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Other kinds of pilgrimage: Compostela and Taizé

Christiane Buuck, Fulbright Scholar 2005-2006.
Christiane a passé une année scolaire en France avec l'intention de comparer deux formes modernes d'une expression de la spiritualité en Europe : les chemins de Compostelle et Taizé. Elle a marché sur les chemins, rencontré des hôtes et des pèlerins. Elle a séjourné à Taizé. Après nous avoir confié ses impressions sur quelques étapes du chemin de Tours (voir Meeting people on the Chemin de Tours), elle nous livre ici une première analyse comparative de ces deux formes de pèlerinage.

The pilgrimage office of the Cathedral de Compostela recorded 179,944 pedestrian pilgrims in the 2004 Jubilee year, a seventeen percent increase since the previous jubilee in 1999. Similarly, the Taizé monastic community perched “on the hill” in Burgundy makes space for the growing crowds of youth that arrive particularly in the summer months and at Easter. This modern revival of resonant ancient spaces speaks, I think, to the larger historical, political and cultural moment. In a time of globalization, economic uncertainty and violence in daily news reports, people question and seek answers. They may turn to old frameworks of learning, knowing and searching, such as pilgrimage, to begin constructing a worldview that better accommodates current realities. I, as a writer, am not immune to this impulse. Increasingly in my work I consider the artist’s responsibility to bear witness to community, to culture, to the complex issues of our time.
This said, I am not a professional anthropologist, sociologist or ethnologist. I leave to the specialists the detailed and meticulous study of the facts and phenomena of pilgrimage, and am indebted to them for the foundations of my work. What I can offer to the corpus of pilgrimage writing is my practical experiences this year in France supported by a Fulbright grant. My project has been to participate in and write about two pilgrimages: the various paths of the Chemin de Saint-Jacques as they occur in present-day France, and the “pilgrimage of trust on earth” proposed by Taizé. This pairing is an odd marriage, after all the populations arriving at Taizé and those setting out for Compostela tend to be quite different. Taizé’s welcome applies particularly to youth who come for a week or sometimes longer, while those walking to Saint Jacques tend to be people with time and finances – often retirees or people between jobs. And, while the Chemin de Saint-Jacques is a pilgrimage which pilgrims start at one point and end at another each day, Taizé, much like Lourdes, is a destination in itself. Yet these two pilgrimages cannot be unrelated, since pilgrimage in all its forms is a metaphor for spiritual questioning and growth.
My interest in pilgrimage began in texts like the Canterbury Tales and, in 2002, I walked the Camino Francès. This experience that left me wanting to come back and learn more. It was the Camino that inspired my Fulbright project. I had a less concrete understanding of Taizé. The music has long been incorporated into churches I have attended in Texas, Tucson and Baltimore. Similarly the news of Brother Roger’s murder in August 2005, shook the international Christian community. But my interest in Taizé as part of my Fulbright project was piqued when I read about the “Pilgrimage of Trust on Earth” on the community’s website. As a writer undertaking and writing about pilgrimage in France, I had questions. Wasn’t all pilgrimage an exercise in trust? How is Taizé’s pilgrimage unique? How were the French chemins de Saint-Jacques and Taizé related? How did the lived experiences of Taizé and the Camino compare? How could they inform one another? Who was going to Taizé and why? In order to better frame these questions and perhaps find others, I visited the community twice during my grant, once in the “low season” of February, and again during Holy Week, 2006. And in the fall and spring I walked portions of the Chemin de Tours and the Chemin du Puy.
Taizé is a new phenomenon in the history of Christian monasticism. Brother Roger, originally Roger Schutz from Switzerland, son of a Protestant pastor, founded the Communauté in 1940. According to Brother Roger’s biography and to the Taizé video on the origins of the movement, Brother Roger was deeply influenced his maternal grandmother. She had lived in northern France during the First World War and sheltered refugees in her home. During this time she also took communion at a Catholic church, despite being Protestant. Brother Roger writes that her lived ecumenism touched him profoundly. Ecumenism, in a simple definition, is the search for common ground among Christians (Catholics, the varied strains of Protestants, and Orthodox).
