In Your Midst

Experiencing the Spirit of Taizé

Xmas 2006

Brother John reflects on the mission and meaning of Taizé

Brother JohnTaizé is not just a kind of music.  Nor is it simply a form of worship.  A few years ago, there was an article in the Wall Street Journal (of all places) about Taizé.  They kept talking about Taizé, Taizé, Taizé, but they were talking about it as a form of prayer.  They mentioned that there was a community in France that happens to pray in the Taizé style.  I wrote a letter to the editor, and told them they’d put the cart before the horse! 

That is what Taizé is not.  I should say what Taizé is.  We’re a monastic community, a religious community which is ecumenical and international.  There are about 100 brothers from 25 different countries and different Christian churches—Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Reformed, trying to live together as one, to be a sign of reconciliation.  That’s for us the key thing:  the community life as a sign of the Gospel, a sign of reconciliation of Christians.

The community began in 1940 during World War II.  Our founder, Brother Roger, came to this little village of Taizé, a poor village in Burgundy, where very few people lived, and began to hide Jews and other refugees who were trying to escape the Occupation.  He did this for three years by himself, until they found out what he was doing and he was obliged to go back to Switzerland.  There, he met three other young men, and as soon as the war was over the four of them came back to Taizé.  They began to live together, to pray together three times a day, to work to support themselves, and also to welcome whoever came.  At the beginning, German prisoners, orphans, and so on; later on, young people.

Brother Roger wasn’t a theologian, he wasn’t a great thinker.  But he had a few intuitions and put his whole life into trying to live them out.  One of those intuitions was  that people need concrete signs of the Gospel.  For people to hear about the message of Jesus is important, but beyond words, people need concrete signs to help them understand that word.  We know if we look at the New Testament, the sign of the Gospel is community, people sharing what they owned and sharing their faith.

The theme of reconciliation was of the utmost importance to him.  He dreamed of a community where people who were very different could find oneness, unity.   He was thinking especially of the divisions among Christians—Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox—which kept the Gospel from being lived clearly.

Taize Retreat at St. JamesBrother Roger was from a Protestant background where there wasn’t a tradition of religious community.  That was already becoming ecumenical, learning about the monastic tradition in the Catholic and Orthodox churches.  He set out to create a kind of monastic-inspired community—not a Protestant monastery, but a sign of reconciliation.  The first brothers were from the Reformed Church, then other Protestant denominations followed—Anglicans; and then Catholics after the Second Vatican Council.  It’s not a new denomination, but a place where people remain who they are but live together with other Christians.

Brother Roger’s original idea was to be a sign of reconciliation.  In the 1940s and 1950s it wasn’t possible to think about Catholics and non-Catholics living together; just praying together was a big step back then.  In the new climate after the Second Vatican Council, we had discussions with the Archbishop of Paris and others and were able to admit Catholic brothers. Today, we’re a little more than 100 in the community; maybe 50/50 Catholic and Protestant.

Before too many people compliment me on my English, let me say I grew up in Philadelphia.  When I finished college I had a chance to go abroad for a year, and spend a year traveling around Europe.  At the time I was searching for something, for a way to live my faith, for a community.    I had heard talk of Taizé.  I got there one day in November, and there was nobody there, it was a very quiet time.  I spent the week in silence.  It was a very good week for me, and I said to myself, I have to come back.  I came back for Holy Week, and there were about 6,000 people.

I stayed awhile.  We have volunteers who stay three months—six months, or a year helping out.   I spent some time doing this.  I went home again with a lot of questions.  Is God pointing me there?  I had a lot of doubts, too.  I went back a year later, and I still had that question, but I realized the question itself was a sign.  I stayed.  After about four years of study and discernment, I made a lifelong commitment.  We make the traditional monastic vows—community of goods, sharing everything; celibacy, and accepting the decisions made in community.

Prayer is at the center of our lives.  At the beginning, it was the traditional monastic prayer, singing the psalms, reading the scripture, litanies, intercessions and so on.  We still keep that basic structure, but we simplified it because our visitors come from so many different backgrounds and languages.  So we use repetitive chants with solo verses, and always a long time of silence in the center.

So, prayer three times a day.  Then we work to support ourselves—selling pottery, writing books, making other crafts to sell.  Finally, we welcome and offer hospitality, at the beginning to refugees, and orphans; today mostly to young people of college age, who come for a week.

This began to happen spontaneously in the 1960s.  Students started coming, no one knows exactly why, except that it was a time when people were looking for meaning for their life, and trying to figure out their faith.  They came, they were welcomed, they told others, and the numbers started to grow.  Brother Roger felt this was a sign of the times; it was important to welcome these young people to everything that was most important to us—the prayer, the Bible, the community.  That’s how we started.

Taizé continues to be one of the few spaces in the church in Europe where young people feel it’s their place, where they feel welcome.  They take part in the prayer, they have Bible study each day, work, and after a week they leave, to take home what they’ve learned.  Each year we welcome something like 50,000 young people from all over the world.

We don’t have a staff—that’s a word that doesn’t exist in Taizé.  There are just the brothers, the sisters, the young volunteers, and the young people who pitch in.  That helps keep costs down.  We do invite the young people to make a donation for each day of their stay, but that averages out to 6 or 7 dollars per day.  That’s possible because we keep it so simple. 

Most of you know Brother Roger was killed last year.  He was 90 years old, at the end of his life; but it happened in a very unexpected way during evening prayer.  He was killed by a deranged woman.  The surprise wasn’t that Brother Roger passed on; he was 90 years old, he was slowing down a lot; but that he died that way.  Paradoxically, it gave us a real push forward.  After the first shock, we got so much support from people, so many visitors and telephone calls, so many people manifesting their solidarity.  Cardinal Kasper came from Rome to preside at the Eucharist, there were bishops and church leaders from all the denominations; it was a big event which gave a real confirmation to our mission.  Eight years ago Brother Roger had named his successor, Brother Alois, so it made the transition very easy.

This past summer, I felt Brother Roger was very present with us—not physically, but spiritually.  Many people who came back told us that they didn’t feel it was any different.

It’s very mysterious.  There was a kind of blessing hidden in the midst of that strange event.  t

 

A native of Philadelphia, Brother John of Taizé is a brother of the ecumenical community of Taizé in France. He is the author of a number of books on scripture. These remarks are extracts from a talk he gave on October 4, 2006 in Cathedral Hall.  Find out more about the Taizé community, download Bible reflections, listen to chants, or find out about making a retreat at www.taize.fr .


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