Keep Watch, Take Heart

For years, friends have been telling me about their incredible experience visiting the Taize community in France. I have always wanted to go and see for myself, and I finally had the opportunity as one of our study visits through the Ecumenical Institute. Our main reason for visiting was to see the model of communal life that the brothers and visitors to Taize have, compared to the model that we follow here at Bossey.

Just as a bit of history, the Taize community was started in 1940 by a Swiss man named Roger. He wanted to find a place where he could live out the Scriptures and a simple, faithful way of life with like-minded people. Catholic religious communities are very popular in religious history (and Taize is just outside of Cluny, one of the most influential monastic communities during the Middle Ages…), but there weren’t a lot of places like it for Protestants. He dreamed of something very old, but very new!

The first brothers made their life commitment to poverty, chastity, and simplicity 9 years later. They commit to holding no possessions as their own, sharing everything with the rest of the community. And they all commit to a simple way of life, taking no more than what they need and continuing to work in order make a living – many of the brothers work at pottery, making beautiful pieces that are sold in a shop on the grounds of Taize and elsewhere.

After Vatican II in the 60s, it became possible for Catholic brothers to join the community, which they slowly did. But this raised a whole host of new questions. What is our theology? What do we have in common? What do we do about taking Holy Communion together? WHO ARE WE and who do we want to be? After a long process, Taize has received an exception of sorts from the Vatican that as long as the sacrament of Holy Communion is presided over by a Catholic priest, Protestants are welcome to partake if they feel comfortable. This led our group to ask the question, “Well if they can do it at Taize, can’t we do it elsewhere?” As I’ve written about before, not being able to share Holy Communion together has been one of the deepest pains of the ecumenical movement, and for me personally during my time at Bossey. But this exception from the Catholic Church hasn’t solved the problem entirely – Orthodox brothers and sisters are still not allowed by their theology or ecclesiology to take communion from or with anyone other than an Orthodox. One of the Orthodox students shared with me during the weekend that it was even MORE painful for there to be communion and them not be able to take part than for there not to be communion at all, and my heart broke for them. The way forward is still not clear, but for me at least the imperfect solution they have at Taize is a good first step…

By far, my favorite part of being at Taize was participating in the prayer services held three times a day. Anyone who knows me knows that singing is my favorite part of worship, and it takes a central place in the worship at Taize. The brothers sing and chant much of the service, in beautiful harmonies. Over the years, songs have been written especially for the Taize community and some have become very well known. Our first night there, a small group of us stayed for a long time after the worship service had officially ended. After the service, the church remains open for people to stay to pray and sing. In beautifully spontaneous worship, someone will pick a song they want to sing  out of the songbook and just begin to sing! People join in and we’ll sing together for a few minutes, until the Spirit leads someone else with a new song, and it just continues on… It was absolutely magical.

We also were privileged to get some time to chat directly with the brothers. On Saturday, we had an hour as a group to sit with Brother Alois, the prior of the community. He was hand-picked by Brother Roger, the man who started the Taize community, and Brother Alois took over leadership of the brothers after Brother Roger was murdered in 2005. He shared with us about the history of Taize, its development over time, and the challenges the brothers have had to work through as a community with each new change. He also took time to answer some of our questions and to get to know us, asking for our insights about what we’ve learned as we practice communal living in our own unique way at Bossey.

We also had time in small groups to meet with a brother from our particular regions of the world. Taize is almost as diverse as our group at Bossey – there are 90 brothers from around 30 different countries. So the 4 students from North America (3 Americans and 1 Canadian) got to meet with one of the brothers who is American, John Mark. He shared his story about finding his way to Taize and what led him to commit his life to the Rule and the community. And we spent a long time having a really insightful conversation about religious pluralism in America (both inter-denominational AND inter-religious), and the ways in which it is both a gift and a challenge to Christians and our work towards unity.

We shared in the simple way of living while we were at Taize, staying in very basic accommodations (think old church camp with bunk beds…) and sharing in very basic meals along with the other groups staying at Taize. Boy, if we hadn’t realized already how spoiled we are with the amazing food at Bossey, our group figured it out pretty fast! But for me, it was a welcome opportunity to be reminded of all the blessings I receive each day without even thinking about them or stopping to express my gratitude to God for them. And it was an invitation to all of us to experience the way of Jesus, the one who lives in solidarity with those do not have all that they need.

I will say that it was a TOTALLY different experience being at Taize for a weekend in December than what my friends who have been for a week during the summer experienced. During the peak summer months, there are up to a few thousand people there at the same time! But there were no more than 200 or so of us there. It felt a little strange, like being at the state fairgrounds when there’s no fair… a little like a ghost town. I still had a wonderful time and enjoyed my experience, but I think we missed out on the joyful atmosphere of community that summer visitors get.

We were asked before we arrived to pay attention while we were at Taize to what we thought was so appealing to the thousands and thousands of people, mostly young people, who make pilgrimage to the Taize community each year. What I saw at Taize is a community willing to think creatively and willing to take risks, and a desire to maintain a vision of church as a community of people loving and serving Jesus together rather than church as institution. Brother Roger started a Protestant religious community when such a thing was really rare, they invited Catholic brothers to join their community when no one though they could live successfully together. And this was only a few decades after the World Council of Churches had been formed and modern ecumenism was still a relatively new thing! They were flexible and courageous enough to envision new ways of understanding Communion theology, they were flexible enough to grow and expand as more and more people began coming to visit, and they risked everything to continue pursuing the way of life they felt called to even after it cost one of their own his life. Seventy of the men share a home together, facing the everyday challenges of getting along and sharing responsibilities with one another. Throughout it all, they’ve been willing to constantly reflect and be self-critical – figuring out what works and what doesn’t, constantly striving to love God and neighbor better. And each and every day, committing to the discipline of putting on a white robe three times a day and singing their praises to God as their primary aim. It’s what inspired me, at least, but I think that’s what inspires young people when they come to Taize.

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