Roger went to seminary and became a Protestant pastor while becoming increasingly convinced of his call to start an ecumenical community. A definition of ecumenism more specific to Taizé can be found in The Sources of Taizé: No Greater Love: “Brother Roger founded the Taizé Community as an attempt to find ways beyond divisions between Christians and, through the reconciliation of Christians, to overcome some of the conflicts in the human family” (78). Brother Roger’s vision was to live in ecumenical communion every day. Specifically “brothers” from all Christian denominations would make lifetime commitments to poverty and chastity and to live, work and worship together.
Brother Roger’s search for a place to found his community took him to the Burgundy region of France, not far from the ruins of the once-powerful Cluny order. This choice was not a coincidence. As Kathryn Spink writes in A Universal Heart: The Life and Vision of Brother Roger of Taizé, place was very important to Roger Schutz. While looking for a site Roger “arrived at Macon and, having read the history of the nearby monastery of Cluny, determined to visit the site. […] It was not so much that he was attracted by ruins but rather by the association of Cluny with renewal within the Church.” So, while Roger was not copying the past, he was attracted to the resonance of a very significant medieval site when planning his own modern community. This impulse to return to a place of renewal also informs some of the current revival of the various paths of the Compostela pilgrimage. As Nancy Louise Frey suggests in her Pilgrim Stories: On and off the Road to Santiago. Journeys Along an Ancient Way in Modern Spain, many people are searching to walk where the mythical pilgrim throngs used to walk: “Getting closer to one’s cultural and personal roots by returning to sites important in the past also influences the desire to walk the road – to perhaps form part of and to create history through one’s actions” (41-42). There is talk among Compostela pilgrims of which path or variant is the “real” or “original” one. And yet many Compostela pilgrims are not motivated by the idea of walking to Compostela’s cathedral to venerate the relics of Saint James the Greater, nor do many consider themselves Christian. Instead, there seems to be a similar impulse between modern Compostela pilgrims and Brother Roger, a desire not to copy the past, but to be close to something or some place historical, a beginning place, where one can perhaps find the right questions to ask, if not the answers.
When Brother Roger bought a house in the near-deserted village of Taizé, not far from Cluny, World War II was raging. According to Spink, “Taizé was a few kilometers from the demarcation line that at that time divided France in two. In the house he had bought, he hid political refugees, especially Jews, and he remained in Taizé from 1940 to 1942. On his own, he prayed three times a day in the tiny oratory, just as the community whose creation he was contemplating would do later” (79). Roger was helping a refugee obtain the necessary papers to cross to safety in Switzerland when the German army advanced in 1942, and so stayed in Switzerland for the remainder of the war. In peacetime he returned and pursued his ecumenical goal. The first brothers made their lifetime commitments in 1949. While the vision for Taizé is centered on monastic life, the community has always been a place of welcome: to the refugees during the war, to prisoners of war and orphans in the aftermath of conflict, and now to youth. In 1957-58 the first young adults began arriving to spend several days, a week, with the brothers. According to The Sources of Taizé: No Greater Love, “Today, Taizé is a place where hundreds of thousands of young adults from every continent come to pray and to prepare themselves for work for peace, reconciliation and trust in the world” (78). There are times when today’s visitor can forget entirely the monastic nature of the community since the visitors vastly outnumber the hundred or so brothers. The brothers continue to live in the original house in the village while guests are housed and fed on a large campus that blooms with multicolored tents in the warm months.
Taizé is not easy to get to from most points in France. The train that once stopped at the village was suspended in the 1970s, and the tracks have since been converted to a “voie verte” where people can bike, walk and rollerblade. To get to Taizé today one must come by car or chartered bus, hitchhike, or take the TGV to Macon or Chalon and then a bus. In February I chose the latter option. The bus threaded sinewy roads in the gentle land of Burgundy. The hills looked like breaking waves, as if a northern wind had forced them to roll. Vineyards draped southern slopes and many fields were striped where snow clung to furrows. It was overcast when I arrived. The day was cold and the snow of a few weeks past had compacted into ice.
