A Review of
The Rule of Taizé
Reviewed by Erin Zoutendam.
The question at the heart of the publication of a book such as The Rule of Taizé is not whether we should read it, but why it was published at all. Surely the rule of a monastic community in rural France, a rule intended to order the lives of about a hundred monks, coincides very little with the lives of those of us who, instead of praying and laboring, commute to work, buy groceries at big-box stores, and collapse onto couches at the end of the day to tap and scroll on tiny screens. Even the most pious of us are hardly eager to hold all our possessions in common.
And yet monastic rules, such as The Rule of Saint Benedict, have always been an object of fascination within Christian culture. Perhaps we read these books believing that we will be able to adapt some small part of them to our daily existence—praying the psalter or keeping a time of silence each week. But I think the reason we read monastic rules is far removed from such a practical motivation. Perhaps instead we read about monasteries and convents out of the same hope-filled impulse that leads us to read fairytales and chivalric romances. That is, perhaps we read them in search of a pure and compelling image of the good, one that, instead of giving us a step-by-step guide for better living, will so enchant us with goodness and faith that we will not be able to help living better lives.
If it is a vision of the good that you seek, there is no better place to start than the community of Taizé. Founded by Brother Roger in 1940, Taizé is an ecumenical monastic community with brothers from thirty countries. As a “parable of community,” Taizé strives by its very existence to make known the virtues of reconciliation and unity. Brother Roger once wrote that this vision for community was present at Taizé’s very inception:
Since my youth, I think that I have never lost the intuition that community life could be a sign that God is love, and love alone. Gradually the conviction took shape in me that it was essential to create a community with men determined to give their whole life and who would always try to understand one another and be reconciled, a community where kindness of heart and simplicity would be at the centre of everything.
Simplicity is at the center of The Rule of Taizé as well. The new edition, with its facing-page English translation of the original French, is itself a small, simple wonder. The clean design of the cover and the large interior margins are unimposing, but this quiet confidence perfectly sets off the spare prose within. The French is likewise lean and modern, and it has been beautifully translated into robust English. Each sentence evokes the straightforward poetry of a monk’s fare, and each sentence, though clear and uncomplicated, is vibrant with meaning. “You are no longer alone,” writes Brother Roger in the introduction. “You must take your brothers into account in all things” (3).
Furthermore, unlike earlier rules, The Rule of Taizé contains not an enumeration of the minutiae of piety, but the “minimum necessary for a community to grow up in Christ and devote itself to a common service of God” (5). Instead of cataloging the traditional enjoinders against idleness, humor, and gregariousness, The Rule of Taizé contents itself with the essentials and a prudent admonition: “The resolve to set down only the essentials involves a risk: your freedom could become a pretext for living according to your own impulses” (5).
The book contains short chapters on the main elements of communal life at Taizé, including meals, harmony, celibacy, joy, and hospitality. The instructions give spirit, not letter, to the law, with advice such as “Your prayer becomes complete when it is one with your work” (45) and “[R]ead little but dwell on it” (43). All of the instruction is leavened with a practical and gracious understanding of human weakness. Should a brother fall short, he is reminded to “live in the continual new beginning of the Christian who is never disheartened because always forgiven” (77).
Throughout the book, the simplicity of the rule suggests that the brothers are ever conscious that their work lies not in codifying but in communing, with God and with man. Reconciliation and unity are at the heart of Taizé life, for the brothers and for the tens of thousands of young people each year who make the “pilgrimage of trust on the earth” either at Taizé or abroad. As the brothers support efforts toward peace and reconciliation on every continent, they bring together members of every denomination and sect, giving them the strength and resolve to pursue together the work of Christ on earth. This is the all-important work of Taizé. “Without unity, there is no hope for a bold and total service of Jesus Christ,” writes Brother Roger (85).
Though many—including Time magazine, twice—have written about the astonishing attraction of Taizé and its single-minded vision, perhaps no one spoke as memorably as Pope John Paul II when he visited the community in 1986:
[O]ne passes through Taizé as one passes close to a spring of water. The traveller stops, quenches his thirst and continues on his way. The brothers of the community, you know, do not want to keep you. They want, in prayer and silence, to enable you to drink the living water promised by Christ, to know his joy, to discern his presence, to respond to his call, then to set out again to witness to his love and to serve your brothers and sisters in your parishes, your schools, your universities, and in all your places of work.
The Rule of Taizé is no different. Readers will stop for but a moment and will leave refreshed, awake, alert to the great goodness of the work to be done.