With no discussion or plan, each of us — me, Alistair, Michael, Rasmus, and Hele— ended up down at the Oyak in the late afternoon where, for pennies a serving, you could enjoy a three ounce paper cup of wine. Just one. “But we’re adults,” I said to the young man behind the counter. “We’re not going to go crazy, I promise.” “I’m sorry,” he said. “But we must have the same rules for everyone.” This was a recurring theme at Taize, a cornerstone of justice, a hard one for me to grasp, evidently. And so we took our little cups and found a table to lean up against and continued our group in a more personal and convivial fashion.
Alistair began to tell a story about taking communion that morning. Unbeknownst to me, the Brothers actually offered a semi-private, segregated communion in a small chapel space behind the main church before morning prayers. I imagined this was for people who felt so strongly about the sanctity of their own Eucharist that, for them, it would be a violation to even commune in the same building with those of another tradition. There was a separate door for Catholics and Protestants. Alistair was an Anglican. He had arrived a bit late but, upon entering the space, heard the familiar liturgy, and felt certain he was with “his” people. It was not until he’d taken the bread and the wine and exited prayerfully that he realized he’d been with the Catholics all along.
“Oh my,” I teased. “God really got the last laugh on that one, didn’t he?”
“Well, I haven’t been struck dead yet,” he said, and for the first time since I’d met him he actually seemed to relax and smile.
We continued to share about our homes, our families, our own churches. Hele asked about me, about my involvement at church back in the states. “You seem to know a lot,” she said in broken English.
“Well, I’ve been pretty involved with a lot of things,” I said. “Right now, I’m actually the President of our congregation.”
If wine hadn’t been so hard to come by, Alistair’s small sip might have shot clear out of his mouth. “What does that mean?”
I turned to him playfully. “Is there something ambiguous in the title, Alistair?”
“Well, I mean, is that some form of lay leadership?”
“Well, I work to support the pastor and oversee all the church boards and head up the council, so yes, I guess you could call it that.”
I’m not sure if the word that came out of his mouth was an actual term or merely a primal groan but it was in the family of “bollocks,” uttered with a violent shake of the head and a flapping of the cheek. Across the table, Michael let loose his own brand of atavistic howl. “See,” Alistair said, “Michael knows what I’m talking about. Women do not belong in leadership in the church in any capacity, certainly not in high authority.”
“It’s not a big political statement or anything, Alistair. I was just the right person at a certain moment in time. That’s all,” I said, and turned to Michael to clarify. “Michael, you don’t really have a problem with that, do you?”
Rasmus laughed and assured me that he did not (what he was howling about, I’ll never know). But in that warm and friendly late afternoon I realized in a way that I had not before, that strong differences of opinion are merely a fact of life, and the only hope for any softening of the hard edges, any movement towards common ground, was to see and know and try to understand the Other. Let us drink to that.
Our small group was scheduled to meet one last time, in the afternoon, but I wanted that time off. Time alone. A little peace and quiet if I could find it. After breakfast I tried to survey the group, which continued to thin. I told, Val, the cheery, country woman, that I wasn’t sure I could be there and would love it if she could lead. She didn’t seem too keen on the idea. My aunt had already told me that she was going to skip the group; I suppose she felt she could get whatever I had to offer in terms of spiritual growth in her own private sessions. Michael and Rasmus and Hele (Opting for Joy 1,2 & Alistair the Barister) said they would definitely be there. Definitely. But none would be able to lead. Alistair was non-committal.
Why did I care? Why couldn’t I just say I wasn’t going to be there and if the group failed to gather, or if they gathered clumsily, or if someone rose to the occasion and new heights in small group discussions were reached— any of these things would be fine, and of little consequence in the grand scheme of things. But for me it was a personal matter between me and God. I consider one of my jobs as a Christian to be aware of my spiritual gifts, the ones that have been given to me for the enhancing of His kingdom. Leadership is one of those gifts. If God called me to Taize and I ended up in charge of this little group— however straggly we might appear— then it was not for me to withdraw. But boy did I want to. All through lunch I wavered, still holding out for the possibility that someone else would step up, that I would be free. And then I thought of Michael, chained to his wheelchair, and the possibility that he would make the trek up to our gathering spot and there would be no group to greet him. Maybe even more than God, I could not bring myself to disappoint him.