Perhaps the only word to describe a winter arrival in Taizé is anticlimactic. There are few signs pointing the way, and no shiny welcome center. So few minutes by bus from the imposing medieval ruins of Cluny, I had expected, at the very least, a look of organization and permanence. Instead, the bus pulled through the village and stopped in an open space at the crest of the hill near a bell tower and a clutch of low wooden buildings. The road continued straight, bisecting the property, which is nice metaphor for pilgrimage, perhaps.
13 Feb 2006 clocher under snowThe major feature visible from the Taizé bus stop is the wooden entrance arch and bell tower where the five-bell carillon sounds the hours and the calls to worship. In the winter months visitors walk past the bells to La Morada, a house where a brother greets each visitor. In the summer months and the weeks surrounding Easter the welcoming formalities are moved outside to tents, and people file up by age, church group or language. Year round a short welcome and explanation takes place with either a brother or a “permanent,” a youth who has decided to stay longer than a few weeks and has become one of the innumerable volunteers who keep things running smoothly.
Guests are asked to pay a minimal fee to stay at Taizé, only a few euros a day, hardly enough to cover the cost of food, as utilitarian as that food is. The pay scale slides depending on the continent and country a guest is from, with youth from the first world requested to pay around seven euros a day. A guest may not pay more than the requested amount as Taizé does not accept outside donations or grants. Instead the brothers support themselves through their pottery, printing press and enamel works for sale at the “Exposition” on the grounds. The only funds accepted at Taizé are those toward the cost of housing guests who cannot afford the fee. These anonymous solidarity offerings are collected in small boxes at the entrances to the Church of the Reconciliation.
In the wintertime, when visitors number only in the hundreds, meals and Bible introductions happen indoors in barracks, and visitors sleep in bunk beds in heated dorms. In the summer, when youth arrive in the thousands, food distribution and classes happen outdoors under trees and circus tents. Most of the community’s acreage is open space for the tents of summertime, with an occasional bathroom block and stands of pay phones near the road. The online registration form for Taizé asks “Will you be bringing a tent?” Everyone brings a towel and sleeping bag, though there are extras available for those without.
At Taizé, “youth” is defined as anyone between the ages of fifteen and thirty, and these guests are housed together. Adults over thirty are assigned rooms in different barracks. There are a limited number of rooms for couples, and a waiting list for the houses in the next village reserved for families with small children. Rooms are assigned in the order of arrival. In February I found myself with one Italian, two German and two Dutch women. I was the only one among us who had never been to Taizé. Two of my roommates were at Evening Prayer the night Brother Roger was killed. This was their first time back, and an emotional arrival for them. During Holy Week I was assigned to a six-person room with five German girls who had arrived as part of a youth group. I was twenty-seven while they were fifteen and sixteen. This was their first time to Taizé and they seemed a little overwhelmed by the four thousand or so other youth, especially the collection of die-hards who stationed themselves on the benches outside our door and played Taizé songs all afternoon on guitar, flute and recorders.
The rhythm of life at Taizé is circular. 8:15am Morning Prayer, then breakfast. Ten o’clock Bible introductions led by a brother. 12:20pm Midday Prayer, then lunch. 3:30pm meetings and work (youth clean communal bathrooms, pick up public spaces, clean candleholders in the church, and help with other maintenance). 5:15pm tea. 7pm supper. 8:30pm Evening Prayer. Every day this pattern repeats. This rhythm is not unlike the circular time lived on the pilgrimage path. As Nancy Louise Frey writes, “In a world where the passing of time is marked by changes in the sun, fatigue, the position of one’s shadow, or hunger, linear time often gives way to circular time. Both of these types of time exist and influence pilgrims on the Camino: one follows the linear goal, yet most movements are circular as one moves slowly along the Camino from place to place” (72). At Taizé, as with other monastic communities, perhaps the circularity of the schedule opens up interior space for linear movement or spiritual growth. The exterior landscape is fixed, save for the coming and going of visitors, but the circular pattern to the days allows a person to mark interior change against fixed points. A day of excitement, followed by a day of questions, followed by a day when the music seems particularly pertinent, a day when the entire idea of Taizé seems outmoded… The variations are as numerous as the people experiencing them.
