Secular Europe? Not exactly, here in this quiet rural valley of faith-filled hope in the south of France. Thousands of 18-to-25-year-olds are singing joyfully in Latin here at the Taize community near Cluny, France, along with the 90 brothers whose voices have enriched Christian worship around the world. Taize’s founder Brother Roger — along with youthful pilgrims worldwide — have given the Christian world a gift by way of Taize’s 75 years of hospitality, music, theological practice, biblical interpretation, and monastic vows.
My family arrived in Taize via the same Brussels-to-Paris train that seven days later was to be attacked by an extremist-inspired terrorist before being stopped by three Americans and others. Even before the attack, a high alert was in effect in France, and each day we noted friendly government-mandated soldiers standing watch outside our regular worship services. On a European continent that struggles with the place of religion in the public square — including that of ISIS — Taize welcomes the youth of Europe to discuss deep issues of life and faith in community, including conflict and religious violence.
So teens across the world are still flocking to monks in France to deepen their Christian faith? Yes — and my family and I remained in awe of its tent-dotted fields and large scale kitchens staffed all by volunteers.
The Taize community of brothers from across Christian traditions — alongside sisters from a Catholic order — host religious thinkers, leaders, practitioners, and especially youth who want to engage biblically around issues spanning peace, justice, the arts, service, and Christian practice. We came to Taize as a spiritual "vacation-pilgrimage" during their 75th anniversary celebration and the 10th anniversary of Taize's founder’s death, joining religious leaders from around the world.
For American Christians who may be stuck in habits of religious thinking that promote "all or nothing," "left and right" interpretations of the Scriptures, Taize invites us to sing together and investigate the scriptures from a fresh global perspective.
One brother, Emile, invited us to imagine what it would mean to interpret Peter’s denial of Christ as Peter actually telling the truth about Jesus. While Emile’s bible study in the tent was being translated into five different languages, my mind began to wander further into this rich interpretive exercise. Perhaps I can imagine joining Peter in denying him — I never knew him, this Jesus who is weak and powerless in the face of military occupation. I don’t know him, not really. I’m not even sure I want to know him if this is what it means to do so. I must deny him because I don’t want to associate with arrested criminals. I’m not able to say I really know Jesus, if I am honest. So I must tell the truth and deny Christ. It is the only truth I can proclaim as an honest disciple sometimes. Peter is us, and on us the church is built.
Brothers at Taize, just by their lives together, provide a very subtle corrective to modern plagues of thin materialistic living, ambition beyond service, sexuality without meaning, demands to be relevant, and being successful at any cost — one that includes violence against humans downstream of our lives and the earth itself.
During one of the productive discussions among Evangelical, Pentecostal, and Orthodox leaders, I asked Taize's current servant leader, Brother Alois, about an implicit formula from my childhood faith that troubled me: "One can know Jesus personally without knowing Jesus in community, but one cannot know Jesus through community only and not personally."
Frère Alois noted that Taize for him became both, his having come from a primarily communal understanding into a deep personal experience as well. What you see at Taize is what richness those two traditions have to offer one another. And instead of condemning one another we reach across the singing and prayers in ten languages to share the joy of each.
To quote Jim Wallis, who knew Taize’s founder Brother Roger, "Our faith is always personal but never private."
Taize offers us a straightforward proposition anchored in Scripture: When you work, live, eat, sing, study, and pray together, lived faith begins to look different. What can be accomplished with one’s life in community also begins to look different. The call is to be faithful more than successful. It is a holy proposition not far from Sojourners’ own roots and our present day practice of working eating, singing, studying, and praying together.
It is a challenge every day. My prayers today as a lifelong Virginian are focused especially on the families of the victims in the shooting of two reporters just yesterday back here in the United States. As we sing thrice daily at Taize, "Ubi Caritas et amor, Deus ibi est."