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Sunday, August 20, 2006

A vacation in Pentecost: A sermon about Taize.

A sermon delivered to the First Unitarian Church in Worcester, Mass., on Sunday, August 20, 2006, by Christopher L. Walton.

I have come today with a reflection on an experience that took me by surprise, something that my life as an American and as a Unitarian Universalist had not quite prepared me to expect. That surprise has deepened and renewed my hope for friendships that transcend our divisions and that lead us beyond ourselves.

Building in Taizé, FranceSixty-six years ago this very morning, on August 20, 1940, a 25-year-old Swiss Protestant theology student named Roger Louis Schutz-Marsauche rode a bicycle into a nearly abandoned rural village in France. He had come from Switzerland looking to buy a house, and the tiny impoverished hamlet of Taizé seemed perfect: A farm was for sale, its buildings solid but neglected. And another feature made the property especially compelling to the young man: It stood only a few miles south of the German demarcation line.

Roger, the young theology student, was looking for a place, as he would later say, "to start a life of prayer alone." But the life of prayer he pursued there over the course of the next sixty-five years would touch millions of lives.

In August of 1940, Roger watched the war in Europe with increasing sorrow. He felt that his Christian faith obliged him to find a way to help Jews and other refugees who were fleeing Nazi persecution into neutral Switzerland. It grieved him to see Christians fighting Christians once again. He yearned for reconciliation, and so he began with an impoverished farm where he welcomed refugees, hid them, fed them, and sent them safely on their way. Three times a day, he prayed.

What grew up in that spot in rural Burgundy is one of the great spiritual awakenings of the twentieth century. At the end of the war, three more young Protestant men came to live at Taizé, the beginnings of an unusual ecumenical community that has grown to include about 100 brothers today from Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox churches. The emergence of such a community would be notable in itself, but the Community at Taizé has become famous in other parts of the world especially for its appeal to young people.

Dinner line at TaizéThat hillside where Brother Roger founded his community of prayer and service 66 years ago attracts tens of thousands of young people each year for weeklong "pilgrimages of trust." If only there were something like it in the United States.

Last summer, my wife and I had the good fortune to spend two weeks in France. I fell in love with Paris. We marveled at the Impressionist paintings at the Musée d'Orsay; we sampled the chocolates and the wines and what may have been the finest cup of tea ever brewed; we watched the sun set over the Arc de Triomphe and walked among the flowers and fountains of the Jardin du Luxembourg. Somehow, I managed to miss the Eiffel Tower, but I was having the best vacation of my life.

My Episcopalian wife had heard from a few friends that we should make a point of visiting Taizé when we were in France. I knew almost nothing about Taizé back then, but I have learned to trust my wife's intuitions! And so we drove our little rental car south into the French countryside.

Taizé bell tower and classroomsWe arrived on Sunday around sunset, many miles off the highway, on a hill surrounded by farmland, where we found thousands of people streaming from all directions as bells in a tower rang and rang and rang. We found a parking place and joined what seemed like a million teenagers all heading toward a plain, low church topped with onion domes. We had no idea what we were in for or where we were supposed to be, and my wife began apologizing in advance for whatever strange thing we had signed ourselves up for. We followed the crowd inside.

Everyone was sitting on the floor. Far ahead of us we could see scores of candles burning in the darkness; orange sheets of cloth were draped down from the ceiling behind them. People were singing chant-like songs from the Taizé songbook, first a song in Spanish, then one in Russian, then one in Latin, then English. A monk so far away we couldn't see him read a short passage from the Bible in English, then in French, then we sang again, and heard the same passage read in eight or ten other languages by other monks, then we sang again.

Chancel, Church of the Reconciliation, Taize, FranceAnd then we sat in silence. Thousands of people — mostly teenagers, it seemed — sat in silence for what seemed to my unmeditative soul like forever. Incredible! Ten minutes of silence, and then we sang and the monks, all dressed in white, filed out and the singing continued and gradually, as people felt ready to go, they quietly got up and left. But the singing never stopped.

We found the registration area, we were assigned tent #126 and given some blankets and sent to the northern edge of the place, which felt to us like the very end of the earth.