Nourishment on the hilltop is cheap and copious. Food is served in plastic bowls and plates that seem to be decomposing a bit, and oversized dinner spoons are the only utensils. The romantic in me kept wishing we were eating out of the ceramic vessels made by the brothers. In February adults and youth ate together and every mealtime was a chance to meet someone from another continent or from a different age group. Meals were rich times of exchange and people often had to be asked to surrender their empty dishes so the cleanup crew could finish its work before the next scheduled activity. The air was thick with the smell of noodles, couscous, or watery soup and a wall of Polish, Czech, French, Italian, German, Dutch, Russian, Castilian, Spanish, various Indian and African dialects, and of course English, the most commonly spoken of all.
Seven lines already forming for youthfood distributionDuring Holy Week feeding was more segregated and industrial. Families with small children eat at a house in the next village. Adults eat in a large tent on the far end of the campus. And the youth queue, or mass, outside at the bell tower end of campus and, once food is distributed, sit on the ground, the benches, the low rock walls. In the midst of such numbers, those who came in groups seem to stick together and individuals have a harder time meeting people. There are comparisons to be drawn here with the exclusive tendencies often noted in regards to Compostela pilgrims traveling in groups. Taizé, especially in high season, seems to be a destination for church youth groups, or other groups (for example a busload of Polish orphans visited the same week in February). The Compostela pilgrimage paths, especially the Chemin du Puy and parts of the Camino Francès, have witnessed growth in this “bus pilgrim” phenomenon. There is not space to treat this subject completely here. Instead I would simply like to note that the group versus individual dynamic greatly affects the possibilities for exchange, communitas and conflict on the Chemin de Saint Jacques and at Taizé.
While eating is a necessary task, the meat of each Taizé day is Prayer. The three daily prayer services (two on Sunday) follow a set rhythm of song, readings and silence. Morning Prayer always includes communion. The lessons are kept short and are read in an average of five languages. The brothers are present but apart for worship. They are visible in their white robes, but sit in the center of the church, separated from the other worshipers by a border of dried boxwoods in wooden planters. Outside of prayer they lead the Bible introductions, and it is possible to speak with the few who stay aside at the end of Evening Prayer, but the rest of their lives happens elsewhere. They eat separately, work, and remain apart. They even have their own entrance to the church – a covered walkway that leads directly from their house in the village.
The most surprising element of Taizé, to me, was the silence in the midst of the prayer services. This element was also the one that resonated most distinctly with me and my experiences on the Camino paths where many pilgrims are looking for silence. It is interesting to note though, that while on the Camino pilgrims often find silence while walking alone, at Taizé the silence is collective. After a certain number of prayers and readings, in the place of a sermon, there is along stretch of silence. The first night in February I didn’t know what to make of this strange hole in the service. I couldn’t stop fidgeting and looking around at the bowed heads, some people even prostrate on the floor. In the middle of the week I timed the silence – eleven minutes. By the end of the week the silence flew by. Brother Roger’s intention with this period of silence in each service was to allow space for prayer. He writes that in the early days of the community the quiet lasted for only a minute or two, but that over time the silence has stretched longer and longer. After the silence a brother begins a song, accompanied by a brother playing a synthesizer. The song numbers appear on scoreboards on the side walls and songbooks are available at the various doors to the church. Not long after the singing begins the new Prior of the community, Brother Alois, leads the brothers out and the worshipers carry on singing as the spirit moves them. I am told that, in summer, the singing never stops. Certainly during Holy Week it continued both inside the church and out at all hours. I must admit that the silence was harder during Holy Week, though. On Easter Sunday, for example, when approximately six thousand people squeezed into the Church of the Reconciliation, it was hard to hear silence for the coughing, sneezing, position shifting. Yet there were not cell phone interruptions, and almost no talking.
Bible introductions happen in the mornings after breakfast. In February there was one introduction for all present, but during Holy Week the introductions were split along age lines, language lines and for some age groups there was a choice of subject. The brothers are remarkably multilingual. At one of the February Bible introductions, Brother Jose Ramón from Puerto Rico taught in French and English. He asked a Polish girl to translate his English into Polish and handed her a photocopy of the day’s text. “I’m sorry, but this is Czech,” she told him. Brother Jose Ramón looked at the sheet. “No, this is Slovak,” he said, and then found the Polish one.
