What’s wrong with intentional community?

Thousands of people sing and worship together in this intentional community in Taizé.

I wrote an article for a Christian magazine a couple of months ago and mentioned that a young missionary lived in an intentional community with other missionaries.

I thought it was cool, because the missionary said the four young women had weekly meetings and talked about any cohabiting issues that’d come up — like cleaning out the fridge. And then they’d pray together.

This minor reference to an intentional community was edited out of the article. I wondered why. But, as usual, I didn’t make a fuss. I never asked the editor, Was there something wrong with that information?

And then, last night, I saw the movie Wanderlust. The leader of the hippie commune corrects Paul Rudd, “No, not a commune; We prefer intentional community.” And everyone in the audience laughed. And then I got it. Intentional community is perceived as hippy, dippy, grungy, suspicious, free love, attractive but not sustainable.

Briefly, I lived in intentional community. There was hardship and friendship. (That's me on the right, with Lee, our wrangler).

Tell that to the monks and religious orders. Religious people, like monks, priests, nuns, and, even young adult missionaries, live together and care for one another in communities all over. And it makes good sense, especially as people age and do not have children or spouses to care for them. Human beings are social creatures. We crave community, intentional or ad hoc.

Is being one half of a married, straight couple the only sanctioned way to live? I don’t think so. I thought a lot about this when I went to Taizé a few years ago. In that monastery, the brothers seemed to care a lot about one another and they cared a lot about the thousands of people visiting and living with them. That is intentional community too.

Brother Roger, who founded the Taizé community in 1940, said, “I think that I never lost the intuition that community life could be a sign that God is love, and love alone.”

If an intentional community is based on love – and figuring out who cleans the fridge – that does not seem to be so crazy. That seems to me to be the point.

Remembering Taizé

I made a pilgrimage to Taizé about a year and a half ago.

I loved the amazing music, the worship three times a day, the time of silence in a large group, and the look of the church. Yet after a day or two monastic life was not for me.

It began to seem more like Outward Bound than a week in the French countryside. For example, you live in very tight living quarters in what are called barracks; your meal is ladled onto a plastic plate; your one utensil is a spoon; your seats in the tent are wooden benches that teeter and tip you over; it was unforgivingly cold.

I realized I needed to break free. I realized I have a restless spirit and that I find peace when I am on the go as well as quietly prayerful. I discovered a way out — a bus cuts through the campus. I snuck away during morning service and boarded the public bus for one Euro fifty cents. I took the bus until a petite ville beckoned. I hopped off and had an adventure.

I traveled to the monastery for a quiet and contemplative life. Yet, if truth be told, I found more treasures in the neighboring French countryside and the world beyond the gates.

While my visit to Taizé was not what I’d expected, not entirely contemplativethe memories of that time — of exploring neighboring villages and sitting on the floor in the church comfort me and remind me that I am not alone and that I am bound for adventure.

This is a bit of rework from my earlier blog post and from my travel blogging site: MBCoudal @ travelpod.  http://www.travelpod.com/travel-blog-entries/mbcoudal/1/1256052233/tpod.html#ixzz1PDNpyITx

Make Up Your Own Rules

I have written my 7 Rules as a way of staying sane, given the challenges of my life – with Chris’s diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease six years ago; our kids growing up; and my full time writing work. All of which I love, but my life can be hard, and, at times, lonely.

My 7 Rules boost my happiness quotient. But you can write your own rules. Make them pithy, creative, reflective of you. Throw in one that is literary, one that is obscure, one that is spiritual and at least one that is cliché.

When I was at Taizé monastery last fall, I met Simeon, a piano tuner from The Netherlands. In our Bible Study, he said, “God’s rules for one person won’t work for another.” He was so right. He was such a spiritual, religious and compassionate person. His words reminded me why everyone should follow their own God-inspired rules.

I know that as Christians we have guidance for how to live when we try to live like Jesus did. I want to be as loving and justice-seeking as Jesus was. Yet, I believe Jesus made up his rules as he went along too. He was human. He turned over tables in the church. He listened to his own intuition/guidance/spirit/God. His rules were rooted in his own faith, family and personal history.

Completely random thought – Did Jesus ever lack confidence? Did he ever doubt his purpose the way I do? I guess it’s fine to doubt yourself so long as you do not live in that self-doubting place forever. That’s key — that if you are doubting or critical of yourself and your purpose, you cannot reside in that negative place for too long. You have to find humor in your predicament. Otherwise, you will never get anything done. Or let anyone in.

Getting things done and letting people in – these two human instincts are important to me. I like being productive and I like being communal. I’d like to add these two rules to my 7 Rules, but, well, I’ve already got 7 and I might as well stick with my 7. If I were to add 2 more, that would be 9. Nine Rules for Living? That’s a different blog.


