Br. Roger of Taizé, Ecumenist and Monk

Brother Roger Schultz (12 May 1915 – 16 Aug 2005)
(Mt 5:1-12 / Ps 133 / Mt 6:25-34 / Mt 7:24-29)

Collect of an Ecumenist
Almighty God, we give you thanks for the ministry of Br. Roger Schultz of Taizé, who labored that the Church of Jesus Christ might be one: Grant that we, instructed by his teaching and example, and knit together in unity by your Spirit, may ever stand firm upon the one foundation, which is Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday last was the feast day of Roger Schultz, better known as Br. Roger of Taizé. It is likely not a well celebrated feast day in the Church for several reasons. Br. Roger was an ecumenist, an advocate for the one, holy, catholic and Apostolic Church that transcends denominational boundaries; no one group — neither Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, nor even his own Reformed Church — can lay exclusive claim on him. So, there is no single faith community that champions his memory. Br. Roger is not a canonical saint, nor is he a martyr, though he was murdered during a service of evening prayer in the church at Taizé amidst the community he served as prior. And though he was a noted author and somewhat of a religious “celebrity,” he kept a very low profile and did not seek the spotlight. Consequently, he is not widely known seventeen years after his death, and I doubt his feast is widely observed. But, even though many in the Church have never heard of Roger Schultz, he has had a profound influence on hundreds of thousands of Christians, especially on young Christians, through his writings and most especially through the community he established in Taizé, France.

Roger Schultz was born in Switzerland in 1915, the son of a Swiss pastor and a French mother. He was raised a Calvinist, in the Reformed tradition. As a young child he was deeply influenced by his maternal grandmother who came to live with the family in the aftermath of World War I. She was deeply distressed at the reality of Christians from different denominations and nationalities killing one another in Europe and was devoted to reconciliation. She welcomed into the home those who had been ravaged by the war. Also, though she was a Protestant, she would on occasion go to the Catholic Church to pray, her personal move toward reconciliation. Those two convictions of his grandmother — hospitality and reconciliation — were formative for Roger and played out in his life and ministry.

As a teenager Roger contracted tuberculosis and suffered from the effects of the disease for several years. To aid his recuperation, he spent large amounts of time alone, reading or hiking in the woods. It was during this period of convalescence that he began to discern the call to a monastic life. About that period he wrote:

Those were the years in which I was aware that I was building myself up within. I began to realize that a God of love and compassion cannot be the author of suffering. And I made this discovery as well: it is not prestigious gifts or great talents that enable us to be creators in God. A great inspiration can be born even in times of trial. My illness prepared the future; God’s call was in a certain sense linked to a difficulty, even if I was not yet able to understand how” (Schultz, p.14).

From 1937-1940, Roger attended university to study Reformed theology. While there, he was a leader in the Swiss Student Christian Movement.

In 1940, with World War II looming, Roger, then aged twenty-five, felt the call to serve those suffering from the impact of the conflict. He wrote:

The more a believer wishes to live the absolute call of God, the more he or she has to insert that absolute into human misery (ibid, p. 14).

He bought a house in France, in the town of Taizé, just beyond German occupied territory. There, he and his sister Genevieve hid both Jewish and Christian refugees for about two years until the Germans were tipped off about their activities. Roger and his sister were forced to leave Taizé for their own safety.

About two years later, in the autumn of 1944, Roger returned to Taizé with three other men to establish a monastic community to continue the work of hospitality and reconciliation. On Easter, 1949, seven brothers formally established the monastic community of Taizé, taking monastic vows of “material and spiritual sharing, … celibacy, and … a common life lived in great simplicity” (ibid, p. 15). Roger, now Brother Roger, became the first prior of the community, a position he held until his death in 2005.

To foster the goals of hospitality and reconciliation, the Taizé community was intentionally ecumenical, welcoming Christians of all denominations. The community developed a “style” or pattern of prayer that was easily accessible to people of many languages and cultures. It emphasized the beauty of holy space with candles and icons, silence, prayer, and a contemplative style of music for which Taizé is widely known: simple but rich and easily learned lyrics sung repeatedly as a type of prayer itself. The community became an international pilgrimage site drawing tens of thousands each year. It was particularly attractive to young Christians who readily endured the sometimes primitive accommodations to experience first hand the spirit of Taizé.

Though the community itself was ecumenical — welcoming of all Christians pursuing religious community and reconciliation — it had a unique and somewhat favored relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. Starting in 1958 with a meeting between Br. Roger and Pope John XXIII, Br. Roger had an annual audience with every succeeding pope until his death in 2005. Br. Roger took Holy Communion each morning at a Roman Catholic Mass celebrated at Taizé though he himself remained a Calvinist. This “violation” of Roman Catholic cannon law shows the power of reconciliation and ecumenism found in Br. Roger and at Taizé. Such a spirit has the power to break down barriers, not all at once but over time. A Roman Catholic cardinal even officiated at Br. Roger’s funeral, a mark of the high regard in which the church held the work at Taizé.

