Community Life as a Witness to the Undivided Church

Community Life as a Witness to the Undivided Church

Brother Alois, Prior of Taizé

There is nothing more personal and more individual than testimony. A truth that is conveyed to us and touches us penetrates our hearts by means of a witness who has a name and a face. I want to speak, however, about testimony that can be given to Christ by a life in community as well. This is the particular experience of our Taizé Community, but the whole Church, just as every parish, every community, has the vocation of giving this common witness to Christ, as the early Christian community in Jerusalem already did. Did not Christ ask us to be one so that the world may believe? (John 17:21)

Brother Roger often told us brothers of the community that we were not spiritual masters. This was not a call to give up the pastoral responsibility we have for those who come to us. He meant that we do not want to show ourselves to others but, like John the Baptist, we want to show Christ by our lives, preparing the way that leads to him.

In the first part I will underline what, in the testimony of John the Baptist, inspires us. Of course, I have to say immediately that the life of our small Taizé community does not claim to compete with the asceticism of John. But in some ways, the testimony that Brother Roger called us to give is surprisingly close to that of John. And who knows? Perhaps the violent death of Brother Roger, having his throat cut, is mysteriously a sign of closeness to John.

In the second part I will elaborate what Brother Roger meant when he spoke of our life together as a “parable of community”. The testimony that Christians are invited to give must be a testimony of love and communion.

I will conclude in the third part by addressing a more practical question: how can this testimony speak to the younger generations?

1. What was the testimony of John the Baptist?

The first question: what was the testimony of John the Baptist? What is captivating about his life is that he witnessed to a future which was still hidden. He announced the One who was to come, who was still unknown. He said: “Among you stands One whom you do not know” (John 1:26). A little later, John affirmed that he did not know that One when God sent him to prepare his ways (John 1:33). John would come to know Christ only from the moment when, at his baptism, the Holy Spirit came down upon him. Then John could say: “I have seen and I testify that he is the Son of God” (John 1:34).

In principle, one can only testify to what one has seen or heard. But John shares with the prophets of the Old Testament the particular characteristic that he witnessed to Christ before he met him. The prophets also bore witness to Christ without having knowing him and still without seeing him. The apostle Peter says that “the Spirit of Christ was present in them when they attested beforehand to the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow” (1 Peter 1:11).

If John was a prophet, he was also “more than a prophet” (Matthew 11:9). It was given to him what was not given to the prophets of the Old Testament: he saw Jesus and, when he baptized him, he recognized him as the Son of God.

Brother Roger liked to refer to these words I have just quoted: “Among you stands One whom you do not know.” He was sensitive to the time when Christ was already witnessed to by John, but not yet known. Brother Roger probably saw in this a feature of our time: today too the risen Christ is in our midst, linked to every human being, even those who do not realize it, but it is often in a manner which is still hidden and awaits its full revelation.

And we must add something crucial: even after John recognized Christ and witnessed to him as the Son of God, his ministry continued to be suspended on an unknown and even disconcerting future; part of Christ’s truth remained hidden. John recognized Christ and, at the same time, realized that Christ did not correspond fully to his expectations. At the very end of his life, from prison, he still could ask this poignant question: “Are you the one who is to come or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11:3).

This is the astonishing specificity of the Christian faith: Christ came, he was manifested at his baptism, he is risen, but this coming is the anticipation of his coming on the last day. He also remains the unknown One, who is still to come, who is present among us only in a hidden way and for whom we are still waiting.

We know Christ; God has entrusted to his Church the treasure of this knowledge. And yet this treasure is beyond us. Like John the Baptist, something of this treasure we bear remains hidden from our own eyes.

We are infinitely grateful to the Orthodox Church for having a great reverence for John the Baptist. His image on the iconostasis is close to that of the Virgin Mary. The Mother of God, a figure of the Church, testifies to the incarnation of Christ who has already come. John the Baptist keeps alive in the Church the dimension of waiting, the eschatological dimension, that of Christ yet to come.

2. Living out a “parable of community”

I come to my second point. Christ came to earth to “gather into unity the scattered children of God” (John 11:52). For that reason Brother Roger called him the “Christ of communion.” It is to him that we want to give witness today.

