By Otto Selles
Taizé in the Fall
Upon arriving in France last August, I discovered on the front page of the newspaper that Brother Roger, founder of the ecumenical Taizé; community, had been murdered during evening prayer by Luminita Solcan, a deranged Romanian woman. In addition to my shock over his death, I was, somewhat selfishly, concerned about my own plans to bring a group of 19 Calvin College students to Taizé;. Would the community's spirit be broken? And practically, would Taizé; restrict access to the Brothers?
"Nothing at Taizé; has changed. There is no security," said Brother Jean-Marie, when my group finally arrived in lower Burgundy for a very chilly November weekend retreat at Taizé;.
A native Long Islander, Brother Jean-Marie joined the community in 1981, straight out of college. And while the community continues to grieve Brother Roger's death, he stressed that "the community is very, very united." Since August, four new brothers, from France, Senegal, Argentina, and Indonesia, have joined, illustrating the Taizé;'s vitality and international diversity.
According to Brother Jean-Marie, "prayer is the glue" uniting Taizé;. The community offers visitors a set program: eat, discuss, participate in chores, and pray—three times a day.
When we came to Taizé; late on a Friday night, we ate a simple dinner and rushed off to evening prayer in the community's largest building, the Church of Reconciliation. As the Taizé; songbook indicates, "meditative chant" would be the best way to describe the prayer service. Simple songs, in French, English, Latin, and a host of other languages, are sung repeatedly, broken by a Scripture reading and also a five-minute time of silence.
"When the singing started," said Ryan Poling, a 20-year-old junior from Chicago, "I sat there and let the soothing melodies wash over me. I added my own voice, too, and before I knew it, I was among only four other singers, three-and-a half hours later. It felt too soon to leave."
Another student in my group, Courtney Lasater, a 22- year-old senior from Grand Rapids, echoed a similar appreciation for the open-ended nature of the services. "I think that back home we sometimes focus too much on schedules and sermons that we forget how to just openly worship God together, without thinking about how much time we have left until we go home."
For other students, the glue of prayer didn't stick so well. I heard complaints about sore backs and the awkwardness of not knowing what was happening during a prayer service. Some missed the energy of a praise and worship band or the clear call to repentance heard in an American evangelical sermon. As the weekend progressed, they also raised questions about Taizé;'s blending of rituals from Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox traditions.
MaryBeth Myhren, a 20-year-old junior from New York State, enjoyed feeling useful through the chores and expressed great respect for the Brothers. "They are a true physical example of the love of Christ." At the same time, she felt uncomfortable with Taizé;'s spiritual mix and matching. "If you accept everything, you represent nothing."
I asked Brother Jean-Marie whether the community leaned more to Catholic or Protestant traditions in its ecumenism. He explained that Brother Roger's goal was "reconciliation rather than conversion" to one specific church: "He said, for example, when people asked if he was Catholic or Protestant, 'I find my Christian identity in reconciling the faith of my origins (which was out of an old Reformed family) with the faith of the Catholic Church, without breaking with anyone.' "
Saturday afternoon, the Calvin group met with Brother Pedro. Originally from Barcelona, he entered Taizé; in 1971 and lived with a fraternity (a small group of Brothers) in the "Hells' Kitchen" area of New York City during the 1980s and 1990s. He spoke candidly about the challenges of the monastic life and also the difficulties involved in receiving thousands of visitors.
Responding to questions on doctrinal matters, particularly over the Eucharist and icons, Brother Pedro spoke of the community's desire "to bring together all this richness" shown in Christianity. "Why not?" he asked rhetorically. "Each church has a specific gift to bring."
I broke into the discussion to ask the question that had been bothering me since my arrival in France. How could one explain Brother Roger's murder, which occurred in the Church of Reconciliation? "He was a figure of peace," Brother Pedro answered. "Evil cannot resist goodness."
That evening, all young people were invited to the community's main house to meet Brother Aloïs, the new prior, in Brother Roger's room. Despite the honor, I was a bit apprehensive. Had the room already been turned into a shrine?