Seeking reconciliation and peace involves a struggle within oneself. It does not mean taking the line of least resistance. Nothing lasting is created when things are too easy.
-- Brother Roger’s unfinished letter
It was Sunday again in Taize. That time of the week when some people come, and some people go. Actually, it is thousands who come to spend a whole week in this small "village" in rural France. During peak summer months, up to six thousands people -- mostly youth -- come from all over the world to Taize each week. That’s over 100,000 pilgrims every year. They've been coming for over half a century -- and are still growing.
People -- from the Pope to politicians wishing to capture young hearts -- have been wondering for decades why the youths keep coming to Taize. Nobody really knows. In fact, materially, Taize has little to recommend itself. The food is famously bland. The church looks like a self-storage warehouse. The housing has the feel of a temporary summer camp. There's nothing noteworthy to "see" for tourists, or to "do" for entertainment.
Yet, the youths keep coming.
I guess, the youths don't come here to enjoy one week of vacation -- they come here to take care of each other and love their neighbors from across the globe.
The youths don't come here for the tasteless mashed potato -- they come here to be fed by the joy of living and working together in community, including cleaning their own toilets and washing other people's dishes.
They don't come here to listen to the singing of a sophisticated choir -- they are the choir. The songs are easy to learn, and are in world languages. The "official choir" requires no interview to join -- anyone can show up at 2pm at the church and be an official member.
They don't come here to receive the words of wisdom or life advice from the 100+ Brothers who have dedicated their life to God; they come here to be heard by the Brothers. Every evening, the Brothers will stay in the church to listen to anyone who wish to come up and speak, for as long as they needed.
Ultimately, the youth don't come here to talk about God -- they come here to live as God intended for us to live.
Together, the young people spend a week in prayer, songs, silence, Bible reading, small group reflection, community work, and daily workshops around the questions of faith.
"Ah, Taize, that little springtime!" This is how Pope John XXIII spontaneously exclaimed upon seeing the founder of Taize, Brother Roger, whom the Pope considered a prophet. "A parable of communion", this is how the community of over 100 Taize Brothers - Christian "monks" from over two dozen countries -- understand their vocation to be. "A taste of paradise", this is how another visitor from mainland China describes Taize.
For me, Taize is where the teachings of Jesus has come alive. The Holy Spirit permeates this barren hilltop. They say, "The world is equally astonished by those who denounce Jesus as by those who actually follow Jesus' example." Taize is the latter.
Moving through the humble campus and simple daily routine here, I frequently found myself at the verge of tears. And a few times, I could not contain them. Is it because of hearing thousands of youth sing the soulful prayers with one heart? Or seeing hundreds of them lingering around the Cross till midnight, in silent reflections and prayers in the Church of Reconciliation? Or witnessing how, every night, after the evening prayer, the Brothers sprinkle themselves around the church to listen to the youth, for as long as they want to speak? Or observing how many of the youths seem to be just having fun and are "missing the point", but knowing that actually, by being here, something is being awaken in the depth of their souls, perhaps even unbeknownst to themselves.
A humble beginning
Taize started when Brother Roger rode his bicycle to this bleak village in southern France during the height of the Second World War. The 25-year-old Brother Roger was searching for a place where he could build a small community of common living, prayer and service with a few other Brothers. An old woman in the village pleaded for him to stay, because "we are all alone here." Brother Roger remembered that God speaks through the poor, so he stayed -- for the rest of his life. All alone by himself at first, he started to provide shelter to Jewish refugees (which upset the Nazis), and later on, to German prisoners-of-war (which upset the French). Slowly, other brothers from all Christian denomination joined him in monastic life. Then, the youths started coming. The rest is history.
I first came to Taize more than 8 years ago, at age 17, while I was a one-year exchange student at a Protestant high school in Germany. I asked to come with the local Catholic church to Taize for one week. It was a most beautiful memory. I joined the choir, literally, and sang those prayer songs for over four hours a day. It felt like a baptism of some sort. And I've always wanted to come back since.
This time around, when I was planning my pilgrimage route in Europe, my intuition only provided two and a half locations that are "must visit": Taize, Plum Village, and maybe (hence the "half") the Camino de Santiago.
After a week at Taize, I am getting some clues as to why I was called to come here again.
"Be reconciled from within"
Taize was founded out of a prayer for reconciliation. At the beginning, it was the reconciliation between Protestant and Catholic traditions. It started as a personal longing of Brother Roger. Naturally, it rippled into his work, and widened to reconciliation between nations and people -- all God's children.
