In the early 1980s I took a group of 17-year-old students from Belvedere College to Taizé. In the group was a boy whose older sister had recently been in a major car crash and was gravely ill in a coma. Indeed the story doesn’t have a happy ending, as the girl died some time afterwards. At the time of our pilgrimage, her brother was being macho about the situation and pretending he could handle it.
One evening, we met Brother Roger, the founder of Taizé, and I recall saying to him that one of our students had a sister who was gravely ill. I did not indicate which one, yet Br. Roger went towards him, his face creased in agonized compassion, and wrapped the boy in his arms. Tony simply dissolved in a torrent of tears, letting all his pain out, aware that it was safe to grieve in the arms of this man of God. The rest of us were transfixed. It was a moment of great grace which somehow captured the essence of Taizé.
Taizé is a tiny village in the Burgundy region of France, not far from the town of Cluny. It has become famous for its music and style of praying, and for its atmosphere of welcome. Groups of young people come from all over the world at different times of the year.
The Taizé Community is made up of over a hundred brothers, Catholic and Protestant, who come from roughly thirty nations. According to its website, it is a ‘parable of community’ that wants its life to be a sign of reconciliation between divided Christians and separated peoples.
It began with Br. Roger Schutz, the son of a Swiss Protestant pastor who was eager to bring together a few like-minded brothers in the Protestant tradition to live a life of prayer and reconciliation. He came to Taizé during the Second World War and decided this was the place to settle. He cared for and hid refugees and Jews in the early days until he had to flee as the Gestapo were on to him.
After the war he returned with a few brothers and they began to live a common life of simplicity and prayer. The community grew in numbers and in reputation, and young people began to come to spend some days with them.
Br. Roger was invited to be an observer at the Second Vatican Council and he became known to many influential figures in the Church. Catholics began to join the community. Early on, they were fortunate to come into contact with Jacques Berthier, organist in the Jesuit church of St. Ignace in Paris. He became the composer of many of the now famous Taizé chants – taking a simple line of Scripture or of prayer and setting it to a tuneful and easy-to-learn melody.
As the numbers visiting Taizé began to increase, the community adopted a flexible notion to extending their church – they simply broke down the walls and added provisional extensions! Those who go there stay in tents, and one of the ‘miracles’ of the place is the way in which up to 5,000 people can be fed three times a day, with simple but adequate food.
Groups usually stay for a week. The rhythm of the day is set by three prayer services, each lasting between 30-45 minutes of song, prayer, scripture and silence. It is a regular, monastic rhythm. There are no employees, so the distribution of meals is all done by volunteers under the supervision of the Brothers, helped by long-term volunteers. The Sisters of St. Andrew have a ministry in Taizé, welcoming and accompanying many girls and young women in their search for meaning and for God. Each day everybody queues outdoors for a simple breakfast, lunch and evening meal. After the evening prayer the young people gather to sing and dance and enjoy each other’s company before the day ends.
I have been going with groups of students and fellow staff members to Taizé since the early 1980s. Hardly ever has a student been disappointed with the experience; on the contrary, their enthusiasm is infectious.
Pope John XXIII’s observation is often quoted: ‘Ah, Taizé, that little springtime of the Church!’ The students talk about the atmosphere of the place – and the atmosphere has everything to do with the spirit of Christ Risen. Many have said that a sense of the Resurrection pervades Taizé – the joy and peace and the atmosphere of trust. Young people often say they feel at home and at ease.
Brother Roger used to say: ‘Christ is united to each human being, without exception.’ To meet him was to experience the reality of that statement. And Brother Alois, his successor, echoes that same refrain. The experience of Taizé, especially for young people, is a first step on their journey of finding themselves and in finding God in their lives. The experience is light, not heavy. Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, used to say: ‘Jesus never imposes himself on anyone – he invites.’ Young people respond to that invitation in Taizé.
This article first appeared in The Messenger (November 2008), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.