The Spirituality of Taize
by Patrick J. Burke
Autumn 1990, Vol.42 No.3, pp. 233-245
Brother Patrick J. Burke, O.P. is presently assigned to St. Mary's Priory, Tallaght, Dublin, Ireland. He is studying philosophy and politics in University College.
After a brief historical sketch of the Taize community, facets of its spirituality that appeal to people today are developed. As the Brothers accompany each other on the journey to God, they open their doors and lives to others.
TAIZE, a little village in the heart of the Burgundy region of France, is the home of an ecumenical community of Brothers. They are monks and contemplatives, yet they are missionary and apostolic. Their way of life embodies much of what is rich and central from the great Christian tradition, and yet there is a sense of freshness and newness in their approach. Some of the Brothers are Protestant, others are Catholic, yet they are united m one community. Mainline Christian traditions acknowledge them as having something special to say to contemporary humankind, and the many thousands of people who visit the community each year bear witness to this. Through prayer, silence and fellowship with people from many different cultures and Christian traditions, men and women have found in Taize the presence of the risen Lord Jesus offering them a new way and vision for the future.
What is this new and 'strange' phenomenon? How did it begin? Who is its founder and inspiration? What is its spirituality that has become so attractive to so many people? What of the future of Taize? In this essay we will try to answer these questions. We will attempt to come to an understanding of the spirituality of Taize, to try to understand what it is about it that appeals to modem humankind. While an account of its historical development would be very interesting it is not our subject here; therefore, only short reference will be made to it. Neither is a commentary on the Rule of Taize appropriate; but in order for us to understand its spirituality it will be necessary for us to discuss the style of life the brothers practice, for it is in the practice of a way of life that a spirituality emerges. We win also take account of the historical setting into which the Community of Taize was born and then discuss the plight of contemporary humankind in the modem world in which we live. Finally we will look briefly at the future of Taize.
FOUNDING OF THE COMMUNITY
Roger Louis Schutz-Marsauche, the founder and Prior of the ecumenical community of Taize was born in 1915 in the town of Provence in the Swiss Jura. His father, a Protestant minister of the Lutheran tradition, had a powerful influence on the life and spirituality of the young Roger. Of him Roger wrote many years later, "I am sure that my father was a mystic at heart. Very early in the morning he would go to pray alone in the Church. Once when I was about twelve, I even saw him go into a Catholic Church to pray." Of his mother Amelie, he wrote, "She demanded authenticity and truthfulness of us in our lives."
From an early age Roger was very conscious of the divisions between Protestant and Catholic, but was encouraged by his parents to look beyond them. While attending secondary school in a nearby town his parents chose to lodge him with a Catholic rather that Protestant family, because the Catholic family was in need of the income from the rent. Roger had very high regard for his maternal grandmother whom he remembers as having a powerful gift of welcome. Although she was also the wife of a Protestant pastor, she often attended Mass and even received Holy Communion. The openness, discretion, and freedom with which Roger grew up regarding the division of Christians in the years that followed developed into a prophetic quality that has been acknowledged the world over.
Despite the environment in which he grew up, Roger, like many of our young people today, experienced a crisis of faith during his teens. However, while recovering from tuberculosis, he spent many hours praying, studying, and thinking, until once again he discovered the presence of the Lord within him. At the age of twenty, Roger began the study of theology at Lausanne University, following in his father's footsteps. During those years he became president of the Students Christian Federation and worked tirelessly organizing meetings and seminars on prayer and scripture. It was while in his final year at Lausanne that Roger's dream began to take shape in his mind and heart. It is interesting to note that the title of Roger's thesis was The Ideal of the Monastic life before St. Benedict and its Conformity with the Gospel. This theme was hardly chosen by chance.
In 1941, awakened by the atrocities of the Second World War, Roger wrote: "The defeat of France awoke powerful sympathy. If a house could be found there, of the kind we had dreamed of, it would offer a possible way of assisting some of those most discouraged, those deprived of a livelihood: and it could be a place of silence and work." This was his dream. Shortly afterwards he acquired a house and small farm in the little village of Taize in the heart of Burgundy, one of the poorest and most afflicted parts of France. Here Roger toiled alone working the farm, praying and offering a welcome to all who came in need of help, especially Jewish refugees.
