A Pilgrimage of Renewal

Pilgrimage France

By Anna Burnham
Student Program Coordinator
The Memorial Church of Harvard University

Anna Burnham Appleton ChapelIn 1945, a group of young men came together in a tiny village in Burgundy in the east of France and decided to take vows and live together in a community of faith. Though the first brothers were all Protestants, the community grew to include Catholic brothers and became something unique: an ecumenical Christian monastic community. Over time, the brothers there found that young people kept showing up, just to be close to the work and the way of life, to spend a week or two (or more) in a faith-filled and spiritually nourishing place. Eventually, hosting these young people from around the world every week became one of Taizé’s primary vocations.

For a week this May and June, 18 students and three staff leaders (including myself) travelled to Taizé, just a few in that long line of pilgrims to the hilltop community nestled amidst the green and amber fields of rural France. The trip was a partnership between Memorial Church and the Harvard Episcopal Chaplaincy and included both undergraduates and graduate students from across the university.

Taizé is not what one pictures when they hear the word “monastery.” Taizé feels modern: there are no soaring spires on its large, simple church. The buildings are low and spread out, and much of the space is covered simply with large, permanent tents. There is a lot of walking from place-to-place, much time spent outside, and visitors sleep in dorm-like rooms with six bunks each.

French Pilgrimage studentsThe days there are simple and structured in a way that many of us on the trip found odd at first, but ultimately fulfilling—so much of the anxiety of daily choice in modern Western society simply seemed removed. You wake up and attend Morning Prayer, then have breakfast, then go to Bible Study with people from around the world. Mid-day prayer follows, then your work assignment for the day, then perhaps some free time spent walking through and around the village, maybe, or napping, or reading, or talking with other. Dinner is next, then evening prayer, and then an unofficial nightly gathering at Oyak, the community’s small general store, and then you go to bed and do it again, every day for the whole week.Taizé is a singular place, and arriving there can be strange, disorienting. Expectation meets reality, and one wonders what exactly it is that you do there. But then throughout the week, the rhythm of the place sinks in, and it emerges that the question of what one does is less important than how one is, to whom one speaks, whom you might meet and from whom you might learn. Because, suddenly, there you are—learning German greetings and numbers from volunteers as you work in the general store, or fumbling between Dutch and English in Bible Study, or simply contemplating the sound of the birds (they are so loud there).

It feels, really, like living in a small village—the way your work role directly contributes to the community, the way people flow in and out of your day. It’s something increasingly rare, I think—to be in place and be noticed; to notice others, to have that sense of a small, thriving community. A few years after his 1984 visit to Taizé, Pope John Paul II compared Taizé to a spring from which a traveler quenches his thirst and moves on, refreshed. He also called it “that little springtime”. “Spring” can mean so many things: hope, rebirth, refreshment, reorientation. For the students and leaders on the trip, I think it meant all that and more.