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Two Perspectives on the Founder of Taizé

By Andreas Westergren

There is a moving image of frère Roger (Roger Schütz), the founder of the Taizé community in southern France, somewhere in a ghetto in the Philippines. Walking on top of a giant rubbish heap in his whitewashed monastic habit, he is completely out of place. And yet he seems fully connected, holding hands with a few kids from the slum. I remember seeing the picture a few days after his death in 2005 at the age of 90, stabbed to death by a mentally ill woman during a liturgy with the community that he had founded and lived with for fifty years. Moved by the circumstances I perceived a sudden change of mindset while looking upon the picture. It was iconic in the best sense of the word: at least for a while I was called out of the ordinary and into the real, captivated by that same spirit.

In the years since his death two relatively thin books, The Rule of Taizé and The Friends of Christ, have been published. While the latter is a new book written by a member of the community, the Rule is a work of his own hand. It was originally composed in 1953, but now includes fr. Roger’s own corrections and a translation into English next to the French original. One may indeed ask why one should read a monastic rule at all, but I think that it suffices to open this small and solemn volume and glance at a few pages to realize the impact of the message. If anyone imagines a rule to be a strict set of very specific guidelines for a particular group of celibates, this one is different. More than anything, it is an invitation to the life of the Beatitudes in the footsteps of Christ. While some of the chapter headings carry expected names “Prayer,” “Meals,”  “The Council,” and “Receiving Guests,” other contain outright spiritual advice. Listen for example to the following title: “Throughout your day, let the Word of God breathe life into work and rest.” With chapters about “Simplicity,” “Joy,” and “Mercy,” this rule depicts a mode of living rather than prescribing details. The life of a monk thus contains a vocation for everyone, as I also think many who have visited Taizé have felt.

Having composed the Rule during time in solitude, it seems to be part of the original intention to provide a rule that attracts rather than rules out. As such, the Rule is patterned on older models, as any reader of the practical wisdom of the Rule of Benedict can confirm. In fact, the original meanings of the word rule, “regula,” indicates both something practical – a ruler with which you can measure and straighten your own life – and something visual, such as a living person serving as a model of inspiration. In both these senses the image of a saint can serve as a rule, in the sense of being an object of meditation which perhaps does not teach you exactly what to do (not all saints’ lives are worth imitating), but exactly what to be. The Rule of Taizé is such a practical object of meditation. It invites to participation in the reality it depicts, and could at best serve as source of inspiration for any group of people who live or work together, such as a family or a parish team. The book is best read in the reflective mood that the Rule itself suggests for discerning the will of God at a council: “The first step is to establish silence in oneself, so as to be ready to listen to one’s Lord.”

Brother John of Taizé recounts the tragic death of fr. Roger in the epilogue to Friends of Christ. But as he tells the story it is not at all about violent death, but about communion in Christ. More than 15,000 people participated in the funeral liturgy led by the Roman Catholic Cardinal Walter Kasper. Most of these were not fr. Roger’s personal friends, br. John remarks, but they were nonetheless friends in Christ. The gathering was something more than an intimate encounter between soul mates, or people bound together by race, nation, or denomination: it was a snapshot of the living Church. Simultaneously this community was local and global, concrete and inclusive, hierarchically structured and yet ever-open — Catholic in the most ecumenical sense. The Taizé environment offers, br. John suggests, a “path to a new understanding of church” (which is the sub-title of the book). Such a church makes sense in today’s world, a world in which friendship has turned “into a predominantly emotional and individual reality,” only concerning the few around the individual and his or her immediate living circumstances. Christians, br. John argues, must now “de-privatize friendship, rediscover its public character,” i.e. let it become catholic, in theological terms, or global, in political (p. 86). To no surprise, these ideas correspond well with concerns for justice, but also helps explain what “mission” might be, and why it still matters in a post-colonial mindset: to make friends and to be friends.

At the outset of his book, br. John argues why it is critical to see Christianity as something more than a “religion” or a “spirituality.” Both of these definitions risk limiting Christian faith to either religious cult or private devotion, whereas Christian faith by nature cries for embodiment, both communal and historical, as it faces distinguishable people and specific circumstances. In his treatment of the body of Christ as a Christian root metaphor, br. John explains that a body, in St Paul’s understanding, is “someone’s presence in the world” (29), a definition which is simple enough and still makes you think. In this sense, the Church, embodied by real people, is Christ’s presence in the world. And although I might be absent many times, my own body signifies my presence to other people.

In general, br. John is a good teacher. Although he offers a profound treatment of his topic, in conversation with both ancient and modern theologians, he is always able to explain himself clearly. One notices someone who is used to group discussions at Taizé meetings. Br. John offers his arguments in a sort of down-to-earth scholastic manner, recognizing the counterargument (and taking it seriously) before proceeding. An exception to this rule, maybe, is his definition of friendship “as the offer in progress of a universal communion or fellowship in God,” which I find counter-intuitive and unclear (what kind of progress? and for whom?). And perhaps his book is not as engaging as for example Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classical account of friendship, Life Together.

That being said, br. John’s book is a welcome primer in ecclesiology for common Christians reflecting about what the Church is and might be. At least from my own horizon, Northern Europe, I can tell that many working places concerned with people, for example hospitals, schools, and parishes, have become so professionalized in the last few decades that human contact almost seems contagious. In order not to be plagued by the problems of the people they meet, ministers and others sometimes try hard to keep a safe distance, protected by safety regulations and office hours. The cry to make friends is an important reminder for Christians not to stay too safe, and to break out of the private sphere into a common, public sphere with their bodies and beliefs.

In short, we have here two important books, one written in a meditative mood, the other in a more explanatory, but both worth reading and reflecting about. In common for both contributions is a message about embodiment, about being a real presence in a digital and secular age, about becoming the body of Christ. As such, both these books can be used as a mirror to yourself and your community.

The Rev. Dr. Andreas Westergren is a minister in the Church of Sweden and lecturer in Church and Mission Studies at Lund University in Lund, Sweden.


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