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Spiritual biographer of Henri Nouwen & Mychal Judge
The Rev'd Dr Michael Ford has an ecumenical ministry of writing, teaching and spiritual guidance inspired by Father Henri J. M. Nouwen
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Songs from Taize interspersed Henri Nouwen's public lectures and he shared the community's commitment to ecumenism, peace and social justice.
Taizé is an ecumenical community in central France, attracting thousands of pilgrims throughout the year. It was founded by Brother Roger during the Second World War.
Son of a Swiss pastor and a French mother, Roger Schutz was born in 1916 in Switzerland. When he was three he met his maternal grandmother for the first time and her witness marked Roger for life. During the First World War, his grandmother was a widow living close to the battlefields of northern France. Rather than flee, she turned her home into a place of welcome for refugees. But she suffered at the thought of Christians of different denominations fighting each other. ‘They at least should be reconciled in order to avoid another war,’ she would say. Although she belonged to a family that had been Protestant for generations, she would sometimes go into a Catholic church to pray so she could live out reconciliation within herself.
At 16 Roger contracted tuberculosis from which he suffered for several years and at one time nearly died. But he recovered and, at 21, studied theology in Lausanne and Strasbourg. Then came a time of doubt, especially in terms of communicating with God through prayer. He rediscovered trust by reading in an old book that ‘Christ is the one who enables us to know God.’ He went on to be chosen as president of the Christian Student Fellowship. He organised meetings which led to the formation of a group gathering regularly for dialogue and retreats. He senses a call to bring a community into being.
In 1940, at the age of 24, he left neutral Switzerland to cycle to France, then divided in half by the advance of German troops. On August 20 that year, he discovered the village of Taize in Burgundy close to the demarcation line. He bought an old house and, in the spirit of his grandmother, began to offer hospitality to political refugees, mainly Jews. But two years later his activity was discovered by the occupation police. Tipped off, he fled France and lived in Geneva with the first three brothers. In 1944, the four of them headed back to Taize and continue to live in community. They prayed in a barn. At one stage, they asked to use the empty Catholic church in the village to say their offices but the local bishop refused because they were not Catholic.
In 1949 seven brothers made a life commitment to a common life lived in simplicity with Brother Roger as prior. His words speak especially to those of us who minister in Christ’s name.
In 1949, at the suggestion of a French cardinal, Brother Roger, went to Rome for the first time and had an audience with Pope Pius X11. By 1951 there were 12 brothers, some of whom were sent to share the life of the poorest in different parts of the world. Brother Roger spent a few weeks each year in each place of poverty, from Chile to India, Lebanon to South Africa. In 1953 Brother Roger presented The Rule of Taize, the essential aspects of the life of the growing brotherhood in becoming ‘a parable of community.’
In 1958, at the age of 42, Brother Roger had his first meeting with Pope John XX111 who became a point of reference for the community. From then on, Brother Roger had audiences with the Pope at least once a year. In 1961, he invited Catholic bishops and Protestant ministers to Taize for three days, one of the first meetings of its kind since the Reformation. As always, communion is at the heart of his teaching:
We want at all costs not to be paralyzed, frozen by certain trials of the Church and of the human family. So we remember that Christ did not come to create one more religion, but to offer to all a communion in him, that unique communion which is called the Church. And he has compassion on what some people have to go through. Will we let the critical hour go by which calls for nothing less than a new birth of the ecumenical vocation, a transfiguration? For each one of us, a transfiguration of our depths!
In our inner nights, the risen Christ sheds his gentle light. Christ passes through our weakness, our failures, our refusals, even our anguish, and we realise at the same time that he gives us something of his own face. In other words, he transfigures and changes the depths of our being. When we recognize our limits, our frailties, and our poverty, then in the Holy Spirit God enables us to set out again with new vitality. And what allows us to discover this transfiguration? With our thorns themselves, God lights a fire that never goes out. He fills us with those Gospel realities that are so essential to build us up within – peace of heart, joy, simplicity, the spirit of mercy.
We know well that in us there can be worry, fear of suffering, in short everything that stresses our hearts. Among other things, there are those imperceptible worries whose causes and origin we are unaware of. The Church, through listening, through the sacrament of reconciliation, has always had what was so that those negative impressions we have concerning ourselves do not cause us to lose our balance. This ministry of listening is still quite necessary today, at a time when human beings are so broken. What is sad is that inner worries can uproot the trusting of faith in people and make them forget that, in prayer, God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit intervene constantly in our lives.