I cannot enter into the detail I would like in this overview of Taizé, but hope to leave the reader with a few impressions and to begin the discussion of how different kinds of pilgrimages help interpret one another. Something I am still seeking to define after my two visits and extensive outside research on Taizé is a concrete definition for the “pilgrimage of trust on earth.” These words appear on the web site and in printed materials distributed by Taizé, but there was never any explicit discussion of it during my two stays. My hypothesis is that, somehow, bringing together so many people in such a relatively small space for the purposes of Christian reconciliation inherently fosters (or is hoped to) an atmosphere of trust and cooperation. And that afterwards, those who have been in this atmosphere of trust and cooperation will take a little bit of it with them into the world when they return home. This is an ideal, however, and I have seen reality stray. People cut in the food lines, use Taizé as a cheap vacation, disrupt planned activities or silence at night. Certainly Brother Roger’s murder in the midst of evening prayer is another painful example in the vulnerability of a life lived in trust.

Similarly, the more time I spent at Taizé, the more questions I had about the community, especially Taizé’s definition of ecumenism and the place of women in that ecumenism. For many years an order of Roman Catholic nuns, the Sisters of St. Andrew, has helped with the day-to-day running of Taizé – and especially with the “girls” who visit. The sisters, for example, are responsible for all the female permanents. When I spoke with permanents I was surprised to learn how divided tasks are along gender lines. The male permanents are assigned leadership roles and important jobs in the church whereas women are rarely allowed to do these. And while permanents are welcome to stay for up to two years, it is always made clear that there is not a true permanent place for women in the community. “Boys, though, might always become brothers,” one former permanent told me. “They have a lot more contact with the brothers than the girls do.” Another female permanent I met was leaving after one and half years. She admitted that, after all that time, she still knew the brothers no better than I did. She was looking for another religious community to become a part of where her leadership and music skills would be more valued, but her options were few because she was Dutch Protestant and did not want to convert to Catholicism. For a time Brother Roger had considered starting a sister community for women, but this idea never came to fruition. The feminist in me is sorry that ecumenical monasticism is not a possibility for women at Taizé. It is ironic to know how a woman inspired Brother Roger’s vision, but to see how much distance is kept between women and the community today.
When I step back from my experiences both at Taizé and as a Compostela pilgrim I think that the more ecumenical of the spaces is the Camino. If, as I write above, ecumenism in a very broad sense means “universal,” then I have seen more of the universe on the ways of Saint James. Taizé’s focus on youth already sets up a homogenous community, something I felt very strongly during Holy Week. February was different because there were so few of us and we were all, young and old, kept together. In February the other visitors were varied and fascinating, from a homeless Frenchman (evidence that Taizé, like the Camino, is sometimes a temporary haven for those with no other options), to a Dutch housewife, to students on break, to a Protestant semi-contemplative nun, to an entire engineering section from a Catholic university in Lille, to the bus load of Polish orphans… During Holy Week I was surprised at the sea of young faces in the church and the comparatively small number of adults and parents with small children tucked around the outer walls. And I was surprised by the sameness of the youth. Perhaps their similar appearances and interests are a result of globalization, or the tendancy to copy and fit, but variety seemed absent. It has been noted that the population of the Camino paths is also fairly homogenous, that the pilgrims are mostly of European descent and mostly retirement age. Perhaps there is more room for individuality and personality, though, on the Ways of Saint James. There are very few set schedules on the Camino. Everyone walks or rides at her or his own rhythm. The pilgrims I walked with and encountered on the Camino were individuals, all of them, even if they fit into type groups (man in mid-life crisis, woman who has just lost her job, pilgrim obsessed with times and distances and being first…). And on the Camino paths, old and young, when present, do mix. There are not separate dorms or eating facilities for the college student and the retired engineer.
