I wrote this lengthy reflection in 2009 after a trip to Taizé. It can be found in the 26th issue of Mozaik, a publication of the World Student Christian Federation - Europe region.
A Living Pilgrimage – the Taizé way
...do everything to render more perceptible for each person the love that God has for all human beings without exception, for all peoples. He [Brother Roger] wished that our little community – through its life and its humble commitment with others – might manifest this mystery. So we brothers would like to take up this challenge, with all those who across the earth are seeking peace. Brother Alois, Prior of Taizé1
From 2-8 August, 2009, I had the privilege of joining the newly formed Western European Subregion (WESR) of the Europe region of the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF-E) on a pilgrimage to Taizé. WESR had its first gathering last year, during a work camp in Manchester, and currently involves co-operations of the British SCM and ESG (Evangelische StudentInnengemeinde), the SCM in Germany. They have been trying to include other SCMs (Student Christian Movements) in Western Europe in their activities.
The Taizé symbol is a unique cross – a combination of a cross and a descending dove. At the beginning of my week in Taizé, my initial reaction was to first perceive an odd, sort of modern style, curved cross; I had to focus to see the dove. But by the end of the week, I saw the descending dove of peace or the Holy Spirit (depending on interpretation) much more prominently – the two symbols now permanently enmeshed when I think of Taizé.
Perhaps I sugar coat things in my reflections (the chocolate addition to the simple Taizé bread and butter breakfasts – making our own pain au chocolat – still echoing positively in my mind). It has been a few weeks since I have been back, but these impressions remain in me: the transcendence of this living community over the divisions separating us and over the selfish consumerism and artificial speed of Western life, and the beauty of spirituality and faith that naturally leads to action.
Church of Living Dialogue
The dialogue of life is a vital part of any meaningful dialogue. It also functions as an important counterweight to theoretical thinking, because it is first and foremost concerned with alleviating suffering and healing wounds, not with correctness of thought. Brother Johannes2
The Taizé community was founded in 1940, by Roger Louis Schutz-Marsauche, today known as Brother Roger.3 He found the mostly abandoned village of Taizé on a long distance bike ride from Geneva, raised enough money to purchase a home and, seeking to live out a biblical call to the poor, began to provide a place for political refugees during World War II. Brother Roger initially began praying privately, but gradually the prayer times played an important part in the daily schedule for much of the community. Brother Roger later set up a Protestant and Catholic monastic community, an ecumenical community today.
Brother Roger saw the divisions in the Church as ridiculous, for Christ came not to create a new religion but to give people communion with God. The brothers seek to live a parable of reconciliation – not only of reconciliation of a divided Christianity but also of the whole human community.4 He said, 'Since my youth, I think that I have never lost the intuition that community life could be a sign that God is love, and love alone. Gradually the conviction took shape in me that it was essential to create a community with men determined to give their whole life and who would always try to understand one another and be reconciled, a community where kindness of heart and simplicity would be at the centre of everything.'4
Today, about one hundred brothers from 30 countries and Catholic and Protestant backgrounds form the Taizé community. They welcome tens of thousands of visitors, mostly young people, from all backgrounds each year, especially during the summer and holy week. Some of the brothers live abroad, in Asia, Africa and South America, sharing in the living conditions of the locals and striving 'to be a presence of love among the very poor, street children, prisoners, the dying, and those who are wounded by broken relationships, or who have been abandoned.'5
Brother Roger's life and death overshadowed much conversation at Taizé (as it does in my brief history here) and clearly he sat an example in faith, action, dialogue and ecumenism. Through the daily bible studies, discussion groups, working teams, prayers and meals together, the Taizé community lifestyle of church together calls and challenges us as individuals and the Church to a dialogue of life. I was surprised at the sense of refreshment I had after leaving, a sense a rejuvenation for ecumenical work (especially that of WSCF).
The archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, visited during the week we were at Taizé and he spoke of finding a true sense of Church there: “What often we see most of is the Church in its institutional form and not enough of the Church in its worshipping, communal form. What is realised in a place like this is the Church in its most central reality. I have often spoken of some of those experiences where a Christian can say, ‘I have seen the Church for the first time.’ A person may have spent many years going to church, reading the Bible, saying prayers and yet never quite have seen the Church – the Church which is the new creation, the Church which is the New Jerusalem, the Church which is the hope of humanity. And so for that I want to thank you all for your continuing witness. Continue with that life.”6
Transcendence of Beauty
Veni Creator Spiritus. Viens, Esprít Créateur. Ven, Espítitu Creador. Come, Creator Spirit. Komm, Schöpfer Geist. Przybądź, Ducho Stworzycielu. Taizé song 13
Silence, broken by the rustle of feet, cracking joints, and hidden whispers, as thousands file in for morning prayer – and the Taizé chapel is filled with a spirit of peace. Such a simple, utilitarian chapel extended almost as a warehouse to accommodate so many people, yet so beautiful. From the candles, the creative piling of 'boxes', to the orange fabric – a space made elegant.
After a few days, we had scouted the 'best' location. In the middle of the second meeting room, we seemed to be at the meeting point of sound – 4500 voices singing 'Cantate Domino' in round, a harmonised prayer sung again and again. A repetition of beauty – of course the harmonies did not always come out so well and the melody prevailed, but to sit in silence or to sing along was transcendent. In one small group meeting, Brother Pedro said, “North Americans tend to get it wrong when they use Taizé songs. They use them for choir concerts and performances. But they are meant to be prayed, sung by all, the quality of sound is not important.”7 Wandering in the hills above the monastery of Montserrat outside Barcelona a few days later, I couldn't help but sing Taizé songs while I hiked. They flowed out as beautiful prayers (though I'm sure they did not actually sound so nice to any hikers that passed me on the trails).
Icons also are incorporated into Taizé worship life and practice, helping to lead the visitor into meditation; 'Icons contribute to the beauty of worship. They are like windows open on the realities of the Kingdom of God, making them present in our prayer on earth...By the faith it expresses, by its beauty and its depth, an icon can create a space of peace and sustain an expectant waiting. It invites us to welcome salvation even in the flesh and in creation.'9 In our bible study, Brother John referred to 'The Friendship Icon' and said, 'We like to describe the yoke of Christ in this way – Christ's yoke is his arm draped about your shoulders.'4
Simply by providing the community space, the simple songs, the icons, the play of candle light and the structure of silence, Taizé invites all to share in worship. The astounding linguistic abilities of the brothers as well as the languages and translations of the songs and scriptures add an extra dimension to the beauty – celebrating cultural diversity. In our bible study, Brother John explained the inadequacy of the translation of the word 'blessed' in the Beatitudes in English. In our discussion groups we farther evaluated this in the context of our different native languages, thinking perhaps the German, 'selig', fit the context more accurately.
This living community – from the artistry of efficiently feeding thousands of young people three meals a day to the intercultural atmosphere where every question is encouraged in a genuine search for truth, all on a hilltop, dusty from so much daily trodding, surrounded by green hills and the romantic French countryside – truly is a pillar of beauty.
A Visit from the Archbishop of Canterbury
The Lord calls folk to Him in many ways, And each has his particular gift from God, Some this, some that, even as He thinks good. Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, Prologue of the Wife of Bath's Tale8
While we were in Taizé, Dr. Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, came to visit and cameras followed him everywhere, even in chapel, breaking normal Taizé rules. As he clamoured awkwardly onto a table at one point, he commented 'perfect photo opportunity'. While I am normally not so impressed by church hierarchy (coming from the Church of the Brethren tradition, with the reformed belief in a 'priesthood of all believers'), I was very inspired by Archbishop Williams in a question and answer session he held during the meeting. He answered tough questions from the young people present – ranging from homosexuality to prayer – with honesty, intelligence and good humour. To one question about entrance fees to churches like Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, after conferring with the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu (who was also present), to ask if they also charged fees in York, he commented 'solidarity in sin' before explaining the necessity of the fees for restoration costs.