At 3:00 I was still contemplating making a run for it. But where? There were people everywhere and, in truth, I didn’t have anything I really need to do, to read, to pray on. I knew that if I bailed I would feel too guilty to find peace. And so I made my way up to the grassy areas where the groups— big, healthy circles of eight or ten or twelve now bonded over a full week— gathered and there, in the little metal folding chair, waiting for me, was Val. Just Val. “Have you seen Michael and his helpers?” I asked.
“No” she said brightly. “But they said they were coming.”
Val and I made small talk for a good fifteen minutes before finally Alistair arrived. “Are we meeting?” he asked.
“We’re just waiting for Michael and the others.”
“Ah,” he said and took a reluctant seat. I tried to find some safe, pleasant topic to occupy us as we waited for the other three, a challenge given that these were the two people with the very least in common and the most obvious discomfort with one another. Another fifteen minutes passed. Michael, it seemed, was not going to make it after all. I hoped that he was alright.
“Well, it’s 4:00, and the three of us are here, so I think we should go ahead and get started.”
We scooted our chairs closer together and began to tackle the assigned reading on Forgiveness. There was a passage by Suzanne de Dietrich, a Protestant theologian who had encouraged Brother Roger in his vision:
“A Christian is someone who lives in forgiveness, who knows that every day he transgresses the commandments of God, but who also returns to God every day and who knows, with invincible certainty, that God will have the last word in his life….His assurance is based not on what he already is, but on what God is, on the faithfulness and the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.”
We discussed this and other passages. We stayed together. We endeavored to find meaning in our collective time. And we forgave each other silently for all the ways our little group was imperfect. When we’d done all we could with what we had to work with, we closed in prayer and disbanded. Just as we were walking away, I saw Michael and Rasmus and Hele heading up the path.
“Where were you guys?” I shouted playfully.
Hele put her arms around me in confession. “We decided to go back to Cluny for lunch. We’ve been drinking wine all afternoon. It was wonderful!!!”
Michael and Rasmus were flushed and beaming and made their small apologies. Michael, whose body never likely felt a moment’s ease, and Rasmus, the young drummer who spent four days a week caring for a severely handicapped man, and Hele, the woman who did the job the other three and had never been out of her village in Denmark, now giddy on fois gras and snails and the finest the Burgundy region had to offer. Their mirth was contagious. With tongue firmly in cheek, I informed them that they’d missed the best small group ever. “New heights in discussion were reached, isn’t that right, Alistair?”
“Indeed,” he deadpanned, the slightest curve rising up from his lips. “New heights.”
By Saturday morning we had to dodge vans and throngs on the way to the Church for morning prayers. I entered through the far back side, grateful to even find a spot in the main sanctuary. Those arriving later would end up one— or even two— large rooms back, connected to the whole by the music and intermittent icons, but still, a bit removed. I sat on a step off to the side craning for a view of the altar. I watched as the Brothers glided in, took their spots. This was the first time I would see the deep center of the sanctuary, where the readers were, where the young brothers sat discreetly behind Brother Alois as a safety measure.
Alois, who was confirmed as a Roman-Catholic, had arrived in Taize in his late teens and, essentially, never left. Brother Roger, a Swiss Reform Protestant, had mentored him throughout his life. By the time he had reached his mid-thirties, it was quietly understood that he would become the spiritual leader of the community whenever Roger passed. No one had anticipated a death like Brother Roger’s. One night during evening prayers, a deranged Romanian woman suddenly leapt over the low hedges and stabbed him to death. Most in the church had no idea what was happening. One of the brothers rose and urged everyone to continue praying; several of the brothers attempted to offer aid on the site. By the end of the service, a member of the community stood up and announced that Brother Roger was dead. The next morning, the prayers went on as scheduled, with Br. Alois now sitting in the head position, which has since been moved to the center of the church.