Roger longed to share his life with others and prayed that God would send him brothers who were of one vision with him. In 1949 his first brother arrived. As the years passed they were joined by many others from various strands of the reformed Churches. It wasn't until twenty years later that the first Roman Catholic brother came to the community. The following year a Roman Catholic priest, Frère Marcel joined, with full encouragement and approval from his bishop. Now what was once a dream became a reality -- the world had its first truly ecumenical community.
COMMUNITY RULE AND LIFESTYLE
As the number in the community increased, there emerged the need for a Rule to be written. During the winter of 1952-53, in the silence of a long retreat, Brother Roger wrote The Rule of Taize. Roger would have been very familiar with all the rules of existing religious orders, and yet he doesn't make explicit reference to any of them in his own rule. All his quotes come directly from the Scriptures. Brother Roger entitled the published version of his Rule The Parable of Community. This title itself gives us an insight into his vision. A parable speaks; it coveys a truth; it presents an example which illustrates a general principle. The word 'community' is the key to understanding the spirituality of Taize. Brother Roger sees the world as community; he sees the Church of Jesus Christ as community, and in his rule he calls on his brothers to participate in a "brotherly community, itself set in the body of the Church."
The Taize community is a microcosm of the Church, and within itself, reiterates the realities of the whole Church. Their life together is to be a 'sign' of hope to the world and especially to those who have grown despondent in the face of so much unrest and division among humankind. Their life together is to be a parable, something which an isolated group of committed people could not achieve. "In living a common life, have we any other end than to unify men committed to following Christ into a living sign of the unity of the Church?" Above all else this visible sign is possibly what attracts so many thousands of people to Taize each year. Implicit in the "parable" is that, yes indeed, humankind can live together in peace and harmony despite their cultural, political and religious differences. The differences are not to be ignored and pushed underneath the carpet, but are to be transcended by brotherly love in Christ who is the source of all unity. Brother Roger often talks about the need within the modem world for 'images' rather than ideals. The Community of Taize seeks to offer us all more than an ideology; their life is to be a tangible image, steeped in the realities of life in the real world.
The call of the Brothers of Taize is to accompany each other on the journey toward interiority and service of God. Roger instructs the brothers to "Bear the burdens of others, accept whatever hurts each day brings, so that you are concretely in communion with the sufferings of Christ: there lies our main discipline. Never stand still, advance with your brothers, race towards the goal in the steps of Christ. Be a sign for others of joy and brotherly love." While the style of life is monastic, there is a strong emphasis on being present to the age in which they live and to adapting themselves to the conditions of the present. In the foreword to the rule Roger quotes: "Father I pray you, not to take them out of the world, but to keep them from evil." The brothers are to be men of the present, aware of the social political and cultural realities around them. Their vocation is to respond to these realities by the way they five their lives, by the prayer of "fervent intercession" and praise, and by offering welcome to all, regardless of their "religious or ideological point of view."
Each day the Prior and community at Taize invite and welcome visitors to participate in their common prayer. Three times a day the Church of Reconciliation is packed to capacity for the hour-long services of praise and intercession. The structure of the prayer is similar to that of the "Divine Office" from the Catholic monastic tradition consisting of a hymn, psalms, scripture reading and intercessions. Roger encourages simplicity in the Rule concerning prayer and warns of the danger of multiplying signs and symbols which only lead to confusion. Common prayer is not an end in itself but only leads to the love of Jesus growing in our hearts. Neither does it dispense us from personal prayer; rather the two support and nurture each other.
All prayer is a surrendering to the living word of God, allowing it to penetrate our inmost being, 'melting and molding us' into the image of Christ himself. It is a listening, a searching, a seeking, a place of hunger and thirst and yet also a place of joy, jubilation, and fulfillment. The risen Christ dwells in us and beckons us on in the journey toward self-discovery and new life. Out of our prayer comes the strength to act, to play our part in the struggle to bring about the kingdom of God. Love is our motivation -- love of God and love of neighbor. Roger teaches his brothers in the Rule to "keep inner silence always, and you will dwell in Christ." He see inner silence as a prerequisite for prayer. In the world of tension and anxiety, where conflict is often the order of the day, he encourages us all to strive after inner silence. Inner silence "makes possible our conversation with God."