But the realization of the unity of all God’s children in the undivided Church has the same characteristic as the coming of Christ himself: “the city come down from heaven” of which the Apocalypse speaks (see Revelation 21:2) will not be fully manifest until the end of time, and yet it can be glimpsed today; it is already present on earth here and there. It is up to us to discern it; like John, we have to testify to it without yet seeing it and, in order to testify to it, we have to show visible signs of it. The eschatological dimension of the unity of the Church includes the duty to seek unity here and now. Already for the first Christian community in Jerusalem, awaiting the return of Christ was a source of dynamism and unity.

The undivided Church is both still hidden, because we are waiting for it on the last day, and called to be made visible by signs. That is because “the Church does not derive its identity from what it is but from what it will be.” These last words are from the Metropolitan of Pergamum, John Zizioulas.[1] I want to read you two quotes from his article on the “The Mystery of the Church in the Orthodox Tradition”; they are a little bit long, but they seem to me essential in order to clarify the point I want to make. He writes:

«The Church does not derive its identity from what it is but from what it will be. Eschatology is absolutely crucial for ecclesiology. […] When we talk about the importance of eschatology we sometimes imagine it as the end of the pilgrimage of the Church. I think we need to conceive the eschata as the beginning of the life of the Church, the archē, that which produces the Church, gives it its identity, that which sustains it and animates its existence. […] The Church reflects the future, final state of things, and not a historical event of the past.” (p. 326)

I continue to quote Metropolitan Zizioulas: “[The Church] is what it will be. In this situation the only way to preserve the eschatological identity is to celebrate the sacraments, and to encounter the Word not as a message that comes to us from the past, but as an echo of the future state of things. […] All this makes the Church an icon of the coming Kingdom.” (p. 323)

The Orthodox theologian Olivier Clément expresses a similar thought about the unity of the Church when he writes: “There is only one Church, the secret foundation of all things, and therefore unity is not something to be constructed but something to be discovered: the re-emergence of the undivided Church…. People crucify the Body of Christ in trying to tear it apart but at the same time, they cannot tear it apart: in its depths the Church is one. Unity is not something to be achieved but something to be discovered.”

Olivier Clément thus shows that the undivided Church, the unity of the Body of Christ, does not lie before us as a goal attainable with difficulty or perhaps even unattainable. The unity of the Body of Christ already exists in God. The Church is divided in its visibility, but in its future in God it is undivided. In the heart of God it is one.

Pope John Paul II, at the beginning of his encyclical Ut unum sint, notes that the common witness to Christ by martyrs belonging to different Churches is a place where it is visibly manifest that unity already exists.

According to the Apostle Paul, Christ came to recapitulate all things. It is through this recapitulation of all in the love of God that he placed on earth, by the Holy Spirit, the seed of the new creation. It is by their unity that Christians can bear witness to the fact that Christ recapitulates all things. It is our responsibility to create places and events where unity can emerge and be attested to, become visible and be anticipated, helping to give birth to a new face of the world.

Christ asks us to love one another. It is this witness of mutual love that the Church, every local church, every community is invited to bear so that the world may believe.

In founding the community of Taizé, Brother Roger was convinced that a monastic community can be a sign of the undivided Church if it sets reconciliation at the heart of its life. It can be like a little parable; that is what he called “living a parable of communion.”

It is therefore up to us, the brothers, to give a foretaste of unity by the lives we live, to show that the historical divisions are not absolute. By bringing together Protestant and Catholic Christians in a monastic life, which itself has been given to the West by the Eastern Church, Brother Roger founded a community that is both rooted in the undivided Church and foreshadows its realization.

As John the Baptist was a witness to the Christ who was to come, Brother Roger wanted to witness to the Christ of communion, to the undivided Church whose unity is still veiled by our divisions. John’s testimony was entirely suspended on the future. The testimony of Taizé, too: it is the undivided Church, gathered together in the Kingdom of God, which will give and is already giving meaning to the life we live.

This makes our testimony fragile, because we do not rely so much on past experience, but we are straining forward, to the future of the undivided Church, we do not yet know what it will be; it will be foreshadowed on earth in a manner which is always imperfect, and will be realized in fullness only in God’s kingdom.

