Interview with Brother Alois
The story of Taizé
I was 16 years old I think when I heard for the first time about Taizé and friends took me here to this place in France, (I’m from Germany) and I was astonished when I arrived to see all these young people here. It was in 1970 and there were already a lot of young people here from all the countries, all the continents and for the first time I got into contact with people from Africa, from Asia, and I understood that the church was something wonderful, a communion that brought people together.
And then I saw the brothers coming three times a day together for the common prayer in the church and I wondered, what is their life? and I understood that it is a community founded by brother Roger in 1940. It was wartime already and he wanted to create a community for reconciliation. He said Christians have to start to reconcile, reconciliation is at the heart of the Gospel, it’s not just one idea of the Gospel but it’s the heart of what Jesus wanted to bring. Brother Roger thought: “Let’s have a community where we start to live reconciliation among Christians and to work for peace.”
So the brothers were living for a long time alone here in this small village, then more and more young people came and they were astonished about that, at first they didn’t welcome the young people because they disturbed the beautiful quiet monastic life. It was not only beautiful but also very difficult during the wartime and after the war, there was a lot of poverty here. The brothers had to find ways how to earn their living and some brothers had to work outside, doing agriculture, one brother working as a doctor in the region here, but then they understood that these young people, they needed something, they are looking for something. And they welcomed the young people and they built a bigger church where all the young people could come but this church became too small ten years ago, so they destroyed the front side and built a big tent so that all the young people could come to pray.
WOW! An ancient tradition throwing open it’s doors and being radically altered to meet the needs of youth! What a cost that would have been,.. but a great decision!
I came here in 1973 and I joined the community in 1974, and my task has mainly been to prepare meetings outside of Taizé, because we do not only bring young people together here in Taizé but we bring them together in cities in Europe and in other parts of the world. So I travelled a lot in my time here. But then we had this very hard and difficult event of the death of Brother Roger, who was killed in the church during the prayer, and I had to take his responsibility to be the prior of the community and its now since 2005 that I’m the prior of the community.
Asking the question what does the gospel offer, how does it transform THESE TIMES we are in?
The search for peace and reconciliation
Peace and reconciliation remains at the heart of our commitment here in Taizé, but what does it mean for all the young people? For them the first question is not ‘how can all the churches come together?’, but ‘how can I reconcile with my friends, parents, reconcile with the people, with their intentions?’. ‘What does reconciliation mean for countries and people who are at war together?’ These are the questions of young people and, in a way, we are much closer to the heart of the Gospel than just with theological questions, that sometimes seem for young people, even if it’s not true, to be far away from reality. So I think a lot of our efforts today is to go with the young people to the heart of the Gospel to the well springs of faith so they may discover a living faith and that the Word of God is not just something of the past: God is speaking to me today.
Not just asking our own theological/church questions, but keeping in touch with the key questions of youth.. being attentive to them
Global Youth Culture
There is no doubt there is a global youth culture that is advancing and marking young people, and we see very clearly that more and more people speak English. Although it was very difficult when Europe was open and united again – people coming from the Eastern European countries didn’t speak English so we had a lot of problems with communication! Now, more and more people speak English, so we see here the positive side of the global youth culture which is mainly in communication and also being touched by situations that are far away. The earthquake in Haiti touched so many people around the world immediately! So there are a lot of positive aspects in that, but we feel also that it does not answer all the questions young people have.
Ease of Global communication helps,.. but is not the answer
The new technologies can help enormously to spread the Gospel, to explain the Gospel, and to touch people. But it never will replace a personal relationship, and I think one thing young people are looking for here is a personal relationship. Each evening we stay in the church after the evening prayer, and so, many young people would come just to speak with us, sometimes they don’t even know what to say but it’s so evident they want a personal relationship in order to speak about faith, about perhaps suffering, or enjoyment – something important in their life. In their daily lives sometimes, they are governed by new technologies and here perhaps they make the experience that they can govern the new technologies, and then they will be very useful.