In 1962 Brother Roger visited Constantinople to have the first of several meetings with the Orthodox Patriarch, Athenagoras. On his way back, he made his first visit to Eastern Europe (Bulgaria and Yugoslavia). The following year he took part in the millennium celebrations of Mount Athos. He was also invited to participate in the Second Vatican Council as an observer.
During the last conversation that Brother Roger had with Pope John XX111, shortly before he died, he sensed that the Pope’s prophetic ministry had been refused and that, as a result, a turning point of ecumenism had been missed. Pope John had revered the situation of the Counter-Reformation by declaring: ‘We will not put history on trial; we will not ask who was wrong and who was right. We will only say: let us be reconciled.’ At the Second Vatican Council, he had gone against the advice of many and had hesitated to invite non-Catholics.
He had asked for forgiveness for the past. He was ready to go a long way. I realized his hurt on receiving in return, from non-Catholics, nothing but polite words. During that last conversation I understood that a prophet had been rejected, that ears had been stopped. From that moment on, ecumenism would sink down into a system of parallel roads, with each denomination pursuing its separate course in simple, peaceful co-existence. Nothing more.
We understood how deeply John XX111 wished us to be at peace concerning the future of our vocation. Making circular gestures with his hands, he explained: ‘The Catholic Church is made up of ever larger concentric circles.’
At the same period in Constantinople, there was a man of the same prophetic vein, the Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras. During a visit to him, what raised our hopes was an awareness that that 86 year old man, with so few means at his disposal and enmeshed in a complex political situation, could have an enormous impact both close at hand and far away. He had the greatness of the truly generous. Until the day I die, I will see the patriarch as he was when we took our leave. Standing in the doorway, he lifted his hands as if he were offering the chalice at the Eucharist and repeated once again: ‘The cup and the breaking of the bread, there is no other way; remember …’
How can we claim to love our neighbour and remain divided? If we build communion, trust grows. The reconciliation of Christians can be a ferment of peace for everyone, believers and non-believers. God does not want to make us victims of old or new separations between Christians. The memory of these separations has been kept going for centuries. Cultivating the memory of events that divided believers keeps a deep wound open. This wound needs to be healed. There are Christians who, without waiting, are already in communion with one another in the places where they live, quite humbly, quite simply. Through their own life, they would like to make Christ present for many others. They know that the Church does not exist for itself but for the world, to place within it a ferment of peace. ‘Communion’ is one of the most beautiful names of the Church. In it, there can be no severity towards one another, but only transparency, heartfelt kindness, compassion …’
Seeking reconciliation and peace involves a struggle within oneself. It does not mean taking the least line of resistance. Nothing lasting is created when things are too easy. The spirit of communion is not gullible. It causes the heart to become more encompassing; it is profound kindness; it does not listen to suspicions. To be bearers of communion, will each of us walk forward in our lives on the road of trust and of a constantly renewed kindheartedness? On this road there will be failures at times. Then we need to remember that the source of peace and communion is in God. Instead of becoming discouraged, we shall call down the Holy Spirit upon our weaknesses. And, our whole life long, the Holy Spirit will enable us to set out again and again ….’
In creating a common life at Taize, the brothers’ sole desire was to be a family of brothers committed to following Christ as an existential sign of the communion of the People of God. A life in community was a parable of communion, a microcosm of the whole reality of the People of God. There were three gestures capable of being signs of God at work, paths of communion and ways of discovering new dimensions of ecumenism:
Avoid separating the generations
Go to meet those who cannot believe
Stand alongside the exploited.
Of course some decisions, they recognised, would always set mother against daughter, father against son and Christian against Christian. There would always be separations; there would always be fanatical defenders of their own selves. If only, said Brother Roger, all those willing to participate in a common march forward would join together now. And if only Christians already together would simply refrain from passing judgment on those who travel by other roads. ‘Live the mystery of the People of God,’ he announced. ‘Remain in contemplative waiting. Keep inner silence at all times. In humility come closer to God and to your neighbour. Look at your neighbour with a vision transfigured by reconciliation. In contemplative waiting on God, everything becomes desirable again.