Perhaps it is fair to say that Taize’s ecumenism is one of religion, while the ecumenism I experienced on the Camino is one of spirit. At Taizé, Christianity is a common ground for everyone, whether they are Christian already, or whether they are questioning or doubting. Taizé does not hide its Christianity. The Camino is something different. While its origins, at least according to the Catholic church, are Christian, the average pilgrim seems not to be. Pilgrimage organizations in France and abroad speak in veiled terms, that the Camino is the “way of respect and tolerance,” or the “way of the common man”. A popular statement is that people start as walkers along the Ways of Saint James, but end as pilgrims. But by and large the Camino, in itself, is not a place devoted solely to Christian questioning. It is a place of searching and questioning in general. Pilgrims walking part or all of the way to Santiago seem to share this spirit of sorting through, reordering, figuring out, even if their quest is highly personal.
I was surprised at what I would perceive as an absence of questioning at Taizé. Along with prayer and Bible introductions, one of the key features of a Taizé day is meeting with one’s small group. In February I started out in a youth group with other French and English speakers, but the second day was asked to move to the adult group which had no translator. That group, perhaps by virtue of its age, did speak of questions of faith, if not of Taizé in general. Holy Week was another atmosphere entirely, full of crowds and constant arrivals and departures. I found myself in a group with other Europeans, all of whom spoke English as a second language. While we filled the hours with talk, much of it seemed only lightly tied to the set questions we had in hand – questions which were vague to begin with (for example, one stated, “There is good and bad in everyone.”) We ended up talking about movies and about our countries of origin, but there was very little of substance exchanged, very little that would count as personal questioning. It is entirely possible that what I perceived as an absence of questioning was unique to the group I was in, and perhaps our language differences hindered deeper discussion. With so many thousands present, I am certain that there were serious discussions happening somewhere on the campus.
I spoke with several other visitors about my perceptions, though, especially the people who came to Taizé often. One man, an American living in England said to me, “I’m a Taizé addict. I can’t get enough of the place. It’s not a cult, not a church, not a camp. It’s just Taizé. It’s where I come to recharge my batteries.” His statement was interesting because, not only did he define Taizé by what it is not, but he repeated a sentiment I heard often: Taizé is a place where youth, and people in general, know they can go and not ask questions. For some it is a place of contemplation or a place to gain perspective. For others it is a sort of vacation. “This is where I come every winter after exams are over,” one Spanish student told me. A French Scout leader said, “My catechism students always told me that, whatever happened in their lives, they knew they could go to Taizé.” Over and over I heard Taizé referred to as a place to come and recharge, a place to fill oneself up. I do not doubt that meaningful questions and exchanges do happen at Taizé, but I wonder if Taizé’s purpose is slightly different. Perhaps Brother Roger’s mission was simply one of acceptance. It a world full of so many questions for young adults, Taizé can be a haven from it all. Perhaps I was forcing the wrong lens on Taizé when I came so full of questions. I spoke with brothers at every opportunity and asked them about ecumenism, the place of women, the purpose of Taizé, and even these exchanges were unsatisfactory, as if we were speaking different languages. When I asked one brother what ecumenism meant to Taizé he answered, “Oh, it’s very important.” It is entirely possible, as well, that ecumenism, if it is so important indeed, is something that transcends words. Taizé is not a place for theologians to debate; it is a place for people of different origins to come together and live for a short time.
I am sorry to not have had the opportunity to meet Brother Roger, and realize that the Taizé I visited this year is one in transition. It would be rich indeed to study the evolution of Taizé as it carries on under the leadership of Brother Alois. It remains to be seen whether Taizé will stand the test of time. The same might be said for the current fad in the Camino de Compostela. For the moment the Ways of Saint James are a destination. Tour operators and guidebooks abound, and some would argue that the power of each experience is diluted by the sheer numbers present at a given moment. But will the Camino, Taizé, and other pilgrimages have the same cachet in years to come? Are they phenomena that speak to our current moment, but be outmoded in the future? Or do basic things like walking, silence, and song resonate strongly enough to endure through the fat years as well as the lean? I have added these questions and others to a growing list about Taizé and the Way of Saint James as they exist in modern France. While my Fulbright grant is soon over, the work of researching and analyzing and writing is just beginning.

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