I’m spending the next four days at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota as part of the Taize Pilgrimage of Trust. I’m joined here by 3 others from my church along with thousands of Christian pilgrims 18-35 from around the world as well as the brothers from the Taize Monastic Community in Burgundy, France.
The Taize Community was started by Brother Roger Schultz, himself a Swiss Reformed Protestant, in 1940 as an ecumenical monastery that would in its life together embody peace and reconciliation in postwar Europe.
What started as a small band of brothers from Catholic and Protestant denominations quickly grew to attract over 100,000 ‘pilgrims’ every year for a week at time. These pilgrims come from all over the globe, are primarily youth and young adults and for 7 days seamlessly integrate into the community’s weekly rhythm of fixed hour prayer (worship), bible study, and work.
As I tell people, think ‘Woodstock crossed with a Medieval Monastery.’
Every year the brothers of Taize take their community on the road in order to reconnect with former pilgrims and welcome others who might not be able to make the trek to rural France.
I’ve been to Taize a couple times in the past. The following are my journal reflections from my first pilgrimage.
How Many Churches Would Tear Down the Sanctuary For Visitors?
The sanctuary here at Taize, taking off on the community’s founding mission, is called the Church of Reconciliation.
It’s hard for me to describe other than to say it’s probably not what you envision when I say monastic community. The floor is cement covered in thin, threadbare carpet. The building is wood and the inside walls are plain, unvarnished and unpainted. Icons of Jesus dot the walls irregularly and closer to the altar the side walls contain small, simple 18×18 stained glass images.
The floor has…no pews. Everyone, brothers and pilgrims, sit on the floor or on tiny (6 inches high) wooden benches they carry in with them. The floor sweeps down towards the altar area so that visibility in a space that can seat over 5K pilgrims is surprisingly good.
The altar area contains open-ended terra cotta pots stacked on top of each other, each with a lit candle inside, that together hearken back to the Christian catacombs. Stretched across the altar wall are two large orange sails that together look either like a dove, a cross, or the fire from the Pentecost story.
Or all three.
And that’s part of the intent.
Taize is radically ecumenical, deliberately using icons and symbols and liturgy that have open-ended meanings. They’re meant to be suggestive not prescriptive. It’s all part of welcoming pilgrims from all parts of the world and all traditions.
The sanctuary is simple, sparer in fact than many Methodist congregations. But it’s beautiful. Hauntingly, entrancingly beautiful.
And here’s the thing.
I read yesterday how, just after they finished building the Church of Reconciliation complete with an ornate stained glass rear wall, they anticipated more Easter pilgrims than the sanctuary could hold.
And guess what the brothers decided to do?
Add another worship service?
Tell them sorry come again another time?
Not a chance.
Without thought, debate or church council vote, they tore down the new back wall of the new sanctuary and erected a circus tent so they could accommodate everyone in worship.
Do I really need to point out that this is the opposite of what most churches would choose?
Most churches…as soon as the building gets built the building becomes the focal point of the community’s reason for being. Giving is about giving to the building. Debates are always about the building, who can use it, who owns it, who can do what with it, who is not paying their fair share towards it.
Most churches…they put pictures of their building on the Sunday bulletin as though either a) you didn’t realize where you just drove yourself this morning or b) you’re here to join an organization/institution and not the Body of Christ.
Most churches….struggle to grow and attract new people because they’re stuck paying a mortgage and mortgage payments make for lousy sales pitches.
The brothers here at Taize, having a building prettier than most, still realize what many churches and Christians forget:
They exist to welcome those who are not yet there.
There is a provisional nature to the community here that is instructive. The brothers have a willingness and a readiness to be flexible, to change and adapt, to alter (attributes you likely don’t automatically associate with celibate monastics) all in the aim of welcoming new people- who won’t be back again until next year, if ever.
Nothing here- however important or beautiful or seemingly sacrosanct- is beyond alteration if it gets in the way of their mission. The only lasting thing they care about is your making a good first impression with Jesus Christ.
Not only does this radical hospitality jive with what even the most unchurched person associates with Jesus, I think its exactly what the most unchurched person most craves from his followers.