I’ve just heard that Brother Roger of Taizé has been murdered. The Associated Press reports, “A woman wielding a knife killed silver-haired Brother Roger, witnesses said, during Tuesday night’s prayer service at the tranquil Taizé community in Burgundy, known worldwide for its devotion to peace.” May he rest in peace.
Brother Jean-Marie of Taizé wrote that there was never a “Taizé model” of prayer at the ecumenical community, but the brothers consistently discovered two fundamentals: singing – “There’s a fullness to sung prayer, an element of wholeness,” and silence.
Brother Jean-Marie said, “It’s impossible to imagine a time of prayer at Taizé without that long moment of silence in the middle. It’s a time of listening, a time to leave things before God, a time to be before God, to have one’s soul open for God.” Brother Roger’s gift to us is a space in a secularized Europe where we can still be attentive to God through the profundity of simple and ancient litanies and then discover the silence by which we can fully open ourselves before his mystery.
And, as Cardinal Godfried Danneels has written, answering the question of why so many young people were drawn to the community, “At the heart of Taizé, like a hidden wellspring, there is the community of brothers, silent and discreet, undemonstrative, entirely turned toward God and open to every guest, with unbelievably limited resources and with no pretension to making themselves stand out in the concert of the churches. Day after day, they sing the praise of God, give thanks, intercede. That is the final secret of Taizé: the exemplary force of the monastic life so ancient and so new.” Brother Roger always reminded us of this “final secret.”
What is Taizé? The answer is at once simple and complex. Douglas Hicks wrote about the Taizé community in 1992. It was then a half-century old. Roger Schutz had founded the community in 1940, when, already a student of monasticism who had lived in community with friends, he decided that he could not stay in neutral Switzerland while others suffered during the war. He went to France and decided to live at the village of Taizé, which was close to the medieval monastic village of Cluny and even closer to the line separating occupied from unoccupied France. He opened a house which became a refuge to those fleeing from the Nazis into the safety of Switzerland. During his activity, Roger kept praying three times a day and found friendship with Pierre Souvrain and Max Thurian, who would become an important ecumenical theologian. The neighbors, however, were fearful of his activities. When he was finally denounced to the Nazis, Roger retreated to Geneva and returned to Taizé in 1944, after the Liberation.
Then the community cared for orphans and even shared their food with former German soldiers at a nearby prisoner-of-war camp. By 1949, the Taizé community had nine members, and the brothers took a life vow to the experimental monastery. Roger also composed a very brief and simple rule. By 1952, Taizé was forming small “fraternities” of brothers in areas of need – two became “priest-workers” in Montceau-les-Mines, and, since then, there have been fraternities in places such as Algeria and “Hell’s Kitchen” in New York. Besides a commitment to “engagement,” Roger was also dedicated to ecumenical reconciliation. The “Rule of Taizé” states, “Never resign yourself to the scandal of the separation of Christians, all so readily professing love for their neighbor, yet remaining divided. Make the unity of Christ’s Body your passionate concern.” Roger, a Protestant pastor, attended all the sessions of Vatican II.
During the 1950’s and 60’s, the brothers were all Protestants, albeit from many different denominations, but Roger would not accept Catholics until they were cleared to join by all the ecclesiastical bodies. The first Catholic brother was a Belgian doctor who joined in 1969. Roger and Max Thurian also visited Constantinople several times and have since accepted Orthodox believers into the community.
The community was dedicated to “engagement,” and, rather unexpectedly, it discovered a ministry to many young people – “searchers,” often disillusioned with the institutional churches, who began to visit Taizé to participate in study, discussion, work, and perhaps prayer. Some brother worried that a monastery was really no place to take care of thousands of people and wanted to remove to a more secluded location, or at least keep the visitors at a retreat center some miles away. Roger instead allowed a tent city to be set up on the hillside of Taizé. Ten years before, hardly anticipating the rush of visitors, he had written in the Rule: “In each guest it is Christ himself whom we have to receive; so let us learn to be welcoming and be ready to offer our free time.” And so, by 1970, the community was holding “Councils of Youth.”
Brother Roger recognized the youth’s increasing dedication to the struggle for justice, but did not want them to abandon contemplation – he showed them how to unite prayer with solidarity with the oppressed. In 1973, he wrote, “In the struggle for the voice of the voiceless to be heard, for the liberation of every person, the Christian finds his place – in the very front line. And at the same time the Christian, even though he be plunged in God’s silence, senses an underlying truth: this struggle for and with others finds its source in another struggle that is more and more etched in his deepest self, at that point in which no two people are quite alike. There he touches the gates of contemplation.” In 1979, he would travel to Chile with a delegation to show Taizé’s support for solidarity with the suffering of Latin America.
Through the 1980’s, the brothers would hold meetings for youth all over the world. The community has evolved, but some things have been held constant (including singing and silence). Decisions have always been made under the influence of regular community prayer. And we can see continuity in the Rule. This Rule tells the brothers to live in the spirit of the Beatitudes – joy, mercy, and simplicity. Part of simplicity is to live in a community of goods and to give away all excess – for the Rule counsels, “If for God there is the generosity of distributing all the good things of the earth, for man there is the grace of giving what he has received.” The brothers are also celibate, grasping that this celibacy “can only be accepted with the aim of giving ourselves more completely to our neighbor with the love of Christ himself.” Most importantly, they continue to pray together three times a day.
This life of prayer is not an escape from the world, but a re-centering of it. Why pray when there is so much to be done? Brother Pierre-Yves Emery tells us, “Life itself scatters man’s attention, even when it more obviously has meaning only in relation to God.” As Hicks says, “Prayer,” by drawing life’s tensions and struggles together, “becomes the heart of life.” The Church of Reconciliation at Taizé helps one’s attentiveness with many icons and candles – the principal icon is Christ on the cross with two disciples beside him. Those disciples are us. The music is a simple song and chant, a psalm is sung, and brief scriptures are read (in ten languages). Then there are five to ten minutes of quiet, for God speaks to us in this silence. Roger writes, “Could God’s apparent silence be concealing a communion, the kind of communion where ‘deep calls to deep’? The human spirit is unfathomable, an abyss! But God is there already.” There is no end of the service, because prayer must not be so easily separated from life. The brothers come out of the silence chanting, moving from contemplation to the day’s work. They do not stop chanting as they leave the church, for the church must not be so easily separated from the world. The Rule says, “Your prayer becomes total when it is one with your work. Hour by hour pray, work or rest, but all in God.”
The community of Taizé has changed, but precisely because of the faithfulness to Christ and Christ in the neighbor that has drawn it to ecumenism, refugees, the world’s youth, and other unexpected strangers who must always be received as Christ himself. Roger writes, “If [the Taizé Community] were not deeply rooted in the Body of Christ, if it reached the point of considering itself self-sufficient, it would be turning its back on its own vocation: to make that love which is communion a living reality.” As John Paul II said about that vocation, “I do not forget that in its unique, original and in a certain sense provisional vocation, your community can awaken astonishment and encounter incomprehension and suspicion.” May we remember the imperative of making “that love which is communion a living reality” wherever we should find ourselves in this world.
And let us pray with the Taizé community. (That) morning, the following was read at the morning service at the Church of Reconciliation:
“Christ of compassion, you enable us to be in communion with those who have gone before us, and who can remain so close to us. We confide into your hands our Brother Roger. He already contemplates the invisible. In his footsteps, you are preparing us to welcome a radiance of your brightness.”