Day 3 in my new office with its pale yellow walls and its clean, white, seemingly endless desktop. The chair in corner is not too big, not too small. I can read there comfortably for hours. The windows are open out onto the street, which is quiet now with all the neighborhood kids back in school. For my morning devotion I was reading from Deitrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together: The classic exploration of Christian community and was struck by these lines: “For Christians the beginning of the day should not be burdened and oppressed with besetting concerns for the day’s work. At the threshold of the new day stands the Lord who made it.” This passage called me back to my time in Taize, to a particular song that I suddenly longed to hear so badly that I postponed by homework while I searched for a good copy of it, bought it, downloaded it, listened and smiled to it, and now have it to share with you. Most of the music I tend to be drawn to is replete with minor chords and longing and the seeds of a good cry. This one is full of confidence, joy, hope and the sure promise of our faith. May it bless your day as it has mine.
05 – I am sure I shall see the goodness of the Lord
We packed quickly as the crowds pressed in. Hauling the bags back to the Welcome Center, up the dusty paths, through the masses, was even harder than when we arrived. My aunt— who had not only kept pace with me throughout the week but often outshone me in resilience and stamina— finally broke down, disappointed in herself that she needed my help with a bag. Accepting our own limitations is one of our greatest challenges, but this is where Christ meets us most.
At the Welcome Center, Jean Patrique was checking in new visitors, and our first permanent, Stephan, was back on duty. There were no keys to hand over, no bill to pay; we had given the highest allowable donation upon arrival, somewhere in the area of $30 a night.
“Jean Patrique, tell me again where the counter is to pick up the picnic lunches.” This was a lovely set-up they had for departing guests.
“It closed fifteen minutes ago,” he said. “You weren’t able to get there on time?” Always, a warm smile; always, a reminder of personal responsibility.
“I guess not,” I said, laughing at my pattern of noncompliance with the Taize time clock.
He went to the back of the counter area and there, from a cooler, he unearthed two big beautiful bags and presented them to me with a smile. “You’ll be back again?” he asked.
We said our goodbyes and he returned to the new arrivals, greeting each and every one as Christ. We sat on a bench in the dirt and ate what was arguably the best sack lunch I’d ever had: a big chunk of crusty french bread, wedges of cheese, pate, fruit, cookies, juice, each bite a blessing.
The bus arrived and for the next two hours we wended our way through the Burgundy hills, having conversations that seemed to have been fertilized throughout the week, when we were too busy or exhausted to chat at all. We talked about life and family, about choices and children, about God and death. We arrived in Macon and were delighted to discover that our hotel was across the street from the bus depot. Schlepping the bags one last, long haul we collapsed in our room for hours. Never had a shower felt so good. Never had CNN been so compelling.
A dinner of fresh vegetables and grilled meat and good wine revived us. The next day— which, naturallement, was a holiday— we walked around the near empty streets of Macon, a perfect waterside town with shops and restaurants and schools and monuments— the best of a big and small town put together. If I ever were to live in France, I think I would live there. The night was spent gearing up for reentry: the train trip to Charles de Gaulle, another overnight stay at the airport hotel, and the long flight home. Each hour spent wrangling with the challenges of international travel removed us further from the rich peace we had experienced three times a day in the Church at Taize. But the impact will be felt forever. The lessons, the memories, the wisdom now buried deep in my soul.
Trips end. We return to our families. Life goes on. I won’t be blogging daily for a while. I will rest a bit before beginning my Masters in Theology. You will hear more from me soon.
Until then, May the Lord bless you and keep you, may he make His face to smile on you and be gracious unto you, may he look upon you with favor, and give you now and forever, His peace.
“When the day of Pentecost came, all the believers were gathered together in on place. Suddenly there was a noise from the sky which sounded like a strong wind blowing, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. They they saw what looked like tongues of fire which spread out and touched each person there. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to talk in other languages, as the Spirit enabled the to speak” (Acts 2:1-4)
When we had first planned the trip to Taize and I had discovered that we would be there for Pentecost — my favorite church holiday— I was overwhelmed with anticipation! Oh the new depths of meaning and divine experience that awaited! Then I stepped outside my door and quickly realized that there was a significant downside to seeking the gift of the Holy Spirit with 6000 other people. My aunt and I linked arms and slogged our way towards the Church of Reconciliation for the very last time. Remarkably, we were able to get a spot near the front, and just inches away from a praise band from the Congo that were there to enliven the celebration. Their skin was black, their native garb orange and yellow and bark brown, with chunky beads and hand carved drums. They sang praises to God in their native language, dancing and swaying and beaming with their perfect, white teeth. Beautiful! I looked around at the European faces seated all around us and found their expressions surprisingly restrained; was it possible that they didn’t enjoy this music in the same way, or merely that they were unaccustomed to expressing pleasure at the sight of such earthy movement.
