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A Semester in Europe

By Mark Volkers

Finding the entrance is akin to uncovering the history you’ve come to see.

Avignon, France in 1309 became the home of the popes, who were fleeing the violent chaos of Rome. The Palais was built between 1335 and 1364 on a natural rocky outcrop at the northern edge of Avignon, overlooking the river Rhône.

Avignon, France in 1309 became the home of the popes, who were fleeing the violent chaos of Rome. The Palais was built between 1335 and 1364 on a natural rocky outcrop at the northern edge of Avignon, overlooking the river Rhône.

In the mountainous region of Provence, France, is the Musee de Desert, the museum of the desert. It’s not a literal desert. That’s the term used to describe a barren land. A wilderness. It’s an apt, one-word description for much of the Huguenot epoch in Protestant France in the seventeenth century.

The entrance to the Musee is deep inside an old, stone farmhouse with attached additions that have been built over the years. Arrows point visitors through ever smaller, narrower, darker corridors until at last they reach the reception desk. It’s a quiet place, befitting the horrific history of this time in France’s history. A self-guided tour lets visitors walk through the Edict of Nantes, when the French monarch Henri IV recognized Protestantism in 1598. The tour continues through the revocation of that edict in 1685 by Louis XIV, when Protestantism became illegal and the bloodshed began.

Through letters, paintings, artifacts, and journals, the suffering becomes real. Pastors were hunted down and imprisoned or killed. People were arrested for worshipping and having Calvinistic-style implements of worship. On display is a pulpit fashioned from wine barrels that can be quickly converted back to a barrel to escape notice from the king’s men.

Tower of Constance: Marie Durand spent 38 years in this tower during the reign of Louis XIV because of her Protestant beliefs.

Tower of Constance: Marie Durand spent 38 years in this tower during the reign of Louis XIV because of her Protestant beliefs.

1. Tower of Constance

A short journey away from the Musee is the city of Aigues-Mortes. Students spending their semester with the Dordt-sponsored SPICE (Studies Program in Contemporary Europe) program move by bus from the Musee to the Tower of Constance.

At the Musee, students read of Marie Durand, a young Huguenot woman the authorities arrested in 1730. Marie was imprisoned in the tower for thirty-eight years. All she had to do was recant her Protestant beliefs and she would be released.

She refused.

With that story fresh in their memories, students alight from the bus and climb the steps of the thirteenth century Tower of Constance (Tour de Constance). They stand where Marie stood for thirty-eight years. They look out the narrow slits in the stones that she looked through. And they touch the word she and her fellow prisoners etched into the stone: Register (“Resist” in patois).

The Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum as Van Gogh painted it in 1888.

The Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum as Van Gogh painted it in 1888.

2. Van Gogh

The Dordt-sponsored SPICE semester in Europe isn’t just a brush with history. It’s a tangible reliving of the events in Western Europe that make the West what it is and that make Christianity, as we know it, what it is today.

Not far from the tower in Aigues-Mortes is the charming city of Arles. Vincent Van Gogh lived here for many years, some years on his own, some in a mental hospital. Many of his most famous paintings were done in Arles.

One of them, the Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, was done on a narrow street by a city square. SPICE students stand where Van Gogh placed his easel and take pictures of each other. A few days later these same students are in the Kröller-Müller Museum near Kampen, Holland. This museum contains dozens of original Van Gogh paintings, including the Café Terrace on the Place du Forum. Students study Van Gogh’s art. They walk in his footsteps. They retrace history.

3. Living

SPICE students are matched with Dutch host families. Each student lives with a host Mom and Dad for the semester and becomes part of the family.

That includes having a bicycle.

Zwolle is a charming town of canals, bicycles, cobblestone streets, and shops.

Zwolle is a charming town of canals, bicycles, cobblestone streets, and shops.

