Taize is the name of a small village in the Burgundy region of France. It’s name has taken on a wider significance in church circles since it is also the home of a religious community founded in the late 1940’s by a man known as Brother Roger. Raised in a Reformed Protestant tradition, but heavily influenced by his Roman Catholic grandmother, it became Roger’s dream to be part of a religious community that was ecumenical. As the German forces began their march into what became World War II, his dream included the themes of reconciliation and peace. One day not long after the war he left home riding a bike carrying his dream, faith and a few dollars. He left his Swiss homeland, rode through the hills of France, rested in this village, liked it and stayed to begin his life’s work. Over fifty years later the community has grown and thrived and is known around the world.
Roger was joined by friends who shared his vision and the farm they started became also a haven for displaced Jews and other war refugees. Their hospitality began in a way that included a sensitivity to other cultures, people and languages. They were all people united by prayer and a desire for peace. In the intervening years the ministry grew and pilgrims came from parts of Europe who wanted to experience this idea of ecumenical prayer. What has become for many Christians a familiar word, “ecumenical” was radical, misunderstood and suspect. Yet, the simplicity of the idea and the gentle way in which it was lived on a hillside in France attracted many visitors.
During the 1960’s peace movements and a distrust of the institutional church seem to have increased the popularity of Taize among younger pilgrims. Today, the ministry caters to youth under the age of 30. While “older” people are certainly welcome, there is no doubt that the youth command center stage and attention. Somewhat subject to the academic calendar, the attendance swells from a few hundred in the winter to as many as 8,000 in the summer months. Relatively few cabins are supplemented by as many tents as are needed for such a crowd.
All visitors become part of the community for the duration of their stay. Though not required, it is expected that all will observe the three daily prayer times, attend the “bible orientations”, and be assigned work. The complex systems needed to organize so many people seems to flow simply and young people are the hub. Those who have been on previous visits have more responsible tasks. The young volunteers also organize the “adults”. The adult group meet in a separate facility and are housed at the far end of the community grounds. This dynamic can be seen in different ways - and is discussed from each vantage!
The heart of Taize beats in the chapel. All ages, races and nationalities are represented in the visitors as well as the community of brothers. Because of it’s proximity, French is the dominant language although German, Dutch, Spanish, Russian , and English are very evident. The brothers have written their own chants and hymns over the years born out of their experience welcoming such diverse people. Its repetitive, simple melody line allows those who don’t know the language it’s written in to participate. Verses of the hymns are sung by the brothers while everyone else chants the refrain. Even the verses follow different languages so everyone can hear their own tongue at some point. Long periods of silence at each prayer service and Communion at the morning service round out the experience. Benches and chairs are available but the most common seating is on the floor which slopes to the front and a backdrop of sheets of orange fabric against a yellow wall. Icons are arranged throughout the church. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the surge in Eastern Orthodox visitors, onion domes were placed on the front as a welcome sign!
Some years ago when the brothers became aware of the rapid increase among young visitors, they faced the question of limiting the number or expanding their facility, especially the church. Their solution was to knock down the back wall of the church and put up a circus tent. Enough time has passed that the tent has been replaced by a solid structure, but it’s a series of expansive rooms separated by garage door partitions, opened or closed as the number of visitors swells or diminishes. The focal point remains the colorful front wall and the brothers who sit in a rectangular formation in the middle making them both part of the whole, yet still within the ranks of their community.
Taize was born out of the dream and idealistic energy of a young man. That energy is still part of the community and experience. It is a dream that offers hospitality to all people, prays with them in their own language, but also the universal language of love and acceptance. Communities form in small study groups that put together people from different countries and languages who must then find a way to communicate and share their faith. Hundreds of thousands have now come through Taize and it’s believed that the prayer for peace and reconciliation so vivid here has opened doors politically as the young people who visited came of age in leadership positions around the continent. The young have a way of seeing simple solutions to complex issues. At Taize they are supported in that skill and encouraged to bring it outward.
In my study group there were four Russians, three Americans, three Germans and a man from Holland. Fortunately many Europeans are multi-lingual and among the Russians was an English interpreter. The denominations represented were Russian Orthodox, Episcopalian, Roman Catholic, Moravian, Dutch Reform, Lutheran and one without affiliation who was seeking. The assigned questions from the morning Bible Orientation simply provided a springboard to learning about each other, our faith, traditions, experiences and anything else we could think of. There was lots of laughter and some serious sharing. The man from Holland confessed he had prejudice against Russians that he would have to rethink. It was that kind of breakthrough that makes Taize so important and is a seed of peace and reconciliation. That kind of discovery multiplied hundreds of thousands of times throughout the years, especially among the young is the making of hope.
A couple years ago during a service, while people were chanting, a woman approached Brother Roger and in her deranged state took out a knife and fatally stabbed him. The potential chaos was quelled by the brothers who continued the chanting while some took care of the situation. The community misses Brother Roger but transcends him. The fulfillment of a dream is it’s continuation past the life of the dreamer. The tragedy of Roger’s death underscores the triumph of the dream of a young man that found root in the idealism and energy of so many other young men and women.
“Alleluia” is a word that is the same in all languages. It’s used a lot here. God draws us all together and unites people while preparing them to go into the world committed to peace and reconciliation.