It’s so astonishing for us, at the end of one week when we ask young people what has been important here, often they will say: “silence”. But that’s very astonishing! I mean at home, they don’t look for silence – always music, always running away from silence so that listening becomes more difficult in this new global culture. We need to take time to listen to know that relationships need time to find a maturity and all these values that all these young people feel that they are longing for that but often in their daily life there is no place for finding the deeper longings which they try to find here. Also, “Simplicity”, they say. But at home, everybody’s looking for comfort and for an easy life! But then they say it’s also good to have the simple life they have here in Taizé. So this is a sign for us that there are deeper longings in young people. And, in the church, we have a responsibility to create places, situations, where this deeper longing for silence, for peace, for real relationships that are not superficial like it often is in our modern cultural relationships. So I think the church has a role to play in this moment of history to help and remind people of the deeper longings.
Respectfully taking the conversation from genuine initial questions to unearthing Deeper longings
Youth Culture and the churches
It is true that young people are more marked by the global culture today than by what’s happening in the church. But let’s not be drawn into that direction... I think young people are looking for something else in the church than the same culture that they have outside. It’s not very easy but let’s give a place to the Word of God. Let’s give a place to listening to it. Let’s give a place to a spirit of worship. In our worships, let’s help young people to find this spirit of worship.
Valuing local culture
I think divisions amongst cultures are much deeper than we are aware of; between Europe and Asia, Europe and Africa – less perhaps Europe and Latin America... There is not enough mutual understanding for the cultures, the way the future cannot be that we will have one uniform culture, it will not be the future, there will be a reaction to that! We have to give value to the different cultures. We saw this so clearly in Africa! In Nairobi, we had a youth meeting there, and 7,000 young people came from different ethnic groups from Kenya and different countries (Uganda, Tanzania, even Rwanda and Burundi). But I saw how important it is that they can express their culture, and how important it is for peace and reconciliation. If we are not more attentive to the local cultures, we will create problems for the future and we will not prepare peace. Amen!
It is very important that we give more place in our worship to local cultures, while at the same time being thankful for a global culture that helps us express the universality of the church. Perhaps for the first time in history we have so much facility to express that we belong together – Christians from China and Christians from Bolivia, and from Europe... – and we are together in one communion and that is very precious.
Spiritual Formation Today
For discovering faith - a personal relationship to God - I think young people today need the experience of a relationship; of coming together. – We see it here, young people are astonished, we come together from so many different countries, so when we tell them it is the Gospel that brings us together, it’s very easy for them to understand that and to accept that and to feel that the Gospel is alive today! And that the message of Jesus is alive today, bringing us together in peace and reconciliation.
And then we see that the difficulty for young people, often, is that the contents of our Christian faith is disappearing in a mist and that’s very difficult: it becomes a kind of spirituality, it is not rooted anymore. And we have the responsibility to help young people to root themselves because, otherwise, they will not find the continuity for their whole life in spirituality and it will be very centred around them. Our Christian faith tells us that we have to be centred on God, and not God only on us So this opening of ourselves to Christ is not easy for young people because often, they remain with the formation from childhood and the catechism and the knowledge of the Gospel remains from childhood or very young and then it has disappeared. That’s why today we have very good scientists who know very little about faith and the Gospel. And in Taizé we try to go directly to these questions ‘who is Jesus’, ‘what is the Gospel’, ‘what did Jesus tell us about God’, ‘what is the Holy Spirit’. And then later, they will be ready to understand questions of reconciliation among Christians, different denominations, but often they are not prepared for these questions [at first].
Spirituality without a centre (Jesus) & the bible’s place in restoring the centre of our faith
Brother Roger tried very much to repeat and repeat again to young people that God is love, and that is the heart of the Gospel. And I think that meets also the spiritual longing of young people today. God is love and he only can give love. Brother Roger dared to say this without “but”, because often in the church we say: “God is love... BUT also pay attention he is etc, etc.” Of course God is also justice but I think today, to meet the spiritual thirst with the Gospel (and there is a strong spiritual thirst among young people!), these words from John – ‘God is love’ – are essential. And God will always be love for you, and he will not withdraw his love. Brother Roger dared to say this without “but.”