Because fuel is expensive in Holland, parking is at a premium, and towns are easy to bicycle around, the vast majority of Dutch people take bikes to work and school. Each student is given a bicycle and joins the throngs of people on the morning commute. Zwolle, a lovely town of canals and steeples and cobblestone streets, has special traffic lanes with turn signals—just for cyclists. SPICE students leave their cozy Dutch homes in the morning, cycle to school, and cycle home again at the end of the day. There they do their homework, eat dinner with their family, join in family activities like birthday parties and reunions, church dinners and volleyball games, and get together with new friends and other SPICE students.

4. Studies

Classes at the Gereformeerde Hogeschool (GH) in Zwolle are taught in English. Dutch students can choose from four tracks of study: nursing, education, social work, or theology and religion.

Classes at the Gereformeerde Hogeschool (GH) in Zwolle are taught in English. Dutch students can choose from four tracks of study: nursing, education, social work, or theology and religion.

The heart of the SPICE program takes place in Zwolle, Holland, at the Gereformeerde Hogeschool (GH). The GH, known in English as the Reformed University of Zwolle, has a close relationship to Dordt College. While there, SPICE students get to choose from four tracks of study: Dutch studies, Dutch language, International Business, and International Ministries.

Because travel from Holland to most Western European countries is relatively easy and inexpensive, students also have ample opportunities to see the great cities of Europe, experience hundreds of years of history, gain a global perspective as part of their education, and make international contacts that can benefit them for years to come.

5. Ministry

More than a thousand miles to the East, students who opt for the International Ministry Track of studies are spending eight weeks in Kiev, Ukraine.

It’s still Europe … but a whole different part. This is Eastern Europe. Post-communist Europe. Orthodox Europe. For Canadian and American students, this is brand new stuff, a history barely looked at. And it’s fascinating.

Kiev Monastery: SPICE students who choose the International Ministries Track spend eight weeks in Ukraine, exploring Orthodox Christianity and post-communist Eastern Europe.

Kiev Monastery: SPICE students who choose the International Ministries Track spend eight weeks in Ukraine, exploring Orthodox Christianity and post-communist Eastern Europe.

At the foot of a hill in Kiev is the ancient Holy Dormition Kiev Caves Monastery. In the eleventh century, Orthodox monks set up shop here and worked out their salvation with fear and trembling in a series of caves deep in the hills. Here they lived and prayed and meditated for years without surfacing. And it’s here that SPICE students retrace those steps in the caves. With candle in hand, students join Orthodox Ukrainians as they walk through the narrow caverns with barely a whisper, praying before the icons, looking at the bones of those ancient ascetics and meditating on their own faith.

It’s a far cry from the inside of a North American Evangelical Church or a Sunday School class, but students soon realize that this ancient faith is part of the “holy Catholic Church” they talk about every time they recite the Apostle’s Creed.

And so they learn from the Orthodox. And the “strange” becomes less strange. Grand Prince Yaroslav the Wise, founder of Kiev and protector of the Orthodox in the eleventh century, now becomes part of a student’s lexicon, along with names like Saint Augustine or Abraham Kuyper.

6. A Cave in the Desert

Back in Provence, France, in the mountains above the Tower of Constance, SPICE students explore yet another cave.

This one was not for Orthodox ascetics but for Huguenot Christians hungry to worship together, no matter what the cost.

During the time of religious persecution, Huguenots would wander here into the “desert,” two by two to avoid arousing the monarch’s suspicion. They would enter this large cave tucked into a remote valley. They would preach. They would pray. They would sing.

SPICE students, on a quest to uncover this history in Southern France, move into the cave and sing. The Romanian students sing in Hungarian. The Dutch professors sing in Dutch. The North Americans sing in English. And God understands them all.

Being away from home for a semester is its own form of the desert, but that’s where the greatest growth takes place. And that’s the beauty of the SPICE program. The semester is perfectly structured so that worlds are enlarged. Rich understanding of God’s Kingdom is gained. History becomes real. The world becomes a bit smaller and lasting friendships are forged.

Students who uncover this treasure agree that “SPICE” is the right name for something that adds this much flavor to a student’s life.