Taizé Pt. II: Reconciliation Through Complexity (8 Minute Read)

by Derek Snook

Taizé Pt. II: Reconciliation Through Complexity

The Brothers at Taizé feel little need to defend their faith, or to tell you what to do or think. When I asked Brother Richard—apparently in his 60s—what he would tell his 31 year-old self, for the first time ever someone declined to answer this question. “That has to come from deep inside of you,” he said.

At Taizé, the lack of resolution is the resolution. The Brothers seem to believe that the greatest challenge to faith does not come from doubt, but from certainty. There’s a deep exploration of mystery, which they seem to see as important for growth.

The daily bible studies led by the brothers begin with a simple retelling of the story. While it’s apparent the brothers have a strong command over the text, they refrain from drawing conclusions. At most, they make small suggestions offering what they think. Then they ask big questions and leave it up to you, your group, and God to sort out the rest. They ask you to “chew on the text,” and leave you hungry for more..

The Brothers are far more concerned with teaching you how to think than what to think. I believe this attitude creates an environment where young people feel comfortable. They know that regardless of what they believe or where they are coming from, they won’t be reprimanded, shamed, or humiliated for not having the right answer or asking inappropriate questions. They know they can come from any place and get an honest, open, loving answer that does not oversimplify, judge or condemn.

"Taizé boils life down to essential common ground while leaving room for each other’s complexities in order to love and reconcile at every opportunity."

Many of the young adults who eagerly flock to Taizé to sleep in tents for a week every year, do not go to church. One told me she found the mosque in her city more peaceful, and she was so proud because the protestant church had helped to fund it. Another said she just couldn’t get behind the things her church says.

I had my questions, too. “How can you reconcile Jesus with other faiths?” I asked a Belgian Brother at the end of an evening service.

“For me,” he said, “I believe in Jesus, but I also believe that God’s plan of salvation is bigger than any of us can know. But that doesn’t mean I believe in relativism. In order to have salvation, there must be something we are saved from,” he concluded. That was it. The rest was up to me to sort out.

The Brothers recognize that their lack of assertion forfeits control, and that, it seems, is the point.

“Dear brother,

Universal brother,

Run towards the outcast,

Those who have been rejected.”

—Brother Roger

Taizé boils life down to essential common ground while leaving room for each other’s complexities in order to love and reconcile at every opportunity.

Brother Roger obsessed over reconciliation. It’s part of why Pope John Paul XXIII saw him as a prophet.

Brother Roger longed for reconciliation among Catholics and Protestants. He finishes the introduction to The Rule of Taizé—a basic manual for community living at Taizé—by saying, “Never resign yourself to the scandal of the separation of Christians who so readily profess love for their neighbor and yet remain divided. Make the unity of the body of Christ your passionate concern.” Among Christians, Brother Roger faced pressure from those who on the one hand wanted him to become more liberal, and Catholics who wanted him to become more conservative.

Although he has now passed on, Brother Roger’s desire for reconciliation remains a major theme at Taizé. During my few weeks there, lecture titles included “Christians and Muslims Living Together,” “The Joy of the Lord from a Rabbi,” and “Artificial Intelligence in the Modern World.” The diversity of lecture topics was mirrored by the diversity of attendees—which one week included a large cohort of Buddhist monks. Right after I left, Taizé sponsored a “weekend of friendship between young Muslims and Christians.”

In the aftermath of World War Two, Taizé quickly became a place of reconciliation and healing for the Germans and the French. I couldn’t help noticing how the Germans I met there spoke far more freely about the War than Germans I’d interacted with in other contexts. One evening I stumbled on two twenty-something German women looking out across Burgundy, discussing how the Nazis destroyed some French cities while leaving others they planned to use later alone. It’s chilling to think that the city of Paris might not have survived without the calculating greed of Hitler and Göring.

But Brother Roger’s vision for reconciliation transcended the European frontier of WWII. He desired for Taizé to be a place of welcome to refugees from all over the world. My time at Taizé was shared with refugees from Syria and several North-African States.

Taizé’s global vision is carried by brothers who are sent out across Asia, Africa, and the United States as ministers of reconciliation. Brother Roger liked to call these voyages “Pilgrimages of Trust.” After the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Brothers went to St. Louis to host ecumenical talks. Brother Emile, a Canadian who accompanied me during my week of silence, told the story of how at one gathering in an African-American neighborhood a white man said, “you know, even pulling up here I wondered to myself, ‘is my car safe?” Then an elderly African- American woman pipped up and said, “It’s funny you should mention that, because when I drive to your neighborhood I ask myself, ‘Am I safe?’”

The spirit of Taize sets the stage for reconciliation.

"The challenge, as well as the opportunity, for peace and reconciliation between people who might otherwise see things very differently, is a special gift at Taizé."

In one of our group sessions, Shirley, the most positive and youthful 83 year-old I’ve ever met, told us about the voluntary work she carries out back in Houston, Texas. When she later remarked, “people who don’t want help are lazy,” Martin, a retired German Lutheran minister, was thrown into a mild volcanic eruption.

“While I think your volunteering is admirable on a human level,” he began, “what about your government!? It spends ten times as much as the next closest country on its military while the poor people suffer!” he railed. “You call yourself the free and the brave, but free people do not live in fear of others. I do not want my government to become more like yours,” he concluded.

Shirley handled Martin’s eruption quite well, and then handled a few follow-up comments from me with grace. She said, “I live in a high-rise with condominiums priced between $500,000 and $2,000,000, and over 30% of my neighbors are African-American.” Rather than dig in deeper on my point, I stopped and said, “wow, that’s great.” Martin was glad to hear this, too.

Later Shirley and I found a common bond over our mutual admiration for Richard Rohr, and she patiently listened to me share my thoughts on race in America.  My views (shaped primarily by having worked with hundreds, if not thousands, of African-Americans at IES Labor Services) did not match her experiences, but she listened attentively without interrupting. I shared with her how—despite the ways  people like to dance around it—when we look at America’s fractured society, we have to conclude either that African-Americans are inherently unequal, or that they are simply treated as though they are—I believe African-Americans are not treated equally.

Shirley’s patience earned her the right to press into how I view the wealthy in my society. The next day when we were studying the interaction between Zacchaeus and Jesus I realized that saying Zacchaeus was a tax collector didn’t really translate into a modern day IRS agent. I raised my hand and suggested that if Zacchaeus participated in some kind of corporate, systematic greed, then perhaps a better modern day comparison was someone in finance. That struck a chord.

Brother Jean-Marie suggested that we write one page about what we thought Zacchaeus was like. I ended up writing Zacchaeus a five-page letter directly, imagining a close friend in finance who had emailed me asking for advice on how to get out. In the process I realized that what I’d sensed as inadequacy when comparing myself to those who had been educated in elite institutions and landed highly selective positions, was not inadequacy at all. It was bitterness towards them.

The way Jesus addressed Zacheaus as human, and the way Zacheaus responded, both validated my concerns with corporate and systematic injustice, while showing me the error of my ways.

I explained all this and more to Shirley. At different points Shirley stopped me, and she would say things like, “Derek, I just want to tell you that I love you.” One morning when I was discouraged, unknown to Shirley, she came up and said, “Derek, I was praying late last night and God told me to tell you something.” Then she gave me one of the most encouraging words I’d ever received.

The challenge, as well as the opportunity, for peace and reconciliation between people who might otherwise see things very differently, is a special gift at Taizé

[Click here to continue to Part III: To Live is to Risk]

Reconciliation, Complexity, Taizé, Race, Love, Ecumenism, Faith, Doubt