For most of us, our first encounter with Taize was through its music, an essential part of the worship there. As the number of visitors to Taize began to increase in the late fifties and early sixties, a pastoral problem arose for the brothers. French had been the only language of their worship up until then, and now many who came were not French-speaking and therefore felt alienated from the worship. "With the help of the musician Jacques Berthier, friend of Taize, different methods were tried out, and a solution was found in the use of repetitive structures, namely, short musical phrases with singable melodic units that could be readily memorized by everybody... The use of some very simple words in basic Latin (a language without allegiance to any particular culture or tradition), to support the music and the theme of prayer was also dictated by pastoral reasons." The music of Taize seems to appeal to young and old, regardless of nationality, culture or religious tradition. It is the Word of God set to music -- its constant gentle repetitive quality allows deep contemplation and prayer on the sentiments that it expresses.
A weekly liturgical cycle, blending in with the official liturgical seasons of the Church is in progress in Taize. Visitors are encouraged to spend a week with the community. The days are spent in prayer interspersed with discussion groups involving people from different parts of the world. Within the groups, exchanges take place on how each of the individuals can be a more effective minister in the various home situations. The discussions are normally based on the Scriptures but also on articles written by Brother Roger while he lived with poor or oppressed peoples in Asia, Africa, or Latin America.
On Friday nights the Cross of Taize, an icon brought to Taize by the members of the orthodox Church, is placed flat on the floor of the Church of Reconciliation. The weekly liturgical commemoration of the Paschal Mystery thus begins. All present are invited to come forward to the cross. As a gesture of their solidarity with the poor and oppressed peoples of the world, they place their foreheads on the Cross and remain there for a few moments. This symbolic gesture brings home very clearly that Christ still suffers in the downtrodden and victims of injustice in the world today. Through the liturgy, people come in touch with their own brokenness and pain and find it in their hearts to forgive both themselves and others. They become very much aware of the fact that the sufferings of Christ, as an act of total love, are for them personally, as well as for the rest of humankind. The Spirit of God enables people to seek repentance and healing and to know deep within themselves that they are indeed loved.
The climax of the liturgical week is undoubtedly the Service of Light which takes place on Saturday nights. This is not unlike our own liturgy for Holy Saturday night. All present are given candles as a symbol of the presence of the risen Lord. As the Christus Ressurrexit is being sung, the church is filled with a great sense of joy and hope. The risen Lord Jesus has conquered darkness and sin; he has broken the powers of oppression and misery, and he offers new life to all humankind. There is hope for humankind; there exists the real possibility for change, and there is, in the words of Brother Roger, "a life we never dared hope for."
The spirituality of Taize is, if anything, a spirituality of celebration -- celebration because of the resurrected Christ. Roger often prays that the "spring of jubilation may never dry up in our hearts." The message from Taize is always one of hope and festival. Once Roger was asked to explain what he meant by the word festival. He replied; "In every person lies a zone of solitude that no human intimacy can fill: and there God encounters us. There, in that depth, is set the intimate festival of the risen Christ. So henceforth, in the hollow of our being, we discover the risen Christ: he is our festival." The God of Brother Roger is one who seeks us out, who never ceases to look for us, to call to us, and who, on finding us "rejoices and dances over us." In his Rule, Roger exhorts the brothers to "be filled with the Spirit of the Beatitudes: joy, simplicity and mercy."
"Perfect joy is self-giving. Whoever knows it seeks neither gratitude nor kindness. It is sheer wonder renewed by the sight of the generosity of the Giver of all gifts, material and spiritual. It is thankfulness. It is thanksgiving." The joy which the brothers of Taize seek is the joy that comes from living in the precious present. It is to live in the 'now,' for it is in the present moment that God is loving and saving us. This true joy comes from within and is born out of simplicity of life. To experience this joy the brothers of Taize constantly strive to simplify their model of living.