In answer to one question, he described vocation as God calling you to be yourself, your unique self, in a way that isn't anxious, selfish, or destructive.9 He also found his vocation as a poet in addition to a priest, as he found he needed to use words to express faith (and by the way – he has a very nice voice. I would like to listen to him reading his poetry sometime). Prayer is a stream, he explained, we must step into it and God can deal with all thoughts that come along the way. He has found that those who pray the most tend to be the most aware. Archbishop Williams came to Taizé before going to university and explained that 'it does shape a vision.'
The desire for communion with God has been set within the human heart since the dawn of time. The mystery of that communion touches what is most intimate in us, reaching down to the very depths of our being. Taizé Letter 2004, 'To the Wellsprings of Joy'
I was awed when I found that I too could accept communion each day in Taizé as it was open to all. This is normal in my Protestant tradition, but I am used to the deeply felt challenges we face in WSCF when discussing the Eucharist in an ecumenical setting. On Friday afternoon, Archbishop Williams led a special communion service. As Brother John explained in our Bible study, they usually do not like to do this because it emphasises disunity. Simultaneously, Catholic communion was offered at another part of the church. So even Taizé gets caught, needing to appease at times – but they do this in the quest for overall unity.
I was able to receive communion from a female Anglican priest (I diverted especially to her line). Coming from a tradition where we normally are able to have female pastors, I was surprised at how positively this affected me. Perhaps it was because I had only seen brothers around all week. There are sister orders, the Sisters of St. Andrew, the Polish Ursuline Sisters and the Sisters of St Vincent de Paul, who also serve in Taizé, but they are not 'Taizé sisters'. As it is for the Church in general, gender roles also appear to be a challenge for Taizé and form perhaps my main critique. But I know from reading about Brother Roger that females played a large role in the community. His life and vision was largely influenced by his mother and grandmother. His sister, Geneviève, contributed much to Taizé. Women still play a large role in the community, from long term volunteers to the sister orders listed above.
Though it does not fully compensate, it must also have been someone from Taizé who asked the female Anglican priest to help give communion. Female nuns from the other orders did lead workshops, etc., but were not present, for example, with the brothers in the centre of worship or as visible in the community.
Solidarity in Sin
The Gospel encourages simplicity of life. It calls believers to bring their own desires under control in order to succeed in setting limits, not by constraint but by choice. Taizé Letter from Kenya 2009
Taizé life is vibrant, but what of the churches? This also became one of the informal WESR discussions. Churches throughout Europe and North America complain of dwindling numbers, especially of young people. Are the churches out-dated, over-compromised, or what are they missing? Taizé seems to suggest new life, issuing a challenge and giving hope. As Archbishop Williams said, in Taizé they do not patronise young people – modern worship and special services are not necessarily essential to maintain high numbers of young worshipers. Taizé is an example; the services of silent prayer and meditative singing require introspection and are far from easy-access entertainment-style services. There are no easy solutions as churches look for answers on these questions, but the example of Taizé should be looked on for encouragement and perhaps accountability.
While discussing the financial crisis, probably while waiting in the line to drop off our dinner dishes in Taizé, someone commented 'The Taizé brothers had no blame in the crisis.' No sin of capitalism here – the brothers do not accept regular donations or even inheritances for their livelihood. They live off of their own work, from making pottery in the shop to writing books for publication. All pilgrims who come to Taizé are asked to pay a very small sliding scale amount depending on their ability and nation of origin (which does not even seem to be enough to cover the simple meals and basic water/electricity costs), though donations are accepted to help cover the costs of pilgrims who cannot pay their own way.