By forgiving us, God buries our past in the heart of Christ and brings relief to the secret wounds of our being. When we can express to God all that burdens our life and keeps us trapped beneath the weight of a judgment, then light is shed on the shadows within us. Knowing that we are listened to, understood, and forgiven by God is one of the sources of peace – and our heart begins to find healing.
If you read Brother Roger’s books and journals from the 1960s, you get a sense of the frustration he feels about the scars of Christian division:
How many church leaders envisage only an eschatological ecumenism for the life to come as if visible communion were not meant to be recognized on our earth? As soon as a compelling sense of urgency is lost, we prolong indefinitely a situation in which everyone is satisfied just with being listened to by others. Dialogue is indispensable but it must not settle into a static benevolence between the confessions.
The tremendous hopes aroused come up against the temptation to dwell endlessly on denominational differences in all their shapes and forms. This kind of confessionalism is an attitude of self-defence. In the past it could be justified, but today those who profess it are condemned to remaining enclosed in their own shells. Besides, denominational mentalities persist even when faith has disappeared. We all know Catholics or Protestants who profess only a vague deism, but still cling to their prejudices against other Christians. There is one force capable of making us go beyond our confessional positions.
It arises when we allow ourselves to be challenged by the millions of persons who are baptised but who have no attachment to God, and by the multitudes who are totally indifferent to faith. Certainly it is within ourselves that all communication and dialogue find their strongest resistance. Being open to all means overcoming our self-centredness and allowing that Other than ourselves to penetrate the depths of our personalities.’
After 20 years of Christianity, more and more baptised people are losing interest in the faith. At the same time, in spite of our Christian presence throughout the world, living conditions are deteriorating year by year in certain regions of the globe. Our communion is a function of all these people; it is for them all. We do not desire it for our own happiness, nor to be stronger over against others. We desire it solely in order to follow our vocation to be universal. That is the aim of ecumenism; it is the first step to make us able to offer people a place of communion for all. If we agree on one basic truth – the necessity of visible communion – we will have found the existential possibility of agreeing one day on other truths of the faith.’
The Second Vatican Council had nonetheless opened a way forward, full of promise and dynamism. It was up to Protestants, said Brother Roger, to make up their minds whether, for their part, they were going to keep looking back to past history or whether they would accept the possibility of rebirth.
As young people had been travelling to the French village in ever growing numbers, the first international meeting of young adults was organised at Taize in 1966. Eight years later, Brother Roger opened a Council of Youth in Taize. He went on to receive the Templeton Prize for the progress of religion and the German Peace Prize. In 1976, Mother Teresa made her first visit to Taize and Brother Roger went to Calcutta and in 1978, accompanied by children from every continent. They even co-authored entitled: Mary: Mother of Reconciliations in which they say that each of us can be ‘a ferment of reconciliation’ bringing the love of Jesus to others, not only among Christians but in the entire human family. However modest our homes might be, if they were modelled on the house of Mary in Nazareth, they would become places to welcome people in prayer, places of reconciliation. In that book, Brother Roger writes:
The Virgin Mary sheds light upon the roads we walk. Since the first Pentecost day, the figure of Mary has been a transparent image of the Church, With the apostles, she was able to understand that in Christ ‘God’s grace has appeared, the source of salvation for the whole human race.’ (Titus 2.11).
In Mary we can glimpse two realities essential for the Church and closely linked to one another – motherhood and catholicity. If one of these realities disappears, the other begins to fade away. This is true for individuals as well: if a person has no experience of kindness and overflowing generosity, then they cannot hope for a generous motherhood from the Church. They remain locked up in themselves and they are in danger of remaining deaf to the Gospel’s call to catholicity: ‘May all be one, so that the world can believe’ (John 17.21).
In the course of many centuries, from the beginnings of the Church, from the time of Mary and the apostles, the motherhood of the Church was one. Can this fundamental motherhood vanish when, at a given moment, divisions occur. Does not Mary, through her motherhood, keep the road of conversion, of a change of heart, open? The more the Church is in the image of Mary, the more it is like a mother; then, the more it is possible to undergo in God a new birth, a reconciliation. In this way, Mary is a source of reconciliation.
