Monasticism, Indigenous Cultures, Burning Man, and/or Kingdom of God?: My trip to Taize.
After being invited to Barcelona, Spain this fall for a chaotic tour of book talks, TV appearances, and radio interviews, I needed a place to recover from all the activity. And one of the greatest realizations of my life has been discovering the power of both contemplative meditative practices and the power of retreating to a monastery. So I set up a week-long retreat at a famous monastery called the Taizé community, in a remote medieval town in the countryside of rural southern France.
I spend about 10-20 days in a monastery each year. And although many might think this extreme, being able to retreat into a wilderness, into a place of silence, into a place of no or little activity to pray and meditate is the cornerstone of all the great mystical traditions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity. And in my own spiritual practice of Christian mysticism or Christian contemplation, this was a common practice for Jesus, who in his short ministry took many periods of contemplative retreat, including his 40 days in the desert before embarking on his mission, which was a symbolic reflection of the Jewish people’s 40 years in the desert wandering before reaching their Promised Land.
I have visited many monasteries, most notably Christian monasteries in my own tradition, but I also spend time in Buddhist monasteries and Hindu ashrams. And I have a good sense of what I’m going to get there. It is generally being transported back thousands of years, to a simpler time, filled with silence, prayer, meditation, simple food and collective life, deprived of all the technology, entertainment and stimulus, culture and news of modern civilization.
I am always shocked that these communities, often following meticulous monastic rulebooks like the rule of St. Benedict, or in Buddhism, the Vinaya, the oldest book in the Buddhist canon, can still survive and sometimes thrive living very similar lives as monks hundreds and even thousands of years ago. It’s eye opening to see and live this life even for a few weeks, and it’s a space to experience the technologies of prayer and meditation that have been passed down from generation to generation within lineages of wisdom traditions of intense personal development.
These communities have much to provide. For many in the Christian tradition, up until Vatican II, the technologies of prayer and meditation within Christian contemplation could rarely be found anywhere other monasteries, or what were called cloisters. These monasteries function on a type of exchange that is loosely called gift economy, or reciprocity, which in different languages is called different things, dana or hospitality or donation-only, to such an extreme in some Buddhist monasteries that monks are forbidden to touch money with their hands, and can’t even eat anything that is not donated to them in their begging bowls and ritually blessed.
It’s hard to imagine that there could be an alternative to our modern culture and what Dorothy Day called the “dirty, rotten system” that is destroying the world. Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the UK in the 1980s, after the fall of communism, triumphantly declared to all her critics that modern capitalism was the only way forward for human civilization: “There is no alternative.” What relevance does this drastically foreign way of getting your needs met have in our consumer market-based capitalist system, where most of our material needs are met through buying things? Could an alternative society even exist and sustain itself like these monasteries have, for thousands of years, given the dominant structures of our modern world? And what do these ancient models of life and community have to teach us?
I believe the world is yearning for a new world to be born. Against all the odds, against all the constraints and the challenges of maintaining lifestyles in total contrast to our modern culture, these monastic communities survive. And what I see in our individualistic culture is a yearning for this alternative way of life. I see this, for example, when 70,000 people go to Burning Man in the desert to form a gift economy, build temples, and create complex spiritual rituals.
In the 1960s, a wave of new Eastern wisdom teachers brought monastic life to the West, and tens of thousands of youth flocked to learn meditation. But most monasteries were closed off and provided little support for the pilgrims who fled to their doors. Most people didn’t even know these communities existed, or what they had to offer.
Centering Prayer, the Christian contemplative lineage that I am part of, started when an abbot of a Christian monastery, Thomas Keating, along with other monks, realized that they needed to learn from the Eastern masters and form an accessible way to give the meditation and prayer practices that were embedded in their monasteries to new seekers who started showing up at their door. Christian mysticism, as well as Buddhist and Hindu mysticism, is now having a revival of new interest, partly led by the realizations of science, which have validated their meditative and prayer practices. Richard Rohr’s book on Christian mysticism is a New York Times bestseller, as are many books by wisdom teachers of other traditions. But how do we give people more than just a taste of these amazing spiritual practices and teachings, and offer the full experience of monastic living?
One answer to this question can be found in what was once an inaccessible and largely abandoned medieval town called Taizé, in southern France. There, a spiritual master, Brother Roger, who wanted to create a new form of monastic life after harboring Jews fleeing from Nazi Germany into Switzerland. He desired monasticism which could reconcile the conflicts between nationalities and Christian denominations, Protestant and Catholic, and the animosities and trauma of war. He formed a small monastic community of brothers that was ecumenical, both Catholic and Protestant, and accepted anyone that would follow their new rule, which was built on a deep understanding of ancient Christian monasticism.
In the 1960s, although they had only a few brothers, who prayed in a small church three to five times a day, often using Gregorian chant as a meditative technique, a handful of young people started showing up to their door, curious about their way of life and their chanting practice. Taking very seriously the rule of hospitality, Brother Roger believed in welcoming everyone that came to them with open arms, even though few of them were interested in becoming brothers, or even able to, due to their age or gender. He started making adjustments to the ancient liturgy after seeing the youth pick up small repetitive parts of their prayer services. He created what is now called Taizé chanting, which is a new, more accessible form of traditional Gregorian chant. It is done at the monastery three times a day for about an hour with the entire community, and is one of the only mandatory practices at the community.
