I spoke last week about the Apollo missions to the moon; I hope you’ve enjoyed watching the footage and the reflections on that moment 50 years ago. The Guardian newspaper has had some interesting reflections about hope and trying to get to the moon and what it means for us today. I’m going to set that aside for a moment and talk a bit about Taizé.
During my 1st sabbatical back in 2005, I went to Taizé in France. It is a small, rural town near Mâcon in the Burgundy region, about 380km southeast of Paris and not far from the Swiss border and Geneva. The Taizé community is a monastic community not affiliated with any church. The founder, Brother Roger, died later in the summer that I visited Taizé. He offered a blessing at the end of the evening service; people formed a line and received a hands-on blessing before going their way—I received one of his blessings and cherish the memory. He spoke many languages and was able to bless you, generally, in your own language. In August of the summer I visited, he was stabbed by a mentally disturbed woman and killed. It was a tragic end to a wonderfully blessed life.
Brother Roger was Swiss. His father was a Protestant Minister and Roger studied Reformed theology in Strasbourg and Lausanne between the years 1936 and 1940. He fell ill with tuberculosis and was drawn to a monastic life of solitude; his sister also had TB and he fervently prayed to God for her. He would spend hours wandering the Swiss Alps and he would pray. Because of his monastic interest and deep concern for peace and the welfare of others, he deeply desired to do his part in the war. In response to the intolerances of the 1930s and the war, his vision for Taizé was born.
In 1940, Brother Roger bicycled from Switzerland into France and found a property in Taizé that was for sale. A woman in Taizé begged Brother Roger to buy it because he talked about creating a house of reconciliation, peace and unity. He did buy the property and immediately began working toward peace, aiding people in need from the trials of World War 2, taking in the invalid and sick just as his mother had done in World War 1. Brother Roger’s mother was from Burgundy, a Huguenot.
Soon after starting the house of reconciliation, because Taizé was just inside the demarcation line dividing the free French territory from the Vichy regime, he began to take in war refugees, Jews and Christians, in particular, facing persecution. He started a prayer life alone, praying 3 times each day. His sister came to help him, Genevieve. In the fall of 1942, after they received a tip-off that the Gestapo was going to arrest them, he returned to Switzerland. While in Switzerland, he developed his rule for monastic life. He published his thesis on monastic life and people came to him to talk about starting a monastery. He returned to Taizé with three men in 1944 when Burgundy was free of Nazis, to resume his work. And thus, the Taizé community was born.
The purpose of Taizé, lived out in those early years at the end of the war and the years following, was about fostering peace and reconciliation from a monastic and community perspective. The community developed songs, worship, prayers, a sense of belonging and work together. And there are now Taizé groups and members all around the world. The monastery attracts thousands of visitors each year, many of them youth, and has a ministry throughout the world.
I tell this little bit of Roger’s story because he was a remarkable man. He knew and understood that the interactions between human beings are key to achieving peace, that dialogue and conversation need to occur and those deep relationships require an ongoing negotiation that often takes the participants beyond expected roles.
Roger was a follower of Jesus; Jesus embodied how to take encounters and relationships beyond the expected norms. The story from Luke is a case in point and represents a key moment in Jesus’ ministry, especially among and with women. He defied convention and invited Mary to defy convention also by becoming a student of Torah, reserved then only for men. Mary easily fell into this role as she desired to know more. And I know that it sounds like Jesus rebuked Martha for her focus on hospitality, but I don’t think it was a rebuke as much as it was contrasting Mary and an invitation for women to step out of traditional roles.
Dialogue is one of the things that is so important in our lives and in any human community; this seems at odds with the way things are today—where it is all about monologue—expressing your views without listening to the other. There seems little dialogue in the world today. One person speaks and someone else pretends to listen and back and forth it goes. At least on the stage of public discourse, we’ve lost the art of conversation and dialogue; we’ve lost the means to exchange ideas and to deeply listen to one another. We’ve lost the transactional nature of conversation and relationships.
A conversation, a relationship, really, is a negotiated interaction, a transaction. In a one-off relationship, the negotiation is for a brief time; it may be a meaningful encounter, but there isn’t a further connection. With the people we love, and with people with whom we want to be in relationships, the negotiation of the boundaries of our relationships is ongoing and changing. If they don’t change, we never grow and learn, and our relationships never develop very far. A deep relationship is the summation of many encounters in which things change, we reveal more of ourselves and our mutual understanding grows and develops—this is what I call the ongoing renegotiation of relationships.
In our world today, just as it was in Brother Roger’s beginning, there is a lack of reconciliation. We don’t always want to renegotiate our relationships; we don’t always want to widen the circle of our communities because that requires something from us. And we’re tired, too tired to renegotiate the parameters of who we are in relationship to others. And so, it’s easier not to do that work of renegotiation; it’s easier to speak out from a defensive place of isolation.
Jesus embodied how we are constantly learning, growing and developing, crossing boundaries when those boundaries get in the way of meaningful dialogue and relationship. He encouraged the crossing of boundaries and deeply listening to the other so that a deep relationship can begin and develop. And when there was conflict, because there always is with human beings, he called people together to engage rather retreat, to listen rather than talk, to speak when it was needed, but from a place desiring reconciliation and peace. It is a spiral dance of movement and growth and challenge and learning and transformation. And that’s the challenge of the KinDom of God, that we grow and learn and develop who we are in community with others.
That’s what we’re called to in this day and age. That’s the kind of model that the Church can be in the world… a model of reconciliation, peace and hope. A model for how we constantly renegotiate our relationships with each other because we want to be close and in deep relationship with each other. God calls the church to this ministry and this work, collectively and in our individual lives.
That’s the Gospel challenge for the 21stcentury. Amen.