And then the Brothers began to arrive, and I watched as, one by one, they entered the space and spotted the Congolese troupe and smiles of every size and shape peeled across their faces; delight, is what it was, on the faces of the wrinkled, hunched-over Brothers and the sharp, middle-aged Brothers and the newest Brother, now 12 hours into his lifelong vow, who took his seat in front of the small electronic keyboard. Evidently it was his turn to lead the Taize chants. And then Brother Alois entered and took his seat and we, the choir of angels, burst forth with the first song! We sang and sang as if tongues of fire filled the sanctuary, a robust sound with so many voices, so many pilgrims who had come a great distance just to be in this space on this day.
In the end, it was not my favorite service, or the best service, or the most meaningful service, but, like each and every service of prayers we attended in Taize, it was, simply, perfect.
If ever I doubted I was far from America, Saturday’s night’s service of light would have made it abundantly clear. As we entered the sanctuary, we were given a tall, thin, white candle. At the midpoint of the service, I was suddenly aware that young children— as young as four, and others, including a 10-year old with Down’s Syndrome— were now processing from the far back on the sanctuary carrying lit flames, without any adult supervision. They fanned to either side and touched their flames to the unlit wicks of the Brother’s candles; the brothers in turn lit the candles of the worshippers nearest them, and they the one nearest them, and so on and so on, until every flame in the space was lit— 5000 candles or more— all held in the hands of strangers in an enclosed space with no easy exits. There isn’t a fire marshall in America that would let something like this go on. At our church we’re not even allowed to burn the old Palm Sunday crosses in a dish to make the next year’s ashes for Ash Wednesday. But here we were, aflame and trusting and full of the light of Christ.
It was a remarkable night for another reason, as well. Because on this night, on the eve of Pentecost, a beautiful 24-year old German was taking his lifelong vows to the community at Taize. We watched him enter with Brother Alois. We listened as he heard these words:
Brother, you trust in God’s mercy: remember that the Lord Christ comes to help your humble faith; committing himself with you, he fulfills for you his promise; truly, there is no one who has left everything because of Christ and the Gospel who will not receive a hundred times as much at present— brother and sisters and mothers and children — and persecutions too, and in the age to come, eternal life.
This is a way contrary to all human reason but, like Abraham, you can only advance along it by faith, not by sight, sure that whoever gives their life for Christ’s sake will find it.
From now on, walk in the steps of Christ. Do not be anxious about tomorrow. First, seek God’s Kingdom and its justice. Surrender yourself, give yourself, and good measure, pressed down, shaken together, brimming over, will be poured out for you.
Whether you wake or sleep, night and day, the seed springs up and grows, you do not know how.
Never let your inner life make you look sad. Anoint your head and wash your face, so that only your Father who is in secret knows what your heart intends.
Stay simple and full of joy, the joy of the merciful, and the joy of brotherly love.
Be vigilant. If you have to rebuke a brother, keep it between the two of you. Be concerned to establish communion with your neighbour.
Be open about yourself, remembering that you have a brother whose charge it is to listen to you. Understand him, so that he can fulfill his ministry with joy.
The Lord Christ, in his compassion and his love for you, has chosen you to be in the Church, a sign of brotherly love. It is his will that with your brothers you live the parable of community.
So, refusing to look back, and joyful with infinite gratitude, never fear to rise to meet the dawn, praising, blessing and singing Christ your Lord.
The young German Brother-to-be then went on to say I will to the vows of the community, which included poverty and chastity. These are two things that make monastic life incomprehensible to most people, but they make sense to me. We all know that money changes everything (I’ve written about it here), even the smallest amount of material difference between people can create animosity, distance. This is why Taize allows no contributions. No personal gifts or inheritances may be received by the Brothers. They live off of what they earn through the sale of ceramics, music, art and books, and trust that God will bless the community through another day. The celibacy vow is another one that stuns most outsiders, particularly men, but when you hear the way the vow is written, it is easy to understand: “Will you, in order to be more available to serve with your brothers, and in order to give yourself in undivided love to Christ, remain in celibacy?” Relationships consume our time, energy, and spirits. In Taize, they seek to give all of that to Christ.
On the way out, we found ourselves walking alongside several American girls from Pennsylvania who we had met earlier in the week. We asked what they thought of the young man taking the vows. “Omigosh, he was so cute, I can’t believe he’s going to live here his whole life.” To which her friend added, “I can’t even commit to a major for entire year, how can he possibly know what he wants forever?”
But seeing him in the space, and all the next day— seeing the Brothers who were him twenty, thirty, fifty years before— I had no doubts he had heard his Call.