“Why did you come to Taizé?”
I'm sitting on a low wooden bench on a hill in the French countryside. It is early December and fortunately it is still warm enough to sit outside in the sun. One of the monks of the community of Taizé walks past in a jersey and jeans.
The wooden bench is circular so that I sit facing my four companions. We are German, Dutch, Slovenian/American, Swedish – and South African. We are Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and several other less clear denominations.
Ten years ago at a first years’ camp I was brimming with so much excitement and self-confidence that I barely took the time to get to know those around me. This time I focus on listening.
The four others tell diverse stories. One tells of a battle with depression and the discovery, a few years ago, that a few weeks spent visiting Taizé does wonders for her mood. Another speaks of his desire to reconnect with himself and with God in the midst of a rough few years of work and adjustment to a new country and culture. Another speaks of a serious health problem and the desire to rest and catch up on her theological studies. The fourth one has a short holiday between one medical internship and the next, and wants to reflect on the relationships and priorities in her life.
And I. The only one from Africa. I tell of the desire to come learn from these monk-brothers about reconciliation. To come and try to listen to God and get some guidance as to what I should do in my home country. I explain to the other four that I have long had a deep conviction that my life needs to promote reconciliation. “But I feel like there are many different options. There are so many ways to promote reconciliation. But which one is for me?” My voice cracks a bit.
The others are quiet for a moment. Thankfully I manage to get my emotions under control.
“Goodness, we are still busy introducing ourselves, and already the conversation is this deep!” one of us exclaims.
Then the one who struggles with depression speaks up. She recounts a story from a book that she recently read. It goes as follows:
The one who struggles with depression concludes: “The character in the story couldn't choose and ultimately she didn’t manage to eat any of the figs. Don't be like her. Even if you are unsure which option is right for you - even if you are still struggling to understand all of the implications - pick a fig.”
The community of Taizé was founded during the World War Two. A young Swiss man believed that people would not act so cruelly, would not so easily deny each other’s humanity, and would not so readily support such violence and war, if only they had an understanding of the love, reconciliation and peace at the core of the Christian faith.
The 100-odd brothers are from over 60 different countries and as many Christian traditions as you can think of. They devote their lives to this community and live as a tightly knit family despite their theological, cultural and language differences.
This community focuses on principles such as: “You must love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” And they believe that these principles are applicable all over the world, in every situation.
They believe it is applicable in Rwanda, where in 1994, people all over the country literally murdered their neighbours. (Imagine the “Night of the Long Knives” really took place and across the country hundreds of thousands of people were murdered. Imagine that this was followed by a civil war, and eventually by a peace agreement that secured a fragile, uncomfortable political truce. This is roughly what happened in Rwanda. “You must love your neighbour” is, according to the community of Taizé, applicable in Rwanda, somehow.)
It is applicable in Europe, where the latest Paris terror attacks were still fresh and raw in the minds of Europeans when I was there.
And then surely, it is applicable in South Africa. Applicable to me with my ten-generation Afrikaner pedigree. I, with my mixed heritage: my ancestors leaving France as Huguenot fugitives; then being oppressed by the British; and yet also being the oppressors throughout the colonial era. I, a current beneficiary of white privilege. I, who also carry a bit of anxiety at the notion that my children's children may not be able or willing to go to school and learn in my language. I, a South African in an era where people’s romantic ideas of a rainbow nation are beginning to crumble and black consciousness is re-emerging.
What the Taizé monks do not do, however, is to dictate to me how to promote reconciliation.
They don't offer lectures and workshops. This may have been something of a misunderstanding on my part. The posters on the walls of Taizé don't have diagrams (the psychology of escalating violence?; how to host multi-stakeholder dialogues?) and theoretical concepts (white privilege?; indigenous justice systems?). There are no how-to guides on sale here. Cognitively speaking, I learnt much more in most of my one-hour political science lectures at university than in seven full days at Taizé.
The posters at Taizé are mostly of Jesus - and occasionally of a saint like Saint Martin, or some iconic story like the prodigal son back in his father's arms. The facilitated discussions are less like workshops and more like opportunities two join a diverse little group of young people in slowly and deeply pondering Bible texts and a few prompting questions. Then there are worship services at the church three times a day - worship services where there is no sermon. Instead the worship services consist of singing, the reading of a piece of scripture in several languages, and for 8 minutes, simply sitting together in silence. At Taizé you can learn to draw near to God and to listen to him. You can also see and experience how people from totally different backgrounds can love each other. You can grow spiritually and psychologically, rather than cognitively.
But you have to figure out for yourself how to apply the principles of reconciliation in your context. In the end it is something that you have to live out for yourself, actively and creatively. By the end of the week at Taizé the message was clear to me: “You will have to pick your own fig.” Choose something, do it and learn from it, rather than hesitating because you don't yet understand everything. The brother who founded Taizé said the following: “Tirelessly, O Christ, you challenge me and you repeat: live the little of the Gospel that you have understood.”
In her home town, the one who struggles with depression is involved in social support programs for Syrian refugees. She houses Muslims amid the tension in Europe and the terror attacks.
My decision, by the end of my visit to Taizé, was to start by learning isiXhosa. This is something I can start on now, while I find out which direction to head into next.
Here are some of the “figs” that hang in front of me. Perhaps you also want to consider some of them.
- Visit organisations that promote transformation on some level or another, and if you feel it is the right thing to do, join one.
- Be intentional in limiting your time on social media and spending more time with flesh and blood people who are interested in the types of topics that you would have discussed on social media.
- Join a church or cell group that bridges social divisions - divisions of race and/or class.
- Find spiritual material on reconciliation in the Bible. Dramatizations, songs, theological analyses, or whatever you can connect with. For instance: Jesus who forgives the criminal on the cross; the prophet Hosea and his wife; Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well; the Good Samaritan; Boaz and Ruth; the tax collectors Levi and Zacchaeus; Galatians 3 that discusses the notion that in Christ there is no more ”Jew or Greek; slave or free”.
- Attend conversations on race. “Listening circles” or “consciousness cafés” create safe and respectful spaces in which to engage.
- Join cultural organisations that specifically appreciate diverse cultures and languages. in Cape Town there is the Libertas choir and the Rosa choir project. There are also sports clubs, poetry slams, etc.
- Get involved with organisations that promote reconciliation in South Africa, such as the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation the Restitution Foundation, Worcester Hope and Reconciliation process, and the Goedgedacht Trust.
- The Warehouse supports Christians and churches in their response to poverty and Injustice in South Africa. They give a bit more of the “how-to” guide that I had been hoping to get from Taizé!
- Receive guidance from other Christians who focus on these themes. The Taizé website has a set of Bible based “Proposals” for 2016 which you can use to stimulate reflection.
- Freedom Mantle is an organisation of young Christian leaders with a strong emphasis on cooperation across social divides.
- Visit Taizé if you get half a chance. Even if you don’t have very strong religious convictions, you will benefit immensely from the experience. (They especially invite young people under the age of 30 to come visit them for a period of one week to 1 year.)
- Make conscious changes to your daily life. There are myriad ways to do this. The more and the deeper I listen, the more I understand how I can change. I try to stay open to criticism because good intentions don’t always translate.
Let’s take the conversation forward on Twitter, if you have any further suggestions for how we can promote reconciliation. I am @carahmhartley.