We are each in the midst of a community — work, school, or family. Yet, at times, we feel alone. More times than I care to admit, I have written in my journal, ‘I’m so lonely!’ Yet how can I feel so alone when I am so often in a crowd?
What makes for community? How can I create community? Is there a path to becoming more communal and more loving? I looked for answers in Taizé.
Taizé was founded fifty years ago by Brother Roger who professed the power of Christian forgiveness, simplicity, and love. Four years ago Brother Roger was killed in the Taizé church, the Church of Reconciliation, by a deranged woman. After the murder, the brothers and the pilgrims still gathered for prayer. They forgave the woman. They prayed for love, the kind of love Brother Roger professed.
Along with ten members of the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, I was a pilgrim to the Taizé monestary in Burgundy, France. From October 11th to 18th, I was amidst more than 1,200 young people, mostly German students on autumn break.
I asked Brother Emile, a Canadian brother, “How do you make community? How do you 100 brothers from all over — from Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox traditions — live together so peaceably?”
“Forgiveness everyday!” Brother Emile replied. “Especially the everyday wounds.”
“It helps that we are from different countries. Because one can think, ‘Maybe it’s a cultural barrier and that person just has a different understanding,’” Brother Emile said.
While the brothers shared the value of forgiveness, I believe they also shared other values including:
Following Jesus’s footsteps
Giving unconditional love
Mentoring young people
Creating silence and space for reflection
Sharing a love of travel and global understanding
Remaining open to individuals at times leaving the community to spread the word
In the late morning after a brother’s bible study, the adults met in small groups. At first our group consisted of four Danish people and four Americans. But soon we were joined by a German retiree, a Finnish religion teacher, and a Dutch piano tuner. We answered Brother Wolfgang’s questions: “What would you like to win or achieve in life? What currency does Jesus use to define winning in life?”
We agreed that to trade in the currency Jesus valued, we must exchange more love. We talked about the times we felt loved in God’s kingdom or community. We discussed whether heaven was reserved for Christians. As our times together progressed, we continued to talk about the big questions, such as: What happens when you die? How do we share the Good News? Who is Jesus now?
One evening Brother Alois, Brother Roger’s successor, spoke in the sanctuary before the evening service. He said in life, we need, “love, play, unity.” He said we need freedom and institutions.
“We need institutions. Here, in Taizé we have the institution of the bells ringing three times a day. That is our institution.” Brother Alois emphasized that we must work within institutions to make them more open and less judgmental. I believe that was the gist of his remarks. However, his words were being simultaneously translated from German into English. The Abbott’s remarks were cut short by the ringing of the bells. Brother Alois shrugged apologetically, as if to say, ‘There is our institution at work – bells ringing three times a day for worship.’
The worship at Taizé was very simple. There was singing, scripture, and silence. Once a day, there was communion. On Saturday night there was a candle lighting service, signifying the resurrection of Easter. At that service, the children were the first to light the candles and pass the light. The small group of children was beautifully diverse. The experience of being led by the children was moving. I wished my children were with me to witness the beauty of the candlelight and song. The singing never failed to inspire awe. The harmonies! And then, there was the silence, which lasted between five to ten minutes at each service. The silence reverberated with meaning and comfort.
On the altar, there was an orthodox-style crucifix. There was a jumble of about a hundred cement blocks with candles within. It’s easy to imagine that the candles symbolized the light within each of us — those of us at Taizé and beyond. We each have a light within and we lean, round shouldered, like cement blocks, one upon another. I think is one clue as to what makes for community — an ability to lean upon one another.
Most of the service, we faced the altar, but for the reading of scripture, we turned towards the center of the church. I was struck by the beauty of hearing Jesus’s message read in several languages.
Something happened at the end of one of the evening services. Instead of processing out, some of the brothers stood like sentinels around the perimeter of the sanctuary. People approached them to confess their sins, tell their stories, or ask for guidance.
On that first night when the brothers were available for counsel, I asked for prayers and healing. I won’t tell you specifically what we talked about. But when the brother laid his heavy hand on my head, I felt truly blessed and protected. I felt I was in community.
The last night at Taizé, after the service, Brother Emile stood beside where I sat cross-legged. I admit I felt responsible for him, because no one was approaching him to ask for guidance or forgiveness (probably because he spoke English first and most at Taizé that week spoke German). So I went to him. I asked for traveling mercies for our group from New Jersey.
Brother Emile laid his hand on my head and prayed something like, “Jesus, forgive your friend, Mary Beth.” Maybe that was his standard prayer because I did not ask for his forgiveness. And this may be another clue as to what makes for community — receiving forgiveness even when you don’t ask for it. I admit I liked that Brother Emile called Jesus my friend.
Taizé, like all monastic life I imagine, is not without its hardships. For example, the living quarters are tight. The bunk beds are hard. You receive one large, ladled serving – maybe pasta, couscous, or rice and beans – at mealtime on a plastic plate with one utensil, a large spoon. The seats in the tents for meals and bible study are wobbly wooden benches. In the sanctuary, you sit or kneel on the floor. The sanctuary was warm, but outdoors it was cold.
I went to Taizé to lead a contemplative life. Yet, if truth be told, I also snuck away. I discovered treasures in the neighboring French countryside. I savored a precious cup of French coffee at a café and time away to write in my journal.
Yet never once, while on my pilgrimage to Taizé, did I ever complain in my journal, ‘I’m so lonely.’ I was a part of something bigger. I was a part of a communty. That made me feel so good.