heather choate davis

Talk amongst yourselves

empty chairs I felt blessed beyond measure to see that the two salt-n-pepper Brits who I had grown so fond of on Wednesday had decided to leave a little bit later so that they could be with us for one more group session. Sometimes I wonder if people realize when they don’t show up for a something— a book club or a meeting or a dinner party— how much they are truly missed. Our discussion focused on the Compassion section of the Letter from Chile and it was rich and lively and challenging to be sure! But rather than summarize the thoughts of the group in Taize, I thought it would be nice to hear your thoughts. Consider these: an excerpt, a study prompt, and a quote from the footnotes.

“We are all familiar with that reflex of self-protection which consists in wanting to keep ourselves safe even at the expense of others. And it seems to be becoming more pronounced in our day, as feelings of insecurity grow. What can prevent us from giving in to fear. Is it not by reaching out to others, even to those who seem to be a threat?”
—Br. Alois, Letter from Chile

“Why does Jesus say: Whoever has seen me has seen the Father (John 14:9)? How does the life of Jesus change our understanding of God?”
—from Br. John’s study prompts

“Achieve inner peace and thousands around you will be saved.” — Seraphim of Sarov, a 19th-century Russian monk

Do they speak to you? And if so, how? Pull up a chair. I look forward to reading your thoughts.

Irreconcilable Differences

All that night and through the morning prayers I wrestled with the notion of reconciling the seemingly irreconcilable. Aware now that there were two sides to the sanctuary, I found myself on the right, with the Protestants, and eyeing the priests on the left (I realized now they were not just Brothers but ordained priests) who were serving the Catholic faithful. The glib voice in my spirit wanted to cry out, “Seriously?” Do any of us really think that Christ would delight in these divisions? Shouldn’t we all be a little bit ashamed for allowing them to continue. And yet I knew, this was deadly serious stuff, not so much for me, who was not really raised in the church and did not cleave to these distinctions— most of which seemed to me to be based on proving that one camp or the other had a stronghold on the real, real Christian truth— but for millions of people around the globe who declared proudly and righteously that they were Baptist or Episcopalian or Catholic or Lutheran. What can I say— human beings are inclined to choose teams and then spend a lifetime shouting, “We’re number one!”

In the U.S., the divide in Christendom seemed to me to be far less about Catholics and Protestants and more about politics. A few decades back, just about the time the dwindling wealthy, white majority realized that they would be needing a very large pool of voters to stand a chance in Hell of staying in power, they encouraged the creation of the Religious Right, a group which began to brand Christianity in the eyes of the secular world as a force of judgment and small-mindedness. Gone was the grace, compassion and joy. This was a new strain of an old finger-wagging faith, more concerned, it seemed, with taxes and other people’s sins, than with reaching people who longed for wholeness with the love of God. And so it was that the divide in Christian America came to be between those who endeavored to live out their faith in their everyday lives, especially the calls to justice, mercy, and the Great Commission, and those who believed that God had called them to be vocal, unyielding, and devoutly capitalist and to reclaim this as the American way. So shrill and snarky and utterly political have the voices of the latter grown that most nonbelievers in America don’t even realize that there is such a thing as the quiet faithful, when in fact, we are the majority.

I left the morning prayers in a fog, shuffling through the food line, filling my tray with roll and chocolate and my cup with coffee and powdered cream. I sat with a few of our new English friends, and a few others whom I hadn’t yet met. I can’t remember how the subject came up, but it was a subject that was often on my mind of late, one that dovetailed easily into this larger schism: the new challenges in male and female roles. I shared with the group my growing concern about men in their 50s and 60s who had been cast out of the workplace before their time, and, due to a grueling economy, might never find the dignity of good work again. They were becoming more and more bitter and I feared for their lives, their families. “I think for a lot of them, the idea of having to adapt and learn new skills is just too much. Woman are used to having to adapt. This is one of the reasons they’re becoming increasingly successful.” Several of the people at the table nodded, leaned in. “That and the fact that the female management style tends to be better at bringing out the best in all members: most men still have a kill-or-be-killed approach.”

The man to my right had not said much but when he did speak, I could tell that he was English, likely not from a big city. His face reddened, “Is that so?” he said, and physically pulled away.

“Well, that’s been my experience, yes,” I said.

“Well, what I’ve seen is that a lot of asserting women have pushed the men out and robbed them of their dignity.”

I froze. It seemed clear that I had become in that moment one of these women to him; I recognized now that he was one of the angry, cast aside men. He got up to clear his tray and I wondered how I would manage to speak to him again. All through the day I thought about him, about how, if I could understand his pain, his point of view, I might better be able to connect to those men I knew who were struggling back home. He was nowhere to be found at lunch, but just before the afternoon groups I saw him in the tent. “I’ve been thinking about what you said all day.”