Increasingly, Brother Roger became a global witness for peace and healing in the world. He brought to the Secretary General of the United Nations suggestions of the young on how the UN could create trust between peoples. He went to Madras for Taize’s first intercontinental meeting in the southern hemisphere. But for all his international influence, talking to an individual whose life had been marked by tragedy or who was torn apart within remained one of the most beautiful experiences because such an encounter also revealed the irreplaceable gifts through which the life of God in that person was able to bring everything to fulfilment:
Every human being yearns to love and be loved. But the question remains: why are some people aware that they are loved while others are not? When someone is listened to, wounds from a recent or distant past find relief. This can be the beginning of a healing of the soul. Listen to others to what makes them feel bad about themselves. Try to understand what lies beneath their hearts. And little by little, even in a ground ploughed up by trials, God’s hope can be sensed, or at least a fine human hope.
It happens that, when we accompany another person, the one who listens is led to the essential themselves, even though the other may not be aware of it. Listen and keep on listening … Those who make use of their intuition throughout their lifetime become able to understand almost without words those fragile but radiant human beings who come with something to confide.
Once I met with a young priest from Italy every day for a week. In him I saw close at hand Christ’s holiness in a human being. At times I could not say anything but ‘Dare to weep!’ Once I even took a handkerchief from my pocket for him. Weep, because it is not possible to bear alone, in stony silence, the struggle he had to wage. Face to face with him, I could touch on what it can mean for a person to be abandoned. There exist people of silence who radiate communion. As the days went by, the face of Christ appeared in that man so harrowed by his struggles. The depth of his gaze could conceal nothing of his successive ordeals. He brought me into the heart of one of the greatest mysteries – the gift of one’s entire existence for love. Before parting, after so many days of closeness, I knelt for him to give me his blessing.
To be compassionate does not mean suffering what someone else suffers so that we despair and sink together into the same misfortune. Compassion leads us to entrust the other person’s trial to God, even when we have no solution or response to offer.
Far from humiliating human beings, Christ comes to transfigure what is most disturbing in you. When trials arise within you or misunderstandings arrive from without, never forget that in the same wound, where the pangs of anxiety are seething, creative forces are also being born. And a way opens up that leads from doubt towards trusting, from dryness to a creation.
Fears and anxieties are part of our human condition, immersed as we are in societies that are wounded and shaken. Every human being, every believer, journeys, creates and suffers in these societies, and can experience inner impulses of revolt, sometimes of hatred and domination. By his Holy Spirit, the Risen Christ transfigures all that is most disconcerting in you. An imperceptible, inner transformation, the transfiguration of your being, continues your whole life long.
Never, never indeed, is God a tormentor of the human conscience. He buries our past in the heart of Christ. God comes to weave our life like a beautiful garment, with the warm threads of his compassion. And communion with him commits us in his name to lighten the distress of the innocent and to undertake responsibilities to reduce the suffering on earth. And when we lighten the trials of others, it is Christ, the Risen One, whom we meet.
Humble prayer comes to heal the secret wound of the soul. And the mystery of human suffering is transfigured. The Spirit of the living God breathes upon what is destitute and fragile. In our wounds he causes living water to spring up. Through him the valley of tears becomes a place of living springs.
In 1986 Pope John Paul 11 visited Taize calling it ‘ a little springtime’. Two years later Brother Roger flew to Moscow to take part in the celebrations for the millennium of Christianity in Russia and he received the UNESCO prize for peace education. In Germany the Karlspreis was awarded to Brother Roger. He then went to Poland for Taize’s first young adult European meeting. In 1992, the Archbishop of Canterbury spent a week at Taize with a thousand young Anglicans. Brother Roger received the Robert Schumann Award for his contribution to the building up of Europe. In 1995, at the age of 80, the indefatigable prior flew to Johannesburg for an international meeting of young Africans. In 1997 he spoke at the ecumenical assembly in Graz and in 2004, aged 89, visited Lisbon for the 27th young adult European meeting.
Brother Roger’s last journey was on April 8, 2005, to the funeral of Pope John Paul the Second in Rome where he was seen on television receiving communion from the future Pope Benedict. Then, on August 16, 2005 – 65 years to the month after he first came to Taize - Brother Roger was fatally wounded by a mentally unbalanced visitor. He was 90. At his Catholic funeral, Cardinal Walter Kasper described him as more than a guide or spiritual master. ‘Brother Roger was for many a kind of father, a reflection of the eternal Father and the universality of his love.’