John the Baptist did not know Christ and yet had to prepare his ways. We do not know the ways of unity either. So we rely on these words of Isaiah: “I will lead the blind by ways they have not known. I will turn darkness into light before them.” (Isaiah 42:16) We place our trust in God to guide us on paths we have never followed to show the Christ of communion.

We know that our testimony is fragile because, like every testimony, it can be challenged. Since there is no independent, neutral guarantee of the truth of a testimony, it is the truthfulness and authenticity of the witness that becomes central. It is essential that we bear witness to the unity of the Church through a life where reconciliation is central.

Reconciliation has to be sought every day. The Separator cannot stand unity; he is constantly dividing. Brother Roger was realistic about this. He could tell us brothers one day: “Who are we? A small community, sometimes very shaken. (…) Who are we? We are a kind of collection of personal failings, but a community visited by Another than ourselves.”

3. How can this testimony speak to the younger generations?

For young people in particular, it is essential that the testimony of reconciliation not be expressed in abstract words but be lived out concretely. And this brings me to my third question: how can this testimony speak to the younger generations?

It remains a surprise for us to see so many young people come to our hill of Taizé, and especially to see that this has been going on now for decades. Several generations have thus succeeded one another since the young people of the sixties, so different from those of today. Joy remains strong in us at being able to welcome Ukrainian youth in particular for twenty years now.

By settling in a small village in Burgundy at the beginning of World War II, Brother Roger chose, like John the Baptist, a deserted place. And like the Precursor, he saw crowds come who were thirsty, seeking true life, the meaning of life, seeking a personal relationship with God. Brother Roger communicated to us the passion to welcome and to listen to those who come, without distinction. John the Baptist sensed that the One who was to come, the Messiah, was already walking with those who were coming to him. We must learn from John how to prepare the ways of Christ for men and women of today: it is Christ, mysteriously present in those we welcome, who must grow in them. At the same time we learn humility from John: Christ must become greater and the witness become less. (John 3:30)

According to the Book of Revelation, the Church to come, the undivided Church, brings together men and women “from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). Do not the young people who come to Taizé glimpse, in the international gatherings, in the prayer celebrated in multiple languages, something of the unity of the Church, still to be discovered but already existing? And do they not glimpse that this is a seed of the unity of the human family? The Second Vatican Council spoke of the Church as a “sacrament of the unity of the human race.”

For the younger generation to be opened to a deeper understanding of the mystery of the Church—and we know in all our Churches how essential this is for the very future of Christianity—they need an experience of communion wider than what they experience in their local Church. Teaching alone, without practical experience, is no longer sufficient to pass on the faith.

We would like to invite the young people who belong to various denominations to be open to the universal Church, the communion among all the baptized, but at the same time to deepen their Church affiliation. Founding our testimony on an anticipation of the undivided Church does not keep us from being in solidarity with the de facto situation, the division of the baptized into different denominations.

Brother Roger sometimes recalled that John the Baptist did not keep his disciples attached to himself but showed them Christ and let them become followers of Christ. That was a sign of the authenticity of his testimony. We too are called not to keep around us those who come to us, not to create a Taizé movement, but to send them home to the Churches where they came from.

And we try as far as possible to assist them in this process. Thus, for example, we were happy Saturday to spend a day with young people of Kiev, not to gather them around us, but to seek with them how they can be more rooted in their local Church.

We seek to hold firm day after day in this tension: to live in communion with the various Churches and their leaders, and at the same time to give signs that we can already live something of the unity of the undivided Church.

To witness concretely to this attempt, Brother Roger thirty years ago launched the “pilgrimage of trust on earth.” Holding meetings in many cities in Europe and on other continents, seeking hospitality from families who open their homes, we want to allow the younger generations to testify that Christ has introduced a new solidarity that extends to the entire human family, beyond political, ethnic, sociological, denominational and even religious boundaries.

With the younger generations, we would like to attest that the life of brother- and sisterhood brought by Christ and which will be lived in fullness on the last day is a reality which is already possible today. We already want to live what does not seem possible to human eyes, because we know that nothing is impossible for God.

[1]              John Zizioulas, “Le Mystère de l’Église dans la tradition orthodoxe,” Irenikon 60, 1987/3, p. 323-335.