I am called to Taize, also to be reconciled from within, especially to reconcile the teachings of the Buddha and of Jesus within myself.
In the past few years, as my study/practice of Buddha Dharma deepens, I have felt increasingly partial toward Buddha Dharma. I subconsciously believed that other religions are "good but not complete". Some of the assumptions I hold are:
I have been running away from acknowledging my hidden assumptions, because they undermine my self-image of tolerance and broadmindedness. But slowly, I have come to see that I could not truly embrace other people until I dissolve these biases within my mind. How could I "love my neighbors" when I believe my faith is "more true" and superior than theirs? How could I tell others to be ecumenical and more tolerant while I harbor these hidden biases? I realized that my efforts toward "interfaith harmony" would be hypocritical and feeble if I do not "reconcile from within" first.
Moreover, my Teacher's very life is a call for reconciliation. Throughout his life of bringing Dharma to the West, Master Hua has always tried to bring together different lineages within Buddhism, and to create harmony between the world's religions. Master Hua once said to his disciples, "Don't think that I am bringing Buddhism to the West. I am just bringing humanness back to humanity." Master Hua has invited Catholic priests to hold Mass at the Buddha Hall at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. He even said to the Catholic cardinal of Taiwan, "You can be a Buddhist among the Catholics, and I a Catholic among the Buddhist."
As a disciple of Master Hua, I feel inspired to make a good-faith attempt at dissolving my inner biases -- even the subtle favoritism toward Buddhism. I suspect that a Buddhist who could not authentically imagine himself as a Christian has not really understood the teachings of the Buddha.
So, for the whole week at Taize, I kept praying, "Guide me to enter into Christianity on its own terms, instead of through the lens of Buddhism." At Taize, the lifelong project of "inner reconciliation" has begun in earnest. The path is long :)
Creating affinity with Jesus
I came to Taize also to deepen my affinity with Jesus. Jesus has profound affinity with many living beings. If I want to understand them, then I should nourish my own affinity with this great teacher.
I remember when I first learned about Jesus' life during a cross-USA bike journey in summer 2013. I listened to the Bible on audiobook, and loved the New Testament so much that I listened to it three times in a roll. On a few occasions, the life of Jesus moved me to tears, and I had to stop cycling on the side of the road. In my heart, I had decided then to take Jesus as a teacher. (Later on, I have found Jesus in many different forms, such as in Master Hua.)
At Taize, I have witness the good fruits of Jesus's short but brilliant ministry on Earth. The kind of inner transformation brought about by meditation or Buddhism, I see similar results in Christianity.
During the week, I listened to stories from many young people -- many of them from mainland China. Their relationships with God have changed -- or saved -- their lives. I am truly happy for them that they have found salvation.
Belief vs. Action
The depth of transformation is so profound and precious that the person often find it hard to imagine anything else that could have a similar effect. They might start to believe that only their religion could have such life-changing power.
Quite a few times -- and mostly from fellow Chinese at Taize -- I get a earful of "what they believe" as Christians, in hope that I would believe in the same way. In these situations, I am always reminded of Gandhi's teaching, "My life is my message." I am drawn to Taize not because of what they "believe", but because of how they live their life.
I see that religion affects people on two levels -- belief and action. Religion changes our worldview, and hence alters our behavior. (It is also possible to change behavior without a change in personal philosophy, and vice versa.)
For me, it's not very important what someone believes -- much less what they say they believe. What's important is how we live our life. Do we honor our parents and love our neighbors? Any belief system that leads people to live a good human life is good enough for me. I will gladly bow to their "God" or Teacher for inspiring goodness in the hearts of the followers. Otherwise, we would have what Gandhi observed, "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ." (Which is true for all other religions, too.)
While at Taize, I have tried to initiated conversations with my Christian friends about other religions. This attempt at "interfaith dialogue" has brought important learnings.
First, I learned that interfaith dialogues should not be initiated carelessly. Unless there is an open invitation -- either explicit or implicit -- it is better to not push the hot button :) Unless both parties are actively willing to consider the beauty and validity of a different worldview, it is better to stay within one frame of reference. Most of us are not able -- or accustomed -- to look past the different terminologies and mental constructs to arrive at the same core. A few times, when I brought up the teachings of the Buddha, some Christians have used the popular misunderstandings of Buddhism to reinforce their own views. "Buddhism is all about emptiness." "Buddha is still a human, not a God." "There are too many Buddhist classics to possibly read them all, where as there is only one Bible." And so on.
