start our trek to the Old Church. We decided to go a different route and take some back streets, going where we had not gone before. We were uncertain as to exactly where we would come out but it would be fun to explore.

Well, we came out of a narrow street onto a main thoroughfare and found a canal in front of us. As we considered the best way across, Sarah said suddenly, “Look. There is the University of Amsterdam.” What do you know . . . a big sign on the buildings right in front of us, directly across this canal. How did that happen?

We crossed the closest bridge and continued down side streets into the University area, still not sure where we were. On one building I noticed a plaque that read “Academic Offices”.

In that moment, the email from the director of the Menno Simons Center surfaced in my mind. What was it . . . something about a “Mennonite collection” at the University of Amsterdam, a curator I should try to meet? No way—the chances are slim to none.  But, why not . . . what is to be lost by looking around? I fished around in my wallet. Sure enough, crunched in a wad was my little note on the napkin.

I took the next right. Why? I don’t know. It was just there, a long corridor with sort of a cloister look to it.  I spotted a man putting books from boxes onto a table. That looked promising. I stopped and asked him if he spoke English. Politely he nodded his head. I asked him if he knew where the University Library was. He said, “You are under it.” “You’re kidding. May I go in?” I asked. He nodded again, “Check in at the desk, over there.”

We crossed the courtyard to the entrance of a newer looking building. Surprise, there were people milling about everywhere—it is anything but quiet around here. Inside the building, I discovered that, lo and behold, I had walked into the international annual meeting of the Society for Biblical Literature! Suddenly, I felt I was in familiar territory—I probably know some of these people.

This was cool! I took a minute to wander about in the crowd, hoping to see some of the SBL exhibits, maybe even a familiar face. Then, I made my way to what looked like a guard station. I held up the half of a used napkin and asked the guy if he knew where this was (my scrawl read, “Collection Mennonitica, Bijzondere Collecties University of Am.  Adriaan Plak”)

Amazingly, he shook his head up and down. Then, he gave directions to a branch of the library located a few blocks away (two canals down, one across—really.) He said I might find someone there but he did not know if I could get in.

The directions he gave took us back to the exact place we had spotted earlier! We retraced our steps and found the address. The door was unlocked—we cautiously stepped inside. (Will it be a dead end? Will anyone be around? Will it be closed to non-students?)

Inside, there was another reception desk and a very nice lady. Somewhat apologetically, I showed her my crumpled piece of napkin. She said matter-of-factly, “Yes, that collection is upstairs. Go up there, leave your backpacks in a locker, and then go through the double doors. You’ll find a woman there who can help you.”

We go up the stairs, leave the backpacks, and walk through some glass doors into a nicely appointed office area. At the main desk, a very pleasant but smartly dressed lady with a confident, no-nonsense air looks up. I must have been a sight: dressed in t-shirt and wrinkled pants, no appointment, no idea what I am doing. I hope she speaks English. I hope she doesn’t throw me out. She says, “May I help you?”

What else can I do? I hold forth my grimy scrap of paper and point.
Without hesitation, as if on cue, she says, “Let me ring Mr. Plak. He is in his office.”

Mr. Plak did not answer. (No surprise to me—no one is ever around in the summer.) But she says, “I know he is there. Follow me. I’ll take you to his office.” Oh, OK.

We walk down hallowed halls of ivy, through the rich furnishings of an aged but undoubtedly storied building, past vast collections of books and statues and serious academics in tweed jackets, gray beards and reading glasses pouring over great tomes. We turn the corner into a suite of offices. She approaches an open office door. This wonderful lady puts her head in and speaks to someone in Dutch. A distinguished man gets up from his desk, comes over, introduces himself: “Adriaan Plak. Please, won’t you come in?”

For the next hour and a half, Adriaan Plak and I talked Mennonite history, theology, and the contemporary religious situation in Holland and Europe. The ceiling of his spacious office is at least 14 feet high—and every square inch is filled with books. As it turns out, the Collection Mennonitica is basically right here in this room.

As we talked, I could not pull my eyes away from the bookshelves. There they are: basically all the works by and about Zwingli, Grebel, Manz, Hübmaier, Sattler, Riedemann, Marpeck, Simons—these men I have been talking, reading, and thinking about and following across Europe this entire month—all in one place. As my eyes sweep over the titles, I have this surreal sense that they all came together here to greet me at the end of the trip.

I have come to the Holy Grail (well, not exactly, but close!) The story of the Anabaptists that started down in Zurich, wound its way up through Germany and into Friesland and northern Holland (and eventually throughout much of the world) is recorded and stored in the collection that surrounds me here in this room.

What just happened? Why were all those people so quick to help me get here? Why did this man happen to be available at this moment? Why did he so generously give his time to a scruffy foreigner off the street? Actually, I was so overwhelmed by this whole turn of events that it took me a few minutes to collect my wits and engage in some semblance of a knowledgeable discussion (and by that I mean put together enough words to sound half-way coherent. Thank goodness they speak English.) It is a distinct possibility that I just looked like a complete idiot and everyone simply took pity on me.

This has been a long story. But I had to tell it. How else could this month have ended except right here . . . here, in the middle of the biggest Anabaptist collection in the world, chatting with its curator, getting a tour of the whole thing. He gave me his card and said, “If you have any questions or need anything, email or call me.”

It was so fun, such a thrill, and not a little enlightening. I will share more of our conversation in another post. By the way, I did not take any pictures of the collection or the library—it might have been a bit pedestrian on my part to do so but more to the point, I had left my camera in the locker.

Oh yes, two other things.
First, in our conversation I remembered that one of the questions I had hoped to answer on this journey concerns the English/Dutch connection back in 1608-1611. Just how much did the European Anabaptists (Menno’s followers) influence the English Baptists who came over with John Smyth in that time frame and vice-versa?

Adriaan says, “That’s a good question. I’m not sure. There is very little written on that. But perhaps we can find something.” He peruses his catalogue and sure enough finds one book that may address this topic. He rolls his 10-foot tall library ladder around to the stack behind his desk and climbs way up, retrieving a little volume. He says, “Take a few minutes to see if that is worth something.” As I flipped through it, he printed out the catalogue information so that I could look for a copy back in the states. Are you kidding me . . . . ?!

Second, that conversation led to him to ask if I was aware of the “hidden Mennonite churches” in Amsterdam. This is a total surprise to me. After I told him I had no idea, he says, “You should go see one.” I say, “Where do I find one?” He says, “Why don’t I show you? We can walk there from here.”

We went downstairs and found Karen and Sarah, who had been in the library coffee shop all this time. The four of us, Karen, Sarah, Adriaan Plak, and I stepped out into the bright Holland sunlight and strolled along the canal to the nearest “hidden” Mennonite church.

No photos . . . just an amazing tale!

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