Dirk Willems

(A planned college essay that never made it. Dirk Willems is my homeboy. I'm putting it here to contrast ironically with some other posts of mine...)

On May 16, 1569, seven judges sentenced Dirk Willems to be “executed with fire” – burned at the stake. Condemned for his religious beliefs, Willems suffered an excruciating, “lingering death.” According to witnesses, he cried out over seventy times over the course of his passing; an easterly wind fanned the smoldering flames away from his upper body and prolonged his demise significantly. He died mere miles from his birthplace of Asperen, Netherlands.

Unfortunately, none of these facts, in and of themselves, distinguish Dirk Willems significantly. In fact, historians estimate the third Duke of Alba (who ruled the Spanish Netherlands from 1567-1573) slaughtered six thousand Dutchmen over the course of his rule, including Willems; his death, though unjust, was not by any means uncommon. What distinguishes him, then, is something much more powerful and profound: Dirk Willems saved his pursuer.

Imprisoned for his Anabaptist faith, Willems managed to escape successfully; using a rope of knotted rags, he lowered himself onto the frozen moat surrounding the prison and ran. Pursued by a guard who witnessed the episode, he fled across an icy pond (the “Hondegat”) in an abortive chase to freedom. When the guard attempted the same traversal, he collapsed through the thin, waning ice, forcing upon Willems a fatal decision between the guard’s life and his own.

I imagine the brilliant intensity of the moment when Dirk Willems realized his pursuer had fallen. I imagine the commingling of despair and relief as the impossible choice between freedom and surrender suddenly presented itself in stark resolution. I imagine the crisp wintry air, the bitter and desolate wind, the exhilarating dread as Willems slowly turned to face his foe – turning, as he well knew, from life to death. Life foists upon few of us moments such as these, moments that define the entirety of our being, moments of hollow passion and bittersweet release. And so, I imagine, because I cannot see what Dirk Willems saw that day; I imagine, because no one will ever know with what resolve, with what courage, or with what spirit Dirk Willems plunged his hand into the thrashing waters to save the man who would murder him.

Countless men would die for their countries, families, friends or neighbors; humanity has been blessed with an incredible devotion to its kin. But there are only a precious few who would sacrifice themselves for an enemy; they are rare who would die for their oppressors. Yet these blessed few are the peacemakers, the brave, selfless men who we must become if we ever hope to save our foes and ourselves. We can battle for all eternity, we can rage till world’s end, but if we cannot act as Willems did – without regard to self – we will merely war forever.

Dirk Willems died over four hundred years ago; today, his name is largely forgotten. But as long as I can, I will remember him, in the hope that I will someday choose the life of my fellow man over my own.