Youth and the Bible
The scriptures are often not well known by young people today. On the other hand, there are more and more young people who study them, and what we see here in Taizé is that the meeting of young people who are very much based on the faith nourished by the scriptures and other young people who have more a weak spirituality – it is important that these people meet because they can learn from each other and they can advance together. Peer to peer
Here we read the scriptures three times a day and we explain the Bible in the morning meetings and groups. But in the church we can only read a short sentence that has to be translated in many languages, so we try to read passages that really show the heart of the Gospel. Young people will enter into the scriptures if their heart is touched, and then they will continue. But they must be touched by one word, so we try to read words of Jesus, words of the Gospel, words of the Old Testament that could touch young people more immediately today, and then they will continue.
We tell them: “Even if you understand very little from the scriptures, put it into practice, and you will understand more and more”. And then we also tell them: “Speak about the scriptures with others, you cannot understand the scriptures alone, speak with others. And do not be ashamed that you understand very little of it, it’s difficult, it’s a different culture, a different way of speaking.”
Opening and exploring the Bible in the company of peers and friends
Very quickly there are misunderstandings for young people and then they put the scriptures away again, and that’s the difficulty today: they put the scriptures away when they don’t understand them. So – “put into practice the little you understood; what in the scriptures touched your heart?” And perhaps the most important is that when we read the Gospel we meet Jesus, we do not only read a 2000 year-old text but we meet him, his person, he speaks to us. And this meeting with Jesus will help them to listen more to his Word.
The entrance for understanding the scriptures for young people is one word of the Bible, but of course we cannot remain with that, it will open to an understanding of the whole scriptures, from the Creation to the Second Coming of Christ. But we have to find the spirit of wonder, of astonishment first, an interest, an intellectual interest, and an interest of our heart also, for understanding this Word more. During the summer weeks, when we have a lot of young people here, we read the Second Isaiah, because, for example, there are words that are so human! That God can be so human, that sometimes touches the young people first, and that is a revelation. The whole Bible tells us from the beginning to the end that God is human, but we cannot explain this to young people by the theory first, “God is human and Creation...”. No, today in our culture it needs something immediate that opens the heart, and then there will be a more global understanding.
Finding the right stories/choosing related stories to introduce and intrigue. Finding where the bible immediately connects with youth; what skills do people need for this?
Trusting for the future
We live in a period where we do not see very well the future of Christianity. I remember a pastor, who is now 80 years old... he spent 27 years of his life in a labour camp as punishment and I was very impressed by him. He told me what kept him going in these difficult years was the words of Isaiah, “my ways are not your ways”. I think that is the situation of our church today: we don’t know very clearly the future. When I asked him about how he sees the future of the church, he told me: “I don’t know the future, but I know God, and he will guide us step by step.”
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Themes common across Thursdays keynotes & the other 2, too!
· Rediscovering (or uncovering) ancient faith practices is attracting youth
· Word, Deed AND signs are the real deal! – so resources need to support this holistic approach, whatever denomination, continent and language they are for.
· Youth are living in multiple cultural spaces - either swapping between or blending them – and need help (tools) to see and critique them all against the touchstone of Jesus and the scriptures as well as permission to affirm and express what it good/Godly. This will likely mean local ideas developed & supported.
· Youth often are at the toughest end of social upheaval, conflict and disadvantage; effected but feeling powerless to impact it. That the gospel or church has’nt brought significant change is a BIG disappointment to youth & causes disengagement. Deep structures in the church and the societies need challenge.
Discussion questions before breaking into small groups:
1. One thing you agreed with?
2. One thing you disagree with or that doesn't tally with what you see/know?
3. Anything you didn't understand?
In small groups:
· As a fellowship of Bible Societies, how might we develop a global strategy for reaching youth who in many ways are the same but also have different economic status & needs, live in diverse social & political realities, & hold varied concepts of religion & worldviews?
· How might we embrace the urgent shift from resourcing adult generations to focussing on youth, inside and outside the church? (give some practical suggestions)
· What do you think are the relevant Bible stories & themes for your generation?
· How can we use communication technology more effectively to facilitate real relationship and engagement with the bible? (think ‘outside the box’!)
· What is one suggestion and/or principle you what to share with the Bible Society fellowship about the issues raised by the keynote addresses?