There on that hillside in eastern France, my wife and I didn't even have a flashlight; we hadn't thought to bring pillows or even towels; we had come by ourselves, and everything was strange. A man who spoke only Polish helped us find our tent in the dark. We laughed at our situation and, exhausted, we fell asleep.

The next morning, though, I felt that we had come to one of the most wonderful places on earth. After breakfast, after morning prayers in the huge church, we went to a room set aside for people ages 25 to 35, a buzzing room of 100 or so people on wooden benches. Brother Paolo sat in the front. He was asking who spoke which language, and finding translators in the group for those whose English wasn't very good. There were Latvians and Portuguese and Poles and Spanish-speakers from all over and Germans and Czechs and Danes and Italians and French-speakers from Senegal as well as from France and soon I felt sure that my wife and I had gone on vacation to Pentecost. There may have been no more than a handful of Americans in the room.

Brother Paolo would speak for a few minutes in English, then repeat himself in French, and all around us the volunteer translators would tell their compatriots what he said in their own languages, and then Brother Paolo would continue again in English. He spoke to us about friendship.

He then helped us organize ourselves into small groups, and by the end of the morning we had a little tribe to call our own for the rest of the week. Our group was led by a Belgian woman who had been to Taizé once before, ten years earlier. There was an Australian couple who had moved to England; two German men; a Russian woman; a young man who was the pastor an urban church in New Jersey; a woman from Northern Ireland; and another woman from Serbia. We met together twice each day and began to eat some of our meals together, too.

Church of the Reconciliation, Taizé, FranceI marveled at this group. We were drawn from practically every branch of the Christian tradition — Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Anglicanism, Lutheranism, Methodism, Unitarianism — though we never discussed denominational differences. Not everyone in our group considered themselves a Christian. One young man was a spiritual seeker who had recently discovered the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh. No one considered this remarkable: Taizé welcomes spiritual seekers, and we met several who came simply because Taizé is the one place they knew in Europe where their spiritual quest would be taken seriously, generously, and without judgment.

I cannot convey to you the surprise I felt at Taizé, the sense of a door opening. I find it easy to be cynical, to see divisions between religions and parties and people as almost insurmountable. I was not prepared to find such fellowship among people I expected to be so different than I.

Through their simplicity, their persistent emphasis on reconciliation, openness, creativity, and trust, and through their commitment to serve and live among the poorest people on earth — for many of the brothers live and pray in impoverished places around the globe — the brothers of Taizé have helped countless numbers of people to sense the outpouring of the holy spirit in their lives. I felt it, too.

In the New Testament story of Pentecost, the small band of Jesus' followers gathers in Jerusalem and begins to share the good news. They are all Galileans, but the city is full of visitors from all over the world. And to the visitors' surprise, they can hear and understand the good news in their own languages. The story symbolizes two of Christianity's enduring aspirations: universality and pluralism. The church hopes to transcend our parochial and tribal divisions, bringing all people together into one family. The church tries to be universal. But the church also acknowledges and welcomes the distinctive gifts — the distinctive voices — of each of the world's peoples. It speaks in many tongues but with one voice.

Or, at least, that is the dream. In practice, we are often sectarian, defensive, wary, and self-righteous. But at Taizé they believe in this vision.

That first morning at Taizé, Brother Paolo talked to us about friendship — about a passage in the Fourth Gospel where Jesus tells his disciples that he does not think of them as servants but as friends. Brother Paolo asked, "Who are the people and which are the friendships to which you try to remain faithful? What are the barriers between people that you would like to see overcome?"

I thought of the barriers I see growing up with ever greater intensity between "liberal" and "conservative" people in the United States, not just in our political life but within churches and denominations. I thought of tensions here and throughout Europe between immigrant and native populations. I thought of the distrust and bigotry that separate people by race. And I thought of my friends and the communities to which I try to remain faithful. How could my faithfulness to my friends help break down barriers?

