Down through the ages monastic movements, from the Benedictines to the Jesuits, have drafted or adopted monastic rules. These rules guide community life, from worship to work, and they’re essential to the harmony of community life. As I understand it, looking from outside, to live in community can be a blessing, but it can also be a challenge. To live in community requires one to relinquish a great deal of individuality for the common good of the community. This is often expressed in commitments to share one’s goods with the community, and live in obedience to the prior or prioress.
Monastic rules provide guidance to a community, but they also help inquirers know what is expected of them before entering the community. Since most monastic communities involve vows of chastity (celibacy) and poverty (community of goods), such rules resolve many possible rifts before they ever occur.
The Taizé Community of France has its own rule, drawn up by its founding prior, Brother Roger Schutz. This community is similar too, but different from traditional monastic orders, in that it is ecumenical in nature. That is, its brothers are drawn from both Catholic and Protestant Confessions. There is, therefore, no denominational oversight, making it an independent venture in spirituality. Perhaps that is why it has been so influential since its founding in 1940, just as World War II began. From 1940 until he was shot to death in 2005 at the age of 90, the community had only one leader, its founder. Brother Roger was the son of a Lutheran pastor who studied theology at the University of Lausanne, during which time he became interested in Catholic spiritual writings, and decided that the cause of Christian unity needed a monastic center to bear witness to the task. He chose to move to France rather than enjoy safety of Switzerland, and there he found a house, and over time gathered together a community. Today there are some 100 brothers living in community at Taizé, together with the thousands that visit every year to share in the life of this community.
The task of bringing reconciliation to the Christian community has been expressed in a variety of ways. Consider that most modern hymnals have Taizé songs, which are usually contemplative in nature. Many churches, Protestant and Catholic, have regular Taizé services utilizing the music and styles of worship present at the community. And, many people, especially clergy, make pilgrimage to this site to enhance their own spirituality. The fact that youth and young adults began to make their own pilgrimages to the community in the 1960s also contributes to this cause.
In this brief book, The Rule of Taizé, we have in both French and English the monastic rule written by Brother Roger to be used by this community. This rule was written for the community in the winter of 1952-1953. It was republished, with minor modifications that Brother Roger had wanted to make, after his death in 2005. The preface to this edition is in English, but the remainder of the book is comprised of the rule printed with French and English versions on facing pages. Since I don’t read French, I stayed with the English version.
In the introduction, after admonishing those who might think that a rule such is this might be burdensome, we’re told:
This rule contains the minimum necessary for a community to grow up on Christ and devote itself to a common service of God. The resolve to set down only the essentials involves a risk: your freedom could become a pretext for living according to your own impulses. (p. 5).
As one might expect the rule gives directives for times of prayer, meals, celibacy, community of goods, and obedience to the prior. It speaks to aspects of spiritual life including joy, simplicity, and mercy. It offers guidance as to how one should receive a visitor. It focuses on the essential items, leaving much room for variance and experimentation.
As a nonmonastic person, this rule doesn’t appear to be overbearing. Words of wisdom are offered in the conclusion, reminding the reader that the rule is not an end in itself, but simply a means to an end. To so see it as such, would lead to a dispensing with the search “to discover more of God’s plan, the love of Christ, the light of the Holy Spirit,” making the rule a useless burden, so that “it would be better never to have written it” (pp. 107-109).
The question that can be and should be raised concerns the role of the Prior. I’m not overly familiar with this community, but Brother Roger did develop quite a reputation as a spiritual leader. He was its only prior for nearly seven decades. As I read somewhere a cult of personality developed around him. Because this was an independent venture, there was even less oversight from outside. I expect that some concerns were mitigated, but as we think about how the community formed itself, we should at least ask the question of accountability. With regard to the prior, the Rule states:
Without unity, there is no hope for a bold and total service of Jesus Christ. Individualism disintegrates the community and brings it to a halt.
The prior fosters unity within the community.
In matters of practical detail he points the way, but in all questions of importance he listens to the brothers before making a decision. (pp. 85-87).
The prior is the unifying factor, though the community is consulted before major decisions are made.
The value of this little book depends on the interests of the reader. For some, reading this book will give insight into the ministry of the Taizé Community. What is it like? What is its agenda? For others, this book could provide guidance for creating a close knit spiritual community – with appropriate modification (if couples join in community, as is common practice, then the rule of celibacy needs to be looked at but modified in an appropriate way). It could also serve as a guide to spiritual life, lifting up that which is important and helping alleviate areas that detract from the life of faith. Since it is written ecumenically it can have a broader use within the Christian community at large. And it is a brief and very fast read.