Next week is the anniversary of the death of Brother Roger of Taizé. If you have never heard of this man then you have really been missing out…
Although he lived much of his life in France, Brother Roger was originally from Switzerland, the son of a Protestant Pastor. In 1940, after studying Reformed Theology in Strasbourg and Lausanne, Roger felt God calling him to go to Taizé, a small town south of Paris. For two years he lived a life of prayer and helped those fleeing from the Germans into unoccupied France.
Founding of a community
After being forced to leave Taizé, Roger returned in 1944 where he began to found a group of men living together in community. This eventually flowered into the ecumenical monastic community which forever after would be associated with the name “Taizé”. The focus of this community is prayer, silence, peace, social justice and reconciliation. Brother Roger wrote many books on these topics.
Ever since the 50’s, Taizé has been a site for pilgrimage of thousands of teenagers and young adults from across the world who stay usually for a week at a time. During their visit these pilgrims join the monks for prayer, help with the running of the site and meet together for Bible study. I, myself, have visited Taizé twice.
Closely associated with Taizé is its style of worship: Taizé Chant. These chants are simple words of poetry or scripture sung over and over, often with cantor, usually sung in the language they were composed and this could be French, Polish, or a number of other tongues. The purpose of these chants is to allow the singer to meditate more deeply on the words of Scripture.
A heart for unity
All the work in his life was geared towards peace and reconciling the different Christian denominations. He was a great inspiration to me in my own ecumenical efforts.
I personally believe that Taizé in general, and Brother Roger in particular, particularly advanced the ecumenical cause in the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, Roger’s relationship with Rome grew only stronger over the course of his lifetime, meeting the Pope and having a close relationship with other Catholic figures such as Mother Theresa.
At the Second Vatican Council an invitation was sent to the community to send some monks to act as independent observers. So, if you see pictures of the council and notice two figures dressed in white off to the side please be aware that they’re not angels, but monks from Taizé 🙂
Loving to the end
As old age started to take effect and Roger’s heath began to deteriorate he named Brother Alois as his successor. However, before Brother Roger was able to officially step down, he was murdered. On 16th August 2005 her was stabbed to death whilst at prayer in the church by Luminiţa Solcan, a Romanian lady suffering from schizophrenia.
Upon hearing of Roger’s death I was deeply moved, having considered him to be something of a spiritual father. In some ways, I consider it strangely fitting that a man who devoted his life to charity and peace should have his life ended violently by someone deeply disturbed.
The other week I wrote about St. Ignatius of Antioch and how he sought to imitate Christ completely. Brother Roger is someone else I would point to as someone who did likewise.
His funeral was attended by more than 10,000 young adults, as well as heads of state and religious leaders. The funeral took place in the context of a Catholic Mass and was presided over by a Cardinal. Brother Alois opened the funeral with a prayer which, for me, summed up the very spirit of Brother Roger:
“God of goodness, we entrust to your forgiveness Luminiţa Solcan who, in an act of sickness, put an end to the life of Brother Roger. With Christ on the cross we say to you: Father, forgive her, she does not know what she did.” – Brother Alois, Brother Roger’s Successor
The last time I visited Taizé was only a few months before Brother Roger’s murder. The signs of old age were clear, yet this somehow didn’t eclipse his zeal and love for those there on pilgrimage. During that week I had the opportunity to receive his blessing through the laying on of hands. I realised at the time that this would probably be the last time I would see him in this world.
My final glimpse of him is burned into my brain. Brother Roger was leaving the church, holding on for support to the cassocks of the two monks in front of him (whom I nicknamed “Prancer” and “Dancer”). Just before he passed through the door he looked back towards the congregation and smiled a contented smile. That image will stay with me forever. In his white cassock with his white hair and pale skin, all he was missing was a pair of wings 😉
“Well done, good and faithful servant…” – Matthew 25:21