In addition to his work of hospitality and reconciliation, Br. Roger was a prolific writer. For the time remaining, I would like to share a few excepts from his books interspersed with songs from Taizé.


The Simple Desire for God
Right at the depth of the human condition lies the longing for a presence, the silent desire for a communion.

Could a doubt come welling up? The desire for God does not vanish for all that. Four centuries after Christ, a believer wrote down his conviction: “If you desire to know God, you already have faith.” What is important at the outset is not vast knowledge. Time will come when that will be of great value. But it is through the heart, in the depths of themselves, that human beings begin to grasp the mystery of faith. An inner life is developed step by step.

So it becomes clear that faith — trusting in God — is a very simple reality, so simple that everyone could receive it. It is like surging upward again and again, a thousand times, throughout our life and until our very last breath (ibid, p. 52).

Faith Is a Simple Reality
Faith is a simple reality, both for the most uneducated person who cannot even read or write as well as for the most cultivated one. The Russian writer Tolstoy recounts that one day, while taking a walk, he met a peasant, and they had a conversation. The peasant said to Tolstoy, “I live for God.” In four words he expressed the depths of his soul. And Tolstoy said to himself, “I have so much knowledge and culture, and yet I am unable to speak like this peasant.”

Trust in God is not conveyed by means of arguments which want to persuade at all costs and so end up causing anxiety, and even fear. It is first of all in the heart, in the depths of our being, that a Gospel call is received (ibid, p. 55).

The Lord is my light (All songs are taken from Songs and Prayers from Taizé (1991). GIA Publications.)


Discover That Christ Is Present
Two of my brothers and I were in Ethiopia one day, during the Advent season. At Christmas, we visited a village of lepers. A woman named Adjebush told us her story. When she found out she had leprosy, her husband left her. Her four sons were fighting in the war; one had been killed, and she had no news of the other. Her little girl was sleeping beside her. Her deepest desire was that her daughter would understand the faith. With both legs amputated, Adjebush could not even go out to beg.

Then she spoke these unexpected words: “I weep inner tears and sometimes outer tears, but I know that Christ is here, standing beside me.” And she began to praise God by lifting up her hands, according to the Coptic Orthodox tradition.

We asked ourselves: Where does she get such trust? We realized that she drew it from the wellspring of prayer. She had let a whole inner life develop within her; she had gone forward in a life of deep communion with God. Adjebush understood that suffering does not come from God. She knew that God was not the author of her misfortunes and trials.

As she kept on praying, she began to comment on our visit to her, and her words turned into a kind of hymn on her lips. She said to God, “It’s Christmas and they came to see me; it’s Christmas and they did not stay home, they came here.”

We were astonished to realize that often we perceive a unique, luminous Gospel insight in people who are totally destitute. All of us would like to be as close to God as that humble Ethiopian Orthodox woman. And all of us, like her, would like to discover in the simplicity of our hearts that Christ is present, close to us (see Mt 28:20b) (ibid, pp. 57-58).

The Beauty of Common Prayer, excerpt
In Taizé … we have discovered that the beauty of a community prayer sung together can allow young people to let the desire for God well up in them, and also to enter into the depths of contemplative waiting.

Nothing is more conducive to a communion with the living God than a meditative common prayer with, as its high point, singing that never ends and that continues in the silence of one’s heart when one is alone again. When the mystery of God becomes tangible through the simple beauty of symbols, when it is not smothered by too many words, then prayer with others, far from exuding monotony and boredom, awakens us to heaven’s joy on earth (ibid, p. 61).

O Lord, Hear my prayer


Forgive and Then Forgive Again
You want to follow Christ, and not look back: are you going to make your way through life with a heart that is reconciled, even amid the most crippling tensions?

Suppose people distort your intentions. If you are judged wrongly (Mt 5:11-12) because of Christ, forgive. You will find that you are free, free beyond compare.

Forgive and then forgive again. That is the highest expression of loving (Mt 18:21-22). There you make yours the prayer of Jesus, “Forgive them, they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34).

You forgive not in order to change the other person, but simply to follow Christ.

Consider your neighbors not just at one particular phase of their existence but through all stages of their life.

Strive to be transparent. Have nothing to do with clever maneuvering. Never manipulate another’s conscience, using their anxiety as a lever to force them into your way of thinking.

To be free of temptation, sing Christ’s praises until you are joyful and serene.

His call is to joy, not to gloom.

At every age, forge ahead in faith. Even in days of grayness, his gift of cheerfulness, gaiety even. No lamenting, but at every moment leave everything with him, even your body worn out with fatigue (ibid, pp. 70-71).

Daring to sing to Christ until we are joyful and serene…(see Phil 4:6-7; Eph 5:19). Not with just any kind of joy, but with the joy that comes straight from the wellsprings of the Gospel (ibid, p. 76).

Laudate Dominum

We close with the words of a short prayer by Br. Roger (adapted), an aspiration for us all:

O Lord, grant us in all things peace of heart, joy, simplicity and mercy (ibid, p. 113). Amen.

About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN, and as Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of the South.
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