Prophet of unity, Encourager of youth, 16 August 2005
Early in my marriage, on a very lengthy world trip, Helen and I arrived at Taizé. Because of the special circumstances – including the distance from New Zealand – we were allowed to stay two weeks. One in group discussion. A second in silence.
Brother Roger was a big focus for my time there. After he had prayed a while at the end of Evening Prayer he would get up and talk to the people waiting to see him. But there were always so many! I had tried to get to him – but failed. I also understood his English was not strong.
Thursday night, after he had spoken to the whole church, I realised there were a whole group sitting near him who could not speak French. And people had not expected him to follow speaking to the whole community with speaking to individuals. Helen and I made our way down to him and were about third or fourth to speak with him. He did not say much. But more than any other person I have ever met – he was totally there for us – in touch, in eye contact. Radiating love, joy, peace. God radiated from his face as he looked unflinchingly into our eyes. He asked how long we were staying and was disappointed we were only staying until Sunday. He invited me to dinner.
Around 10pm he left. The brothers followed, as did I and some other invited guests. The brothers observe enclosure – men only. Helen had been invited to another meal. The brothers were soon out of their alb-habit. Only Br. Roger retained his with a thin, cream blanket wrapped around himself.
With a twinkle in his eye, he surveyed the group until all were ready. He rang a buzzer to let the other brothers know we were on the way and with a brisk pace he set off down the path behind the church.
Stars were beginning to show. A planet hovered overhead. We came to a new wooden building. Some brothers were reading the paper inside. Others were getting the food ready. Into a courtyard, then up some steps and we were in almost the top floor of what appeared an open barn. A table in the middle held a dozen lit candles and a vase of flowers. A light hung low over this. There were plates, a basket, bread. One brother quickly taught a song in parts which we sang, and then we ate in silence, a tape providing music.
Br. Roger got down on his knees at the low table and dished up soup which two brothers distributed. Then he took the bread knife and with deliberate action cut up a baguette or two and buttered each piece. There was a childlike joy in his face as he did this and placed them in a basket. He then went around delighting in trying to see the buttered side in the bad light as he offered them to each. When he got to me, as with each, there was the same total focus, the same full attention as previously.
After yoghurt and fruit the music was turned off. All knelt before an icon of the Virgin and Child. A brother prayed in his own language. Then some were tidying up, while others were bidding Br. Roger goodnight with a hug and a kiss on the cheek French style. I similarly bidded him goodnight. He called for David, an American, to translate that I should come every night until I left. With a heavy accent he said, “My affection to your wife.”
Imaged in this experience for me was what it must have been like for Francis with his early friars, Jesus with his disciples. Here was community, leadership, and meal resonating with and shedding light on the Eucharist. One time Br. Roger ran out of butter. He stopped to think; went to the other side of the table and with much mirth, echoed by the community, sprinkled the remaining pieces of bread liberally with sugar.
The brothers from many countries and many denominations had gathered in Taizé to follow a fairly traditional monastic lifestyle – if ecumenical. On my bookshelf is The Taizé Office, a 1966 English translation of the French Office de Taizé. This community’s liturgical acumen and value was gaining international reputation. But, surprising to the community, young people were seeking to share their worship – this experience. No sooner had the community formulated their liturgical books than they abandoned them. Br. Roger highlighted the provisional nature of church life. And the community lives it. The complex structures of The Taizé Office would not suit the new situation – offering hospitality and shared prayer to increasing numbers of visiting young people. The famous chants developed – simple, memorable, multi-lingual. Certainly those familiar with the office may notice that the structure is still there – introduction, psalm, Alleluia verses, psalm, reading, versicle and response, lengthy silence, petitions, canticle, Lord’s Prayer, concluding prayer…
In July 2005 my family was privileged to be able to spend a week at Taizé. To pray with Br. Roger and receive his blessing. And to be in the midst of thousands of young people. Br. Roger was old, difficult to understand. He said little. In words. He did not need to. He had become his message of love, reconciliation, unity, acceptance, understanding, unity with God. He was translucent.
A month later and he was dead. We had brought home from Taizé a copy of one of the oldest icons in existence, the sixth century Egyptian icon of Jesus and St. Menas, now in the Louvre. At Taizé it has an important place in the church and is normally called “Jesus and his friend” – with Jesus with his arm over his friend’s shoulder. In the photo at the top of this article there is that icon. Now Br. Roger is Jesus’ friend. Br. Roger is in Jesus’ embrace.