From: Music As Prayer
One summer I visited a reformed church in the small rural town of Gasselte, located in the northern Netherlands. A few months earlier the congregation had celebrated its four hundredth anniversary. Jan Vaessen, the pastor, gave me a tour of the church, a plain stone building that can hold about one hundred people. When I walked into the church I was immediately struck by the natural light flowing through the enormous clear glass windows and the prominence of the pulpit, rising high above the chancel and commanding the visual axis of the church. The communion table is a plain, unadorned piece of furniture, and the congregation sits in equally plain wooden chairs with rush seats. On first glance I thought the place to be as pure an example of a classically Calvinistic church as I had ever seen. Its high pulpit and abundant light symbolized the word of God shining forth with divine truth.
But then the pastor pointed to the left of the pulpit where there hangs a list of Roman Catholic priests who had served the church over many centuries, long before it became a reformed church. Next, the pastor pointed to two large flat stones that people step on as they approach the communion table. These are sacred rocks from the 800s, placed by people who had honored their ancestors long before there was any knowledge of Christian faith in the region. The church and the chancel were built around the rocks so as to preserve them as reminders to the congregation of their ancient forebears who worshipped there before the coming of Christianity. In all the subsequent centuries of being a Christian church, no generation had ever removed or paved over those stones. They were an honored part of the sacred place.
All of a sudden, the church that I had at first glance thought to be about as pure an example as I had ever seen of a classically Calvinistic, reformed church was something much more syncretistic, much more interreligious and ecumenical. It was a place where pre-Christians and Roman Catholics and Calvinists met. Jan Vaessen named to me his delight in this blend of supposedly incompatible traditions, seeing in it a symbol of hope for a world that is too often torn apart by believers wanting to maintain the purity of their one true faith.
The church has a small tracker action pipe organ placed in a balcony on the back wall: a single keyboard of four and a half octaves and nine stops. But the sound, oh the sound of that instrument! Because the stone walls of the church are nearly three feet thick and the floor is stone and there is not a single soft, absorbent texture anywhere in the building, the acoustics are extraordinarily resonant. Every note, even at the lowest dynamic, suffuses the building with sound. Jan Vaessen and I climbed the staircase up to the keyboard – a feat in itself given the steepness and narrowness of the steps – and together we played a number of the Handel flute sonatas, he at the organ and I on the flute. As we played the gigue from the Sonata in F Major, a work that Handel also wrote as an organ concerto, I imagined the ancestors who had gathered around the sacred stones, the Roman Catholic priests and the Calvinistic preachers and their congregations, the angels and the archangels, and all the company of Heaven and Earth dancing to Handel’s ebullient gigue. Through that vision I had a renewed sense of how music keeps religion from becoming too constricted, too purely of this or that persuasion to acknowledge those who are different. The interfusions of musical sound blending in a deeply resonant building keep us alive to how our traditions are intertwined in ways that confound the rigid mind while they renew the most generous and inclusive visions of the human heart.