In memory of Brother Roger, founder of the Taize community in France

A meditation on tribulation and contemplation

by Ken Sehested

Written after receiving news of the death of Brother Roger,*
founder of the Taizé community in France, 16 August 2005

I did not know Brother Roger. Haven’t been to the South of France. Hadn’t, until recently, experienced a “Taizé” service, though I am enchanted with the music created there. (In our congregation’s recent delegation to Cuba, we sang "Come and Fill Our Hearts" at each of our stops.)

But I suspect his passing—and not just because it was a murder—gave pause to many with little direct connection.

§ § § § §

I have one quote from Bro. Roger in my files. It’s a favorite:

“The more a person wants to live in the absolute of God, the more essential
it is for this absolute to be rooted in the midst of human suffering.”

That one quote, and a curious sense of obligation to express gratitude for his witness, has prompted these notes on matters of common concern.

§ § § § §

Recently I picked up a bulletin cover depicting a gentle-flowing stream, over which were imposed the "Peace, be still" refrain which shows up in various forms throughout the biblical narrative. I kept it as a reminder that the original "be still" phrase was spoken by Moses to the Hebrew people when their backs were against the sea with Pharaoh's butchering army bearing down on them (Exodus 14:13-14).

Peace . . . fear not . . . be still. These are admonishments in the context of conflagration—and not for serene pause during a sunny-day picnic on warm, green grass with the gurgle of a mountain stream in the background and butterflies all around. (I certainly mean no disregard for sunny picnics, green grass, mountain streams or butterflies.)

Rather than a recommendation to leisure (much less, passivity), "be still" is actually the war-cry of the nonviolent people of God,** only the terms of engagement are nothing like what we usually associate with soldierly action. The psalmist's image of standing "beside still waters" is in the context of "the valley of the shadow of death," where the Lord's table is spread "in the presence of my enemies."

The spread is made in the midst of tribulation and threat. Only there do we learn such stillness.

As my former teacher, Dorothee Sölle (blessed be her memory), would say, practicing stillness is a form of "revolutionary patience"—an utterly impatient posture which nonetheless refuses the idolatrous resort to violence, even emotional violence, because of an abiding confidence, despite the evidence, that death itself will be undone in the Coming Age. We are but participants and witnesses, not engineers, to this promised new world order.

Tribulation is the normal circumstance for Still Ones in a fretful world whose currency is the power to exclude and dominate. But, as Jesus noted in his parting advice, "be of good cheer . . . take heart . . . have courage," for that world is being dismantled (John 16:33).

§ § § § § §

Speaking of sabbath: It’s not always clear to me that God gives a rip if I get enough rest, take a day off each week, find enough “down” time, meditate/pray/lectio on a regular basis, much less get all the love I deserve.

I suspect that personalizing God in this way borders on heresy and plays into the hands of our shopping-network culture, turning “spirituality” into yet one more consumptive option. Bored with creation, we attempt to leech directly onto the Divine.

§ § § § § §

I certainly mean no disrespect for any and every measure by which God-longing is expressed. Just that the blessed eros of such longing needs distinguishing from self-centered God-lust.

       •The one exhibits extravagant habits: when estrangement from Heaven is healed, so also is that with the earth. No longer a “stranger” to God (Ephesians 2:19), hospitality flows to strangers nearby. There is an economy of mercy: "Those who are forgiven little, love little” (Luke 7:47).

       •The other habit leads to a hall of mirrors, where every genuflection represents a desperate attempt to appease an inexhaustible need for justification. The ego is a ruthless master. Finding the “self” to be a fiction—and thus the elaborate needs to serve and protect the “self” a fraud—securing the future is projected onto just the kind of god Nietzsche so rightly and ruthlessly trashed.

Is it more than a greasy coincidence that book publishing in the spirituality market has increased five-fold in the last two decades? Never has “keeping sabbath” been such a delicious topic of conversation among the literate. But is it more than novel marketing of relaxation techniques for the leisurely class?

Surely sabbath practice will address the too-hurried habits of life characteristic of a market-driven society. But focusing on sabbath as leisure overshadows the social contract which gives it meaning, namely, the “jubilee” injunctions given the newly-freed Hebrew slaves, whose practices (release from debt, overthrow of “private” property rights, manumission of slaves, rest for the land itself) were the confirming marks of true piety.

Jesus himself, who personalized God most radically as “Abba,” culminated his personal mission statement by proclaiming “the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:20)—a direct reference to the year of jubilee (see especially Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15), the projected 50-year cycle of economic restructuring for ancient Israel and, for Jesus, an eschatological metaphor for the coming Empire of God.

Reluctant as I am to admit it, God’s salvific project is not about me. Reluctant as I am to say it, Israel’s Yahweh and Jesus’ Abba seems obsessed not with the state of my soul but with the redemptive completion of creation, a process which inevitably includes bruising, even bloody confrontation with the enduring impulses to domination, revenge and violence.

I can participate in this struggle, this “war of the lamb,” or not. Either way, the bounty to be won is not available for hoarding; and my participation confers no privilege.


§ § § § §

How strange: One week, the visible shepherd (Bro. Roger) of one Christian flock is subjected to an assassin’s rage. (To repeat for emphasis: Participation confers no privilege.) And the next week, another shepherd (Bro. Pat—Robertson, of recent Christian fatwa fame) urges prosecution of a similar rage, against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

It’s time, way past time, to clarify these choices. Grace has its price.

#  #  #

*Background. Brother Roger (born Roger Louis Schütz-Marsauche), a Swiss pastor, left his home after the start of World War II to settle in the small French village of Taizé to care for war refugees. Hunted by the Gestapo, he fled France but then returned in 1944 to found the ecumenical monastic order. Extraordinarily, though not in “full communion” with Rome, Roger personally received the eucharist from Pope’s John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Tragically, Bro. Roger, then 90, was stabbed to death during a 16 August 2005 evening prayer service at Taizé by a person later deemed to be mentally ill. The community had already confirmed Roger’s successor, Brother Alois, another of Taizé’s monks. In another highly unusual ecclesial act, Roger’s funeral service was presided over by Roman Catholic cardinal Walter Kasper.

For more on this ecumenical monastic order, and it’s popularity as a pilgrim site, especially for young people, see this BBC story.

*See Lois Barrett’s The Way God Fights: War and Peace in the Old Testament.

©ken Sehested @