“Really?” He looked startled, curious, maybe even flattered. But not angry.

“Would you mind talking with me a little longer. I’d like to understand better what you meant about the asserting women pushing the men out.”

We talked for a half an hour, while our respective groups hovered in the distance. He was surprisingly quick to share with me his own pains, how he had been raised by a distant father and vowed he would never be that way with his own children, how he did everything possible to be there for his wife and kids— the soccer games, the family outings, the providing for— until ten years in, his wife up and left him for another man. We talked about the fragility of the family unit, the downside of women’s independence, and the matter of giftedness regardless of gender. Finally he laughed, “Hell, we all know that woman are better at getting things done.”

And when we hugged, I brushed up against the reality of communion. This is my Body, broken for you. And the path to reconciliation.

In the beginning, part 3

St. Francis in old church No one can say for sure why so many people— young people, especially— began flocking to the little church in Taize to pray with Roger and the Brothers, but come they did, Catholics and Protestants alike. Within two years, there were 12 Brothers living in the house in Taize. Roger felt they should “be signs of Christ’s presence” outside the small village as well, and so two Brothers were sent to live in a nearby mining town, to work the mines with the people and to help in their struggles. As the community grew, more Brothers were sent out, even to the ends of the earth. And still the young people came, so many that they were spilling out of the little church, beyond the courtyard and down the road. Despite Brother Roger’s vision of forming a small community of men who would live out the Gospel in prayer and silence, he had to accept the fact that the Holy Spirit seemed to be leading them in a different direction— based in community, to be sure, but somehow growing to serve the seekers and believers who kept appearing.

As it happened, one of the new Brothers had been an architectural student before taking his vows at Taize, the first monastic order of the post-reformation era. He designed what would become The Church of Reconciliation to be built on an adjoining parcel of land, the funds for which were supplied by a German group that was formed to rebuild areas destroyed by the war, a group whose name meant literally, “sign of atonement/reconciliation.” Although the church was magnificent in its beauty and simplicity, Roger hated it. Felt the bigness of it went against everything he believed in. Struggled to reconcile his own vision for a small community with this massive ark-like tabernacle. The church was dedicated in 1962, and within a year, the space was filled to capacity. A decade later, even the massive church was not enough for the steady stream of young people who came not only from Europe, but America and Asia and Africa. In 1971, with Easter fast approaching and reservation requests coming in by the hundreds, the Brothers were faced with a hard choice: turn the young people away, or make more room. “With sledgehammers in hand,” writes Jason Brian Santos, “the brothers tore down the [back] wall and in its stead erected an old red-and-white striped circus tent,” that would open up the church and accommodate all who came. This tent has now become home to the adult meals and Bible studies as the church itself has been reexpanded with a new adaptable design that can grow to hold up to 6,000 worshippers on festival days such as Easter and Pentecost.

FAther Roger's grave

After praying in the little Romanesque church where Brother Roger is now buried, I walked back up the road past the Welcome Center, through the young people’s meal area, and onto the Church for the evening prayers. I could still feel the cool stone and the musty air in the space where a few humble and devout men had helped build a seemingly impossible bridge. But to where? Back home, when I visit Saint Andrew’s Abbey, as much as they love me, and as much as they wish it were not the case, they are not allowed to serve me, a non-Catholic, communion. Divisions prevail, and they can’t. They mustn’t. There are too many other bridges that need building.

I knelt on the floor and sung that night what we become one of my favorite Taize chants The Kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Come, Lord, and open in us the gates of your kingdom . I watched the Brothers as they glided in in their white robes, each with their individual callings, each from different denominations, each taking vows that allowed them to hold onto their roots— and to honor the roots of the other— while stripping their common faith down to the essentials, to the Gospel of love, mercy, compassion, joy and trust. This is how the impossible becomes possible, I thought. If they can do it, why can’t we?

Taize Church, empty, side angle

Based on excerpts from “A Community called Taize” by Jason Brian Santos.

In the beginning, part 2

First church in TaizeDaring to live a life of joy, simplicity, and mercy can be risky business. Two years after Brother Roger moved to Taize, the Gestapo became suspicious about his activities. While he was helping a refugee escape to Switzerland, his home was raided and friends encouraged him not to return for awhile. He used this time to finish the thesis he’d abandoned while heading up a small Christian organization at the university in Lausanne (In the beginning). The thesis was summarized in a pamphlet that was soon read by other like-minded men. Before long there were three more who “dedicated themselves to a common life that included communally shared property, daily work and prayer, a common purse, and celibacy,” says Jason Brian Santos, author of A Community called Taize. In the autumn of 1944, when France was finally liberated, Roger and his three Brothers moved back into the house in Taize, amidst rubble and despair, and became a source of light and hope through their simple practice of living out the Gospel.