No, the Taizé brothers had no part in the Western accumulation of wealth, rather they separated from it, setting an example. But how to live by this example and spread it? This is a challenge of our Christianity, the challenge I was reminded of and refreshed by in Taizé. Yes, from failing to truly witness our faith as individuals and churches to economic matters, we seem to be in 'solidarity in sin'. But Taizé shows a different way.
Recipe for Taizé Tea
If we are at present undertaking a pilgrimage of trust on earth with young people from every continent, it is because we are aware of how urgent peace is. We can contribute to peace to the extent that we try to respond to the following question by the life we live: Can I become a bearer of trust where I live? Am I ready to understand others better and better? Brother Roger, in a Taizé meeting in 2004
With our WESR group, we discussed previous critics of Taizé – is it truly radical enough? The brothers don't openly call for all visitors to march in protest or to rally around a specific cause. Compromises are made for visiting officials and there is the challenge of gender equality.
We came to the conclusion that perhaps this type of direct advocacy is not Taizé's role. Clearly in our Bible studies, we were challenged 'So what now will you do?' in response to the devastating need in the world. Clearly they were advocating action and allowing seekers to sort out the lifestyles and answers on their own journeys for truth. The brothers, by living separately in community, live themselves a radical lifestyle compared to our norms. As Brother John said often, 'God is doing something new, and you have to do something too.'
This reminded me somewhat of what we have done at recent WSCF conferences, always closing with 'And what will you do now?' But I guess the answer is up to each participant, up to each of us.
During our week in Taizé, about 4500 young people visited. Somehow the promise and challenge of a universal church could be felt in the spirit present in the community. In my meeting with others from North America (they always have regional meetings with a brother), someone asked if they would start another Taizé community elsewhere. Though Taizé will not multiply upon its physical community, building other similar monasteries, Taizé does hold meetings throughout the world, 'Pilgrimages of Trust on Earth' that gather thousands of young people. All pilgrims who come to Taizé and these gatherings are sent out with experiences of peace, reconciliation, prayer, silence and community. Hence the need for these regional meetings on 'how to continue when you get home'.
I have tried to search for a recipe for Taizé tea online. At the beginning of the week, the powdered tea mixture offered at breakfast and tea time wasn't so appealing. But by the second day I looked forward to each sip. Needless to say, google has failed me. Just as Taizé will not multiply their communities and challenges us all to continue in this 'pilgrimage of trust on earth' so I will have to make my own tea to share, adapting Taizé's challenges to daily life. If we had counted, I'm almost sure we sang Taizé song 115 the most during the week, and the echoing words follow me: The Kingdom of God is Justice and Peace and Joy in the Holy Spirit. Come Lord, and open in us, the gates of your kingdom.
2 Brother Johannes. Dialogue and Sharing with Believers of Other Religions: Reflection based on a life-experience in Bangladesh. Short Writings from Taizé. 9.
3 It seems that before this, from 1937 to 1940, Brother Roger was a leader in the Swiss SCM of WSCF! He directed a spring conference near Geneva on 'The formation of personality' in 1940 - “The whole exercise was aimed at encouraging students to develop personal habits and spiritual discipline...At a time when so many others were fighting in Europe and elsewhere, it was also a means of inviting participants to join in a scheme of intercession for peace.” Weiser Thomas and Potter Philip. Seeking and Serving the Truth: The First Hundred Years of the World Student Christian Federation. WCC Publications, Geneva, 1997. 145.
4 Brother Roger, 'God is Love alone'
5 A 'parable of community' http://www.taize.fr/en_article6525.html
7 These are my paraphrases, taken from my memory and notes.
8 Given my literary, and not theological (or Anglican) background, I must ashamedly confess that the Canterbury Tales always jump first to my mind immediately when I hear of Canterbury even in the context of the Archbishop. But Chaucer was writing of a pilgrimage (and dialogue) of diverse characters then too...
9 Also from my notes - I could not remember the last word, though I think it was 'destructive'.