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

Singing together

Learning together

Creating silence and space for reflection

Sharing a love of travel and global understanding

Celebrating ecumenism

Remaining open to individuals at times leaving the community to spread the word

Small Groups

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 Service

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.

Taize Service & My Guys

Candle Lighting Service

The huge bells toll, ring, do all those verb-y things that huge bells do.

In the church, the brothers take the center aisle like NFL players taking the field. In their efforts to be humble, they are bigger than life. They walk to their usual seat or knee rest. Sometimes they go to a new spot on the center aisle, but usually they take the same spot, Brother Emile said.

Brother Emile, who is Canadian, is one of “my guys.” There are other brothers that I love – the tall one who served me communion, the Asian one who helped me change rooms, the one who leads Bible Study. The Bible Study Leader is Brother Wolfgang and he rides a bicycle to Tent F where the adults gather. I admit I have a weakness for bike-riding monks.

One of my friends said that Wolfgang was one of her guys until he stopped leading the Bible Study in English and just let it be simultaneously translated into English by a couple of German 20-something year olds. But she liked his grey hair.

One of the brothers is handsome in a Robert Redford kind of way. I think he may be in love with a dark-haired 20 year old German woman. As he processed by her last night, he coughed. Then, the dark-haired girl’s friend, the one with glasses, pinched the dark-haired girl. They practically swooned. The cough signified something. But what?

Something new happened towards the end of the service. Instead of processing out, some of the brothers stood like sentinels around the perimeter of the sanctuary. Why? The answer becomes clear as people approached them. It’s confession or a time for guidance.

I have to admit I went up to one brother that night. I will not tell you what we talked about. But when he lay his heavy hand on my head, I really felt blessed and protected.

Then the last night at Taize, after the service, Brother Emile is standing right next to me. And I feel sorry for him, because no one is coming up to him to ask for guidance or forgiveness, so I go to him. I ask him for blessings for our group’s travel. And he puts his hand on my head and says something about “Jesus, forgive your friend, Mary Beth.” And maybe that’s his standard prayer but I wasn’t asking for forgiveness. I did like that he said I’m a friend of Jesus’s though. And I wondered if I could Facebook friend Jesus, would I?

Light Within

written around October 15, 2009 at the Taize community

The Altar

Last night I stayed in evening worship until the candles were extinguished by two young people. Today I arrived early to morning service in time to see the candles being lit by one young man. I was one of the first in and the last out (FILO). I also was one of the first out at the morning service.

The altar is a jumble of about a hundred leaning cement blocks with candles within. It’s hard for me not to imagine that the candles are symbolic of all of the lights within all of us at Taize and beyond. We each have a light within and we lean, round shouldered on one another.


Although I love the worship three times a day – the amazing singing (the harmonies!) and the time of silence, I must admit that monastic life may not be for me.

Taize is more like Outward Bound than a week in the French countryside. For example, you have the tight living quarters in the barracks, the ladled serving at mealtime on a plastic plate, the one utensil (a spoon), the seats on wooden benches, and the unforgiving cold.

The Bus

I did discover a way out — there is a bus that cuts through the campus. Today, like several days, I snuck away from morning service and boarded the public bus for one Euro fifty cents. I took the bus until a petite ville beckoned. I hopped off and had an adventure.

I stayed at Taize and led a contemplative life. Yet, if truth be told, I also snuck away, and discovered hidden treasures in the neighboring French countryside. Both kept me going. And the memories will keep me going.

Changing Barracks

I am sensitive. I am a light sleeper.

Because of the snoring, that first night at Taize, I did not get more than one or two hours of sleep. At three in the morning, I sat outside under a bare lightbulb. I was cold on that concrete step. It was raining lightly. I read the book, “Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close.”

I never want to cause any waves or ruffle any feathers so when I had to go to La Morada to ask if I could be moved from my barrack, I felt bad. (Yes, the Taize bunk bed rooms are called barracks.)

But the barrack the gentle novitiate moved me to already had its six beds (three bunk beds) full. (“I will have to ask one of the sisters to investigate,” he said.)

The only barrack left for me was with the four women on the silent retreat week.

“I promise I will not speak to them,” I said.

“And they certainly will not speak to you,” the brother said.

“Let’s hope they are as quiet in the night as they are in the day,” I joked. He smiled, unapologetically, raised his eyebrows, as if he could not guarantee.

The women were quiet and peaceful. After my first dark night of the soul at Taize, I got many good nights sleep on the top bunk in the quiet room with the women (mostly German, I figured) who were on silent retreat.

They were incredibly quiet and extremely close.