Word of the community and the experiences of the small groups of youth pilgrims became a flood of thousands by the 1970s. Again, the brothers had to make a choice: Do we accept everyone that comes? Brother Roger had a keen insight: that if you reject someone who asks to come, they often do not ask again. So he made what is called a “provisional judgment” to temporarily expand the monastery to accommodate what eventually became tens of thousands of pilgrims. He used abandoned military tents from WWII for temporary sleeping accommodations and ripped down one wall of the church and erected a circus tent to expand the church so that thousands could pray together in one space.
The Church has since built more permanent accommodations with more large dormitories (although tents still litter acres of land around the outskirts of the community). Today, an average of one hundred thousand pilgrims spend one to two weeks in the community each year, and 90 percent of them are under the age of 30. If I were to summarize the experience of being there in a short phrase, I would say it was a Christian monastic Woodstock. It costs almost nothing to come and stay and eat—almost everyone is accepted. Those who can’t pay are given scholarships, but there is a suggested donation within a range that depends on where you are from, your age, and what you can pay—for most youth it is generally about 5-10 dollars a day.
There are only a hundred brothers in residence, who receive no money from the running of the monastery and the pilgrims, except for what they earn from their own labor from a small store on the premises. There you can buy pottery, jewelry and handcrafted goods made by the brothers. The brothers create an incredible model of life, and epic harmonious chanting three times a day experienced by all. Although they are guardians and stewards of the whole decentralized system of maintaining the accommodations, services and practices of the entire community, most of the community is run by the pilgrims themselves. Everyone is given a job for at least an hour a day, within a small family group that becomes a place of mutual support and work. Five to ten percent of pilgrims choose to stay longer than just a standard week and become what are called “permanents,” staying anywhere from a few weeks to a year. At any one time, there may be 100 permanent pilgrims that spend 20-30 hours a week coordinating hospitality and the work of the community.
As an organizer who studies communities and institutions, all of these facts are incredible. I am amazed that so many young people are interested in Christian mystical practices in a simple form. And seeing the profound impact that it had on pilgrims while I was there was incredible, even when most of the people in my small group, all of whom were under 30, identified as spiritual and not Christian. There are a few places of Christian contemplation in the United States, like Richard Rohr’s popular conference that sells out a 5000-seat convention center within a week, but 90 percent of those people are older than 30. Most are older than 50.
The community is the most international, multilingual community I have ever been a part of. Granted, there are not as many pilgrims from the Americas, Africa or Asia because it’s hard to pay for travel expenses. The brothers have subsidized travel expenses for many people in those areas. There are weeks that are incredibly representative of the global population, but most weeks it is filled with youth from the UK, Spain, Germany, France and other countries in eastern Europe. The chanting service incorporates multiple languages—Spanish, German, Latin, Eastern European, etc.—but English is the common language spoken among pilgrims, and French is the common language among the brothers.
Another thing that is fascinating is that Taizé not only introduces young people to this amazing experience of communal spiritual living, but also provides pilgrims with the opportunity for a more solitary and silent retreat in monastic cells located in medieval cottages fifteen minutes walk from the community. There, pilgrims learn an accessible form of Lectio Divina led by a brother. An average of five to ten percent of pilgrims choose to explore this.
I spent four days in the community living as a pilgrim, sleeping in a large dormitory, eating in large crowds, and sharing in my small group, and three days primarily in silence in my monastic cell, reflecting on Bible passages. And unlike some other monastic experiences, I really felt a sense of great love and hospitality, openness, diversity and inclusivity, a real radical acceptance of other people and a simple sense of camaraderie that happens during time living, praying, sharing and eating together, with none of the distractions of modern life. I felt a real sense of beloved community among the pilgrims. Even if temporary, it still felt intoxicating. Some of the more experienced brothers and permanents say this feeling wears off after a honeymoon period of about a month, but it’s powerful nonetheless.
Other than just providing me with a deep regrounding in my self and my own contemplative spiritual practices, Taizé gave me a taste that another world is possible, or rather, as the Zapatistas once said, a world in which many worlds are possible. It’s not that Taizé is the one solution, but it is one of the solutions. We need a thousand new models of reciprocity, hospitality, and beloved community.
Some of the most amazing places to find these new alternatives are in indigenous communities that have been able to survive the onslaught of dominant culture, which my brother and work partner Carlos Saavedra is constantly cataloging at the Ayni Institute. My work at the Ayni Institute as a lead trainer and curriculum developer, as well as my work at the Center for the Working Poor, has included the creation of a training around what we call “movement ecology.” To create the change we need in this world, against climate change, inequality and racism, we need an ecology that includes many approaches working harmoniously together, and one of the biggest missing pieces is that we need bigger and more elaborate alternatives. Taizé, to me, is one perfect example that we have to look to the ancient past as well as the future to create new and accessible alternative ways of life. The beautiful thing about Taizé is that it proves that there is a deep yearning among so many of us for this new way of life. And this has to be part of the ecology of groups, organizations and social movements that seek to create change.
This has always been the vision of the Center for the Working Poor. How do we build a beloved community, even if it’s just a few of us, living in an old Victorian house in Echo Park? But it’s more than just us—how do we create trainings like the Momentum training or the trainings we do at Ayni Institute on movement ecology, and how do we build new small communities around Christian contemplation—these efforts might seem very different and contradictory, but to us, they’re part of a whole, an ecology. If you believe in this vision, in our work, we appreciate your support and donations. Thank you.
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