I thought of the bond of fellowship used in this and many other Unitarian Universalist congregations: "In the love of truth and the spirit of Jesus, we unite for the worship of God and the service of all." In the spirit of Jesus — who regarded his followers as friends; not as servants, but as equals, as fellow sons and daughters of God — we unite, we become one in worship and in service. We say this, we sense this, we hope it to be true, we recognize its possibility, we glimpse the reality that we are kindred after all, that we may and do and can be one without ceasing to be ourselves in all the beautiful and prickly and mysterious and painful paradoxes of our individual differences. By gathering together, we become the church: one body with many members, as the apostle Paul taught, each of us valued for the gifts we bring, valued for our differences.

At Taizé, I felt in a deeper way than I have ever felt before what it is like to unite in worship and in service across profound differences. Differences did not melt away: When our new friend from Serbia described growing up in the midst of the civil war that devastated her country and expressed her envy for those of us in America who can choose whatever life we want, my wife and I looked across at our new friend from New Jersey, an African-American pastor from the inner city, and he looked back at us, and the three of us tried to describe the sad truth that America, too, is a place where many people feel profoundly trapped. Meanwhile, I felt the poverty of my inability to speak anything but English and felt envy for the Western Europeans and their month-long August vacations!

But I also felt how the unity of friendship is unlike the unity of doctrine or the unity of racial pride or the unity of nationalism or the unity of class-consciousness or the unity of political platforms. Although we too often look for friends only in the small circles of our own tribes, we know that friendship requires no passports, no visas, no degrees, no membership cards. Friendship can transcend our social boundaries, and the church in its widest and best vision of itself can remind us of this truth. It welcomes us and invites us to keep on welcoming and befriending others.

The boundaries we human beings construct and inherit are often useful to us, but they are always more narrow and more limited than the love of God. I found it wonderfully refreshing for once in my religious life to feel — despite my membership in the quirky, liberal, post-Christian, pluralistic Unitarian Universalist Association which I love — that I was welcomed into an international fellowship of Roman Catholic and Protestant and Orthodox Christians. I knew the distinctions between all these different groups remained. But the boundaries we human beings construct are always more narrow and more limited than the love of God — and it is this love that I sensed in the common life of the brothers and their thousands of young guests from all over the world.

And here is what I wish to say to you; this is what I wish to remember in my own life: There is a unity that is deeper and more real than the rules and constitutions and creeds and doctrines that attempt to define our unity. There is good news in the gospel that is more available to you than anything any preacher will ever find a way to put into words, a reality that is more enduring and more powerful and more true than anything a knife can cut or a bullet can pierce or a nation can break or a person can violate.

God creates neither fear nor worry, Brother Roger taught, but trust and compassion and generosity and hope. This is what it means to say that God is with us, that God's spirit is poured out upon us, that God is ultimately and intimately our friend.

Listen for the stirring within yourself that wants to express jubilation even in the midst of heartache, that wants to open itself to hope in the midst of frustration or discouragement, that wants to find kinship and companionship in the stranger and the estranged, that wants to burst through the conventions of the world that divide the human family into Us and Them. Trust that stirring; it is the beating heart of God's love for us.

This week marked one more anniversary in the life of Taizé. On August 16, 2005, only two weeks after my wife and I had been at Taizé, Brother Roger was attacked in the Church of Reconciliation by a mentally disturbed visitor. He died almost immediately. But Brother Roger lived in trust and hope. He quietly built a community of prayer and sanctuary for refugees in the midst of a world war. He and his brothers lived among the poorest people on the earth, inviting many others to share in their suffering and work to alleviate its causes. His community continues to help thousands upon thousands of people to see their lives as pilgrimages of trust.

And even though he died a violent death, as so many thousands of people die in our troubled world, he lived as a witness to peace and reconciliation. He lived as a living sacrifice of thanksgiving for the friendship of the Spirit — the peace that knows no border or race or creed, but only the unity of God's beloved and good creation. And for his extraordinary example, I give thanks.

Further reading

A Universal Heart: The Life and Vision of Brother Roger of Taizé. Kathryn Spink. 1986. Rev. ed. Gia Publications, 2005.

"Brother Roger and the Reconciliation of Christians." Gérard Daucourt. 8.16.06.

Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 20 August 2006 at 2:39 PM

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