I now looked up and realized I had a perfect view of Br. Alois in profile, seated on his kneeler, as if he were in the center of a cross and I was an extension of one of the arms. No head obstructed my eyeline. No movement distracted me. For a moment he was a living, breathing icon. I will tell you quite foolishly that he is an extraordinarily handsome man, with classic French features. It was easy to picture him in a cashmere v-neck and Italian shoes and an expensive watch, sipping Beaujoulais, entertaining friends onto his yacht. But he was here, and had been his entire adult life. It is often said of certain very holy people that they glow. It may even sometimes be true. In the case of Br. Alois, I can tell you with full assurance that I have never seen such a quality of peace and light— such golden light— radiating off a human being anywhere. Ever. Just to know that a man like this exists on this earth is all the proof of Christ I, or anyone, would ever need.
After the prayers and the breakfast (for which the queue now snaked down the road), we gathered for the last time with Br. John to discuss our theme, the Name of God, which he told us in summary, was not a name but a person. Jesus Christ. He also returned to a point that had woven throughout the week, and left us with this thought:
Love transforms anger into suffering.
That may, at first, not seem like such a bargain, but consider this: suffering can be carried. Suffering can be moved beyond. Christ comes to us and offers love, neutralizes anger, darkness, evil, despair, carries them, transforms them, absorbs them, until bit by bit, they are reconfigured into joy.
This is how Br. Alois and Br. John and all the angels and saints get up in the morning in a world full of evil, violence, madness, and despair, and move through the day in the full confidence of the promises of God. This is how we may do the same.
Before supper on Friday, my aunt and I had begun to suspect that others were now being housed in our far-from-the-madding-crowd barrack. There was a voice, then two. A sandal appeared out on the walkway. By the time we returned from prayers, guided by flashlights, the proof was unavoidable. There were now families— the kinds with little kids— sleeping on either side of us, separated only by a scrim of wall. Several of the children clearly had the croup. Or the plague. My aunt and I froze, realizing that we’d been blessed to have the relative solitude we’d enjoyed so far, knowing that these final 48 hours were going to be a very different experience.
Did I tell you that she found her passport pouch? (Valuables Redux, Money Changes Everything) She did. But not before I’d gone back down to the main office and rattled a few young brothers-to-be with my sense of urgency. I’m sure it’ll turn up. I’m sure everything will be fine. There is nothing more annoying than a peaceful, reassuring person when all you want is results. The valuables slip I discovered late that nite in some nether region of my luggage, and waving in victoriously, declared. “I can’t go back there. I just can’t face that young woman again….” From there a shared litany of frustrations brimmed up through paroxysms of gulping laughter. “I can’t deal with any more German people telling me what to do…… I need whole grains……. I need a toilet at nite……I want to sing in English…… I want all these new people to go away!!”
One of the children on the other side of the wall began to cough up a lung. We could hear the parents trying to ssssssshhhhh and comfort him. Realized in that moment that as we were complaining about the burden of our new neighbors we were the ones who were gabbing noisily, and with apparent disregard for others’ sleep. We cupped our hands to our mouths, tried to stop the giggles. I grabbed a cup and stepped outside to pee, opened the door to see my new neighbor— a large, hairy man in skivvies— attempting the same thing. I nodded, ducked back inside. Began to laugh all over again.
It took nearly an hour for us to settled down. As I lay in my sleeping bag on the bottom bunk, I could hear through the wall — as close as if it were a whisper into my own ear— the voice of the man speaking sweet nothings to his wife, her murmured responses, back and forth, until goosebumps rose up on my arm.