Upon arriving in France last August, I discovered on the front page of the newspaper that Brother Roger, founder of the ecumenical Taizé community, had been murdered during evening prayer by Luminita Solcan, a deranged Romanian woman. In addition to my shock over his death, I was, somewhat selfishly, concerned about my own plans to bring a group of 19 Calvin College students to Taizé. Would the community's spirit be broken? And practically, would Taizé restrict access to the Brothers?
"Nothing at Taizé has changed. There is no security," said Brother Jean-Marie, when my group finally arrived in lower Burgundy for a very chilly November weekend retreat at Taizé.
A native Long Islander, Brother Jean-Marie joined the community in 1981, straight out of college. And while the community continues to grieve Brother Roger's death, he stressed that "the community is very, very united." Since August, four new brothers, from France, Senegal, Argentina, and Indonesia, have joined, illustrating the Taizé's vitality and international diversity.
According to Brother Jean-Marie, "prayer is the glue" uniting Taizé. The community offers visitors a set program: eat, discuss, participate in chores, and praythree times a day.
When we came to Taizé late on a Friday night, we ate a simple dinner and rushed off to evening prayer in the community's largest building, the Church of Reconciliation. As the Taizé songbook indicates, "meditative chant" would be the best way to describe the prayer service. Simple songs, in French, English, Latin, and a host of other languages, are sung repeatedly, broken by a Scripture reading and also a five-minute time of silence.
"When the singing started," said Ryan Poling, a 20-year-old junior from Chicago, "I sat there and let the soothing melodies wash over me. I added my own voice, too, and before I knew it, I was among only four other singers, three-and-a half hours later. It felt too soon to leave."
Another student in my group, Courtney Lasater, a 22- year-old senior from Grand Rapids, echoed a similar appreciation for the open-ended nature of the services. "I think that back home we sometimes focus too much on schedules and sermons that we forget how to just openly worship God together, without thinking about how much time we have left until we go home."
For other students, the glue of prayer didn't stick so well. I heard complaints about sore backs and the awkwardness of not knowing what was happening during a prayer service. Some missed the energy of a praise and worship band or the clear call to repentance heard in an American evangelical sermon. As the weekend progressed, they also raised questions about Taizé's blending of rituals from Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox traditions.
MaryBeth Myhren, a 20-year-old junior from New York State, enjoyed feeling useful through the chores and expressed great respect for the Brothers. "They are a true physical example of the love of Christ." At the same time, she felt uncomfortable with Taizé's spiritual mix and matching. "If you accept everything, you represent nothing."
I asked Brother Jean-Marie whether the community leaned more to Catholic or Protestant traditions in its ecumenism. He explained that Brother Roger's goal was "reconciliation rather than conversion" to one specific church: "He said, for example, when people asked if he was Catholic or Protestant, 'I find my Christian identity in reconciling the faith of my origins (which was out of an old Reformed family) with the faith of the Catholic Church, without breaking with anyone.' "
Saturday afternoon, the Calvin group met with Brother Pedro. Originally from Barcelona, he entered Taizé in 1971 and lived with a fraternity (a small group of Brothers) in the "Hells' Kitchen" area of New York City during the 1980s and 1990s. He spoke candidly about the challenges of the monastic life and also the difficulties involved in receiving thousands of visitors.
Responding to questions on doctrinal matters, particularly over the Eucharist and icons, Brother Pedro spoke of the community's desire "to bring together all this richness" shown in Christianity. "Why not?" he asked rhetorically. "Each church has a specific gift to bring."
I broke into the discussion to ask the question that had been bothering me since my arrival in France. How could one explain Brother Roger's murder, which occurred in the Church of Reconciliation? "He was a figure of peace," Brother Pedro answered. "Evil cannot resist goodness."
That evening, all young people were invited to the community's main house to meet Brother Aloïs, the new prior, in Brother Roger's room. Despite the honor, I was a bit apprehensive. Had the room already been turned into a shrine?
As we entered, however, Brother Aloïs urged the forty young people present to sit anywhere, even on the bed. His gentle manner and complete lack of pretense were highly engaging. He explained how the community lives off the pottery and other wares it producesasking with a laugh if we had already bought a postcard at the gift shop.
Brother Aloïs grew up in Stuttgart and came to the community in 1974. As early as 1978, Brother Roger had suggested that Brother Alöis "could do this"be the next priora decision that was formalized in 1998 by the community. At the beginning of 2005, Brother Roger announced he would be stepping down during the course of the year.
Despite the terrible nature of his death, Brother Roger's foresight allowed for a smooth transition in leadership. Like the other Brothers we met, Brother Aloïs stressed the sense of spiritual unity that has allowed the community to continue since August. He also indicated the support the community has received, through thousands of emails and numerous letters from church leaders and political leaders, ranging from Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to Kofi Annan, U.N. Secretary General.
During the group discussion, a young French Catholic asked how he could relate spiritually to his Protestant friends. Brother Aloïs suggested the Taizé model of shared Bible reading, singing, prayer, and silence. "C'est déjà énorme" (That's already incredible).
The French student didn't realize he was surrounded by ProtestantsAmericans and Canadians from Calvin College, no lesswith whom he had probably joined in prayer that day.
One may find Taizé to be long on ritual and short on systematic theology. But it certainly offers wonderful encounters across national and denominational linesencounters that provide a great sense of hope.
During the weekend, I shared a room with a Japanese pastor and a British teacher living in Germany. Over dinner, I sat at table with young people from Sweden, Germany, Italy, and France, and received an idea of what a "United Nations" of faith might be.
And after the visit, I realized why the Brothers would probably never put metal detectors in the Church of Reconciliationtheir sense of spiritual security and calm goes miles deeper than most of us would like to admit. At the funeral service for Brother Roger, Brother Aloïs didn't shy from mentioning Luminita Solcan's name and committing her to God's forgiveness.
The beautiful countryside surrounding Taizé does make the community feel protected, if not isolated from the world's problems. Given the recent riots in France, I asked whether Taizé would consider moving to a housing project in a city suburb.
Brother Jean-Marie explained that since the 1950s at least a third of the Brothers have lived in the poorest regions of the world, and Brothers are currently serving in Bangladesh, Senegal, and Brazil. "Brother Roger liked to say you couldn't continue welcoming young people if there weren't a part of the community living among the poorest."
As to Europe, the Brothers have focused on the weekly programs at Taizé itself and organizing annual youth meetings, such as the upcoming "pilgrimage of confidence on earth," set to take place in Milan at the end of December, 2005.
Set on such a path of both reconciliation and truth, Taizé continues to offer a "parable of community" to France and the rest of the world.
Otto Sellesis professor of French at Calvin College. He is currently in Grenoble, directing the Calvin Study in France program (Fall 2005).
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Other articles about Taizé include:
Weblog: Taizé Founder Brother Roger Remembered | Founder of broadly Christian community stabbed during service (Aug. 15, 2005)
A New Song | Taize's unique congregational singing is artistic, yet waits on the Spirit. (Aug. 17, 2005)
Learning the Ancient Rhythms of Prayer | Why charismatics and evangelicals, among others, are flocking to communities famous for set prayers and worshiping by the clock (Dec. 29, 2000)
A Pilgrimage of Trust with Taizé | After nothing less than a logistic miracle involving thousands of volunteers, the 17th European Meeting of Young People-sponsored yearly by the international and ecumenical Christian monastic community in Taizçª France-finally began. (Re:generation Quarterly, April 1, 1995)
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