"As peace with Christ involves peace with your neighbor, seek reconciliation, make amends where you can." The divisions in the world come from a lack of mercy and forgiveness. As the Taize Community is a microcosm of the world, Roger exhort his brothers to always have an attitude of reconciliation and forgiveness. When we are called to forgive we are also called to forget the sins which have been committed against us. We are only doing as Christ has done for us. To forgive is not to be weak; rather it is to be strong. When we are truly reconciled with one another we become simpler and less complicated. We choose joyfully to forget ourselves and we freely seek nothing in return.
As one enters the Church of Reconciliation at Taize, posted up in many different languages is a sign which reads, "Let all who enter here be reconciled, brother with brother, sister with sister, nation with nation." To harbor resentment, bitterness or 'unforgiveness' is not only to imprison others but it is also to imprison ourselves. The world will only become truly free when humankind learns reconciliation and forgiveness. It is forgiveness that will break down the walls of division and separation that prevent us from seeing the dignity of ourselves and each other. The parable of Taize strives to be a example of this for us all.
There is also a missionary dimension to the Community of Taize. Some of the brothers have formed small communities among some of the most destitute peoples in the world from Calcutta in India to 'Hell's Kitchen' in New York. The life that the missionary brothers are to lead is provided for in the Rule. They are to live as the home community live, giving witness to the presence of the risen Lord and bearing joy to all with whom they come in contact with. The brothers of Taize do not, like most monks, take a vow of stability. Roger does, however, say that the brothers should never delay in returning to the community after a period of absence.
CONTEMPORARY, ECUMENICAL APPEAL
One of the things that has always fascinated me about Taize is that it attracts people to it. By that I mean that they never, as a community, try to advertise their existence or to lure people to visit them. Neither do they go outside the confines of the monastery to minister to people even in their communities outside of Taize. Yet, year by year, more and more people come there to join in the life of the community. Perhaps this has a very important lesson for all of us who seek to journey in the Christian vocation. When we begin to really live the Gospel in our own lives, and in the particular life situations in which we find ourselves, then we too will attract others. We must let our light shine before all people so that they too may believe. There is however, a very authentic vocation to 'go out' and preach to balance this particular charism.
On visiting Taize, one is immediately struck by its cosmopolitan nature. The members of the community and those who are visiting come from different parts of the world. The variety of language and race is immediately obvious; yet the oneness and unity of all is almost tangible. One becomes very much aware of the vastness of the human family and of the links that exist between us. In the community of the peoples of the world, God has chosen to dwell. Christ's incarnation was and is a big yes to humanity. We belong to each other because we are members of the same body. If part of that body is hurting, we are all hurting; if part of that body is oppressed or downtrodden then we are all oppressed and down-troddened. Our calling is to be present to each other in all the realities of living, just as God is present to us in our humanity. It is for us to work tirelessly for the Kingdom of God which was first proclaimed and manifested in Jesus. The world would not allow us to continue our search for justice and peace for all humankind because of fear, yet our prayer catapults us into action. Our struggle flows out of our contemplation and prayer, because the fruit of prayer is divine love.
The struggle for the liberation of the oppressed peoples of the world is inseparable from the spirituality of Taize. Brother Roger in his conversations with young people was, from the very beginning, challenged to respond to their questions. Many who visit are themselves victims of unjust regimes and social structures and come to Taize to seek the counsel of Brother Roger. Roger assures them that; "step by step I am with you in the terrible struggle which you have undertaken for those whom others -- including us Christians -- have left aside. Living with the poorest of people, your service goes beyond what is humanly possible.. I recall your inner combat. And my thought is : true, reforms are essential for the people of God - but only on one condition, that people themselves be transformed." Roger is in no doubt where the struggle for liberation must first begin, in the human heart. If in our hearts there is unforgiveness, bitterness, fear and resentment, then this will be in our societies also. The battle for liberation must then be fought on two fronts at the same time - on a social level and on an intrapersonal level.