Of all the visitors they accommodated, perhaps the most radical were the Roman Catholic priests who began joining them in the upper chamber of the house for thrice-daily prayer. Roger finally asked a local church authority if they might used the small, abandoned Catholic church down the lane for worship: permission was granted, then quickly rescinded. But Roger had a quiet tenacity about him. He took the matter to the Bishop of Autun, who turned it over to the desk of the papal nuncio in Paris, who granted the wish of these protestants brothers to praise God in a church that was built for Catholics. This was something of a miracle, but still, to Roger’s mind, it was incomplete: permission was granted for the protestants to worship there, but not for any practicing Catholic to join them.

As an American born and raised in L.A., where going to church at all is considered weird, and where Catholics and Protestants are like blood relatives compared to the current landscape of spiritual practices, so many of these Catholic/Protestant distinctions seem like ancient history. But there in Taize, the impact of the Reformation was still palpable. Even in this place of Reconciliation, the church in which we all gathered for prayer each day was divided by side— Catholic on the left, Protestant on the right— so that those who believed in closed communion could receive the Eucharist from a clergy member of their own faith. My aunt and I didn’t find out about the two sides til three days into the trip. I had to laugh, as I had been moving all around to see things from different vantage points, assuming that every pilgrim there was voicing their support for open communion across all possible lines by their very presence. Many were, maybe even most. But respect was shown for those who were not.

This respect is evident in everything that Brother Roger did as he spent his life working towards ecumenism in the church, a concept to him that was not so much about tolerance but reconciliation, a much more demanding challenge. Like all great change agents, he was a master of the baby step. I can only hope that at some moment in my life I might be able to approach a situation with this sort of insistent grace. Determined that reconciliation would begin right there in the little Romanesque church in his newfound home, he returned to petition Pope Pius XII. And this is what Roger said:

“Leave a little way open, even a very narrow one and define what you consider to be the essential barriers— but leave a way forward. Do not close it altogether.”

Within a matter of years, the Pope transferred the authority to each individual Bishop to grant Catholic participation in ecumenical assemblies. And there in Taize, protestants and Catholics did, indeed, praise their Lord as one together.

Big, beautiful, baby steps.

In the beginning…

Taize village with signAfter supper I took a walk down the lane past the Welcome Center and round the bend where the town of Taize— with its cobblestone walls and bursts of foxgloves and wildflowers— still lived and breathed, in no small measure due to the still, small voice in the heart of Brother Roger, the founder of the Taize community. As a college student in Switzerland, at a time when he was still wrestling between what seemed to be disparate futures as a writer or a theologian, he was asked to head up the Student Christian Association. He found it an odd request since he’d only been to one meeting and didn’t particularly like it, but he accepted, a curious assent that quickly led to the formation of his lifelong ideals. “He devised a series of Bible Studies that focused on the foundation of faith and prayer as a means to search for God,” according to Jason Brian Santos in his book A Community Called Taize. Stephan had recommended the book to me when we checked in. “He’s an American writer, too!!”

Soon the young Swiss college group grew and within a year there were twenty students meeting regularly for prayer, silence, meditation and confession; Roger had stripped his protestant faith down to the core, focusing only on what it meant to lead a Christ-centered life in community with others. He began dreaming of a house where this might be lived out and, at the end of the war, he found that is was time. “The defeat of France awoke powerful sympathy,” Brother Roger wrote years later. “If a house could be found there, of the kind we had dreamed of, it would offer a possible way of assisting some of those most discouraged, those deprived of work; and it could become a place of silence and work.”

Cobblestone and flowers

Young Roger tried to get people from his school community to join him but they declined. And so he set out on his bicycle, riding through the Burgundy region of France where many refugees— particularly Jews— were fleeing. After a visit to the monastery in Cluny, he heard about a nearby town called Taize. It was a sad and desolate village. An old woman who lived in one of the homes showed him the property that was for sale. He stayed with her for a meal and when he shared his vision for a community of faith, she begged him to stay. He bought the house for a pittance and started a garden that would provide food for those who began to show up on his doorstep. And although he prayed three times a day, and sang hymns in the countryside nearby, he never asked the refugees to join him. Instead he wrote up a little pamphlet that described his understanding of what he was trying to do and be and the community he hoped to create. “Every day let your work and rest be quickened by the Word of God; keep inner silence in all things and you will dwell in Christ; be filled with the spirit of the Beatitudes: joy, simplicity, and mercy.”

monastic mural

Based on excerpts from Jason Brian Santos’ “A Community called Taize”

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