Second, I learned that interfaith dialogues is more productive on the level of "action", not on the level of "philosophy". The different religious worldviews appear nearly impossible to reconcile. Just try to compare "Resurrection" and "Nirvana" :) However, at the level of "behavioral change", the world's religions have much in common. They all make better human beings out of us by giving us the tools to cultivate the good, and uproot the impurities. Religious people frequently attach more importance to their believes than to the actual behavioral changes commanded by their faith. After all, it is much easier to assert an opinion than to work on oneself :)
Third, it is so difficult to switch between worldviews, especially religions ones. Our religious worldview touches our life at the deepest level. It seems so true, so powerful. "If God is not real, how could he have saved me when I have given up on oneself?" We hold our faith dearer than our own lives. What's more, once we have accepted one worldview to be "true", our surroundings and "confirmation bias" will daily reinforce our viewpoint. For a Christian, an act of synchronicity will be a sign of God; for a Buddhist, the ripening of karmic conditions. After years of such reinforcement, it is almost impossible to hold open the idea that another worldview could be also "true" and valid. We even feel so offended and threatened when a different worldview is suggested.
Brother Roger's death was a shock to the world and remains a mystery. At age 90, he was stabbed to death by a mentally disturbed woman at Taize's Church of Reconciliation during evening prayer, in front of thousands of worshipers.
The Taize community decided not to put charges against the attacker. Brother Roger’s successor, Brother Alois, prayed for forgiveness, “With Christ on the cross we say to you, Father, forgive her, she does not know what she did.”
Someone observed that, in his death, so as in his life, Brother Roger cultivated vulnerability, because "that is how God prefers to come into our life".
The Taize community as a whole also embrace vulnerability as a spiritual discipline. For example, the Brothers do not accept any donations or family inheritance, and live entirely from their own work -- pottery, art, writings, etc. Their voluntary poverty and vow to not accumulate "contingency fund" is one way to express their faith in God. And it has been working for over half a century.
Cycles of history
Two thousand years ago, Jesus lived and died for the salvation of mankind. Fifteen centuries later, the corruption in the Church led to the Protestant Reformation, and resulted in a divided Church, and even bloodshed among Christians. Around 500 years after the Reformation, Taize started as a humble attempt at reconciliation. Today, two millennia since Jesus's death, Taize stands as a beacon of communion of all God's children. I feel blessed to visit Taize and receive its spirit of reconciliation on the 500th anniversary of the 1517 Reformation.
Before leaving Taize, I paid a visit to Brother Roger's grave in the village church. The simple grave is adorned with humble but vibrant flowers. I touched the cross at the head of the grave, and silently prayed, "May I internalize Brother Roger's spirit, live a parable of communion, and bring Taize with me into the world."
Only ten kilometer from Taize lies the Cluny Abbey. For a few hundred years, the abbey boasted the largest church and biggest monastic community (with over a hundred Benedictine monks) in the Western world. It was an epicenter of religious and political life of Europe. But wealth and influence slowly corrupted the monastery, and emptied it of spirit. The abbey was eventually sacked and destroyed during the French Revolution. The abbey was later used to house livestock, and dismantled for its stones. Today, it is a museum with no trace of spiritual heritage. But, even the ruins are jaw-dropping, giving a hint of its past glory.
In contrast, Taize's infrastructure is utterly uninspiring. But through its frugality, Taize's inner richness shines through, and has nourish the multitude of pilgrims with "only five loaves of bread and two fish".
Less than 80 years since the founder, Brother Roger, came alone to Taize village on his bicycle, Taize now has the largest Christian monastic community (over 100 Brothers) in the world, and certainly the most number of visitors. Perhaps it is the Feng-Shui of this area?
The first night after leaving Taize, I knocked my way through a small French village, finding no English speakers. The language barrier and rejections stood in contrast to the past week of global fellowship at Taize, worsening my melancholy "Taize withdraw symptoms". Finally, I came to a family who was spending summer vacation in their ancestral house in the village. They are humanitarian NGO workers living in Jerusalem. They kindly welcomed me in, and invited me to join their "quick dinner", a five course French meal. The parents turned out to be Taize fans since their teenage years, and still go every year to Taize with their children. The mom said, "If you are French and Christian, you most likely have been to Taize once. The prayer there is so simple. Everyone can join."
Indeed. So simple. Everyone can join. Let everyone join!
Some favorite Taize prayers :)
A pilgrimage around the globe by bicycle, in service of the ecological and spiritual awakening of our time.