A Colombian Jesuit, acknowledging that the Taize community was noted for its contemporary line of thought, once asked brother Roger to explain why his brothers were not familiar with the theology of Bultmann. Roger replied "our strength is limited; hence a choice is necessary. What we lose on one side we gain on the other where we reckon that the fate of humankind is being played out. Is anyone capable of fighting on several fronts simultaneously?"
While the brothers at Taize acknowledge the importance of the struggle for justice they realize that their own vocation does not allow them to do all things. They have to make choices, and choices by their very nature exclude one thing in favor of another, even when two goods are at stake. Visitors to Taize, through prayer and fellowship with people from different cultures and traditions are encouraged to make choices after concrete reflection on their own life situations. Choices must be real, and once they are made they must be possible to carry through. The Holy Spirit will bring to completion the good work we have begun in the name of the Lord Jesus.
THE FUTURE OF TAIZE
What then of the future for the community of Taize? Is it to face the same fate as so many other great movements of the Spirit down through the centuries? Is it to become institutionalized and lose its initial fervor and excitement? History bears out that every movement of the Spirit within the Church, every new initiative, every new Order began its days in a spirit of great fervor, excitement and with a tremendous sense of freedom. As we have seen, the community of Taize is no exception. History further reveals, however, that a leveling off period follows the initial period of enthusiasm. The community of Taize will no doubt have to experience this in the future. Brother Roger is still very much alive and well, his inspiration and personality is still very central to the charism and attraction of Taize. Some argue that the success of Taize has been primarily as a result of Brother Roger's personal charism and that in the event of his passing the community will decline. It seems to me, however, that while it is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the role of Brother Roger in the success of Taize, the community and its charism is now mature and well established and no longer dependent on its founder.
Over the ten or so years during which I have been visiting the Taize community I have observed that the spirituality of the community has come very close to the Roman Catholic position. The Roman Catholic Mass is celebrated each Sunday as an integral part of the week's liturgy for the community. Marian feasts are celebrated with great solemnity, and the Blessed Sacrament is preserved in the main chapel in the Church of Reconciliation. Furthermore, some of the community have become Roman Catholics and of those, some have been ordained to the Roman Catholic priesthood. Will this tendency continue and if it does what effect will it have on the future of the community? It is difficult to speculate, but one hopes that the original ecumenical inspiration of the community will not be put in danger.
Contemporary humanity is passionately concerned with the world in which it lives and is striving to bring it to a better future. We have become aware of our own responsibility in the work of shaping the future. Recent technological and scientific developments have brought great hope and possibility for change to the world. At the same time we are now more conscious than ever of the challenge of human misery and the scandal of famine, poverty, disease, and ignorance. But for the first time in the history of humankind there is the very real possibility of eliminating want and sickness in the world. The Church has a part to play in this process and modern humankind looks to her for guidance and inspiration. The Community of Taize to a great extent, it seems to me, has embraced this search for a better future for humankind by the witness of its life. Those who go to Taize have recognized this, and gain inspiration from it. As one of the many thousands of young people who travel to Taize occasionally, I have found there the Risen Lord Jesus guiding me to discover the part that I am to play in his work. I have discovered in the brothers of Taize not spiritual giants or gurus, but men, like myself, who are themselves searching, seeking, and through the grace of God, finding. The brothers of Taize are men who are familiar with inner struggle, but who have the courage to face it, hand in hand with Jesus. They are human and not afraid to show their humanity to others. They have not yet reached their destination but are journeying with the rest of humankind.
The spirituality of Taize is a spirituality that is firmly rooted in the great Christian tradition of the past, yet it is open to the contemporary world, but most of all it is centered on the gospel of Jesus Christ. Pope John XXIII, a friend of Brother Roger's once referred to Taize as "that little springtime." A 'springtime' indeed it is, for there in a very special way the Spirit of God has breathed new life and hope into numerous people who have come there in search of hope and meaning to their lives. Through the prayer, silence and fellowship with people from many different cultures and Christian traditions, men and women have found in Taize, the presence of the Risen Lord Jesus offering them a new way and vision for the future.
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