In October, Pope John Paul, visits Taize in France, which has become the heart of young people's spiritual search, James Walton reports.
ONE place becoming increasingly important to the Christian youth of Europe is Taize. Set on a hillside in Burgundy, this simple monastery finds itself at the centre of the renewal of prayer and commitment in the lives of thousands of young people.
Its founder, Br Roger, came to Taize in 1940 to pray, and, amid the violence of the Europe. of that age, to make a stand for reconciliation. He prayed three times a day, and gave practical help to victims of the war. This combination of an almost medieval monasticism and the search for justice, remains at the heart of Taize today.
Br Roger was alone for a number of years before he was joined by other brothers, sharing his ideals. Their numbers increase. Young people began to visit Taize until in the early 70s, the youth of the world were officially invited by Br Roger's "Council of Youth".
They responded immediately and now, at the same times each day, up to 4,000 people gather for prayer at the massive Church of Reconciliation. The community of brothers is entirely ecumenical and international — so are the young people who come each week. For this reason, the prayer, which lies at the centre of the life there, is based on short scripture readings, simple chants and silence.
As well as in prayer, the days are spent discussing, thinking, reading and socialising. The facilities and food are simple, but adequate and a week there is very cheap — less than £20 for full board. The community organises a major European meeting each year and the Pope will be visiting Taize on October 5.
I went to the community recently and met Br Alois, a German, to ask him about how he sees the place he has made his home.
"I originally came nearly 15 years ago with my parish, and was immediately struck by the power of the liturgy and the centrality of silence. Incidentally, there is far more participation by the young people in the prayer now than when I first came when the music was far more elaborate and everything was in French.
The liturgy is still developing; it always will be. It is not easy to find a form of prayer suitable for the brothers, committed young people and those seeking God, not yet sure of his tiresence. Yet we want all to feel welcome in Taize — prayer and welcome must go together and we want to provide an environment where young people can relax and genuinely explore their own faith and doubts."
"Only about half of the Taize brothers — there are 80 — live here. The others live in some of the poorest parts of the world. They do not act as social workers but simply share the lives of the poor, are a praying presence and support local initiatives. One of Roger's books is called "Struggle and Contemplation" and we try always to keep hold of those two elements of the Christian life."
I wondered if there was ever any tension between the two, if the brothers ever came back from their experiences among the poor concerned desperately with change and impatient with the contemplation. Apparently not — "In fact, our experience as a community has only convinced us all the more of the need to keep both struggle and contemplation together."
"To be honest, we are never sure ourselves why this is, why so many travel so far to be with us. The brothers have noticed, certainly, that young people are taking the search for God more seriously than they did even 15 or 20 years ago."
I wondered why this might be. Alois is suspcious of too glib an answer, but thinks it may be linked to the death of youthful idealism.
"20 years ago, I suppose, young people saw change, greater social justice as likely, even inevitable. With so many of these expectations dashed, and the status quo reasserting itself, people have been forced to search more deeply, to find something more permanent those who haven't given up completely, that is.
"We have been discussing, at this summer's meetings, how to cope with discouragement and indifference — our own and 'other people's. This is where we really need to be able to see God in all things, even our disappointments and fears.
"However, we definitely do not want to start a "Taize movement". We simply want to serve the whole Christian Church of which we are a part to encourage prayer, commitment, simplification of lifestyle among Christians.
The necessity of a strong and liberating relationship between the local and universal Church is of great importance to us. That is why we are looking forward to the visit of the Pope so much."
Taize is also seeking to reduce the hegemony of Western Europe in what it does. Last December it arranged a world meeting in Madras, which despite some difficulties, was felt to be a success and a breakthrough: "23 Asian countries were represented there. The 500 Europeans who made the trip were much moved by the welcome they were given by the poor people of the area."
Next year in Taize, there will be international meetings with people of all continents joining the "pilgrimage of reconciliation". It is also hoped that this December there will be two European gatherings with one in Eastern Europe, though this is proving difficult to arrange and the venue is nat yet certain.
The western European one is to be held in London from December 28 until January 1. There will be common prayer in Westminster Abbey, Westminster Cathedral and Methodist Central Hall, simultaneously and twice a day.
Up to 30,000 people are expected, to be accommodated by churches all over London. There will be discussion among the different nationalities and denominations.
The sight of the big cathedrals full of young people chanting and praying at the London meeting five years ago has not been forgotten by anyone who saw it.
If you can help with the preparation for the London meeting, please ring 01-930-5060 or write to European Meeting c/o 6, Martin's Place, London WC2N 4JJ. If you would like to visit Taize, or even work there, for up to a year (the community are always looking for staff to help with the welcome, food etc) then write to: The Taize Community, 71250 Cluny, France. All enquiries are welcome.