Earlier in June I spent five days visiting the Taizé community in France. Most Catholics would probably be familiar with Taizé chants, which are simple songs composed by the monks of Taizé for their daily prayers. The story of the community is far more rich and complex.
The monks of Taizé first gathered in the 1940s under the leadership of Brother Roger, who was a protestant from Switzerland and wanted to care for the victims of the Nazi occupation in France. He desired to overcome the deep divisions that had plagued Europe, including the divisions between Catholics and Protestants. His community was composed of both Catholic and Protestant monks and they formed as space where all could be welcomed and reconciled. He welcomed former German soldiers to live alongside the victims of the war in France. The prayerful environment of the community began to attract thousands of young people from across Europe for retreats, and today Taizé continues to welcome thousands of people every week. Their main focus is for young adults under 30, but they also welcome youth group chaperones and others if space permits.
I came to Taizé primarily to learn about contemporary spirituality in Europe. As a space where both Catholics and Protestants from across Europe gather for daily prayers, Bible studies, and faith sharing small groups, I knew it would be a good chance to listen to the experiences of others.
Taizé felt just like summer camp with meals served in open-air pavilions and people sleeping in cabins with several bunk beds or tents. Instead of archery or camp fires, we would go to prayer three times a day in the main chapel and meet daily for a Bible study. We were also divided into small groups and each given a task. Except for cooking, all the work is shared by the small groups. Some serve the food, and others pick up trays and sweep.
Surprisingly, my most transformative experience at Taizé wasn’t the sung prayers or scripture studies. It was scrubbing the bathrooms.
My small group of 8 had to clean 32 toilet and shower stalls every evening, and it brought a totally new perspective. Never before have I lived in such an environment where everyone served everyone else so equally. Knowing what it was like to clean the bathrooms, I had a greater appreciation for the other groups that served the food, washed the trays, and cared for the common spaces. Rather than expect professionals to do the grunt work, the sense that others just like me are there to serve my food, and I in turn could serve them by cleaning the showers, was a fascinating insight into our basic equality and dignity. I have cleaned the showers at the seminary, but I know the others who use them. Cleaning showers for countless strangers, and in turn knowing that strangers were there serving me, was quite humbling. It made me more attentive to picking up my mess after eating, and stack my dishes more neatly when I was placing them in the bucket for the dishwashers.
I am guilty of subconsciously presuming the people who labor in the very difficult jobs of cooking and cleaning are different from me. Even though I’ve been blessed with a good education, I can’t neglect others who do the basic things in life to keep us all clean and fed. The experience of shared service, along with the simple meals and accommodations, embodied the fundamental message of Christian that the monks of Taizé proclaim in prayer, that we are all equally loved by God, and we must strive to live among one another as such.