Owing to a looming deadline for Sheldon’s tour-guiding studies, today’s entry is written by Ian Brentnall. Ian is a Choirmaster and Organist who has over thirty years experience of working with choirs and choral societies. He very kindly offered to write an entry detailing a recent visit he made to France where the legacy of a Christian man is all around where he was finally laid to rest.
Sheldon and I share a common interest: we are both singers. I have recently returned from an enormously enjoyable tour with The Combe Bank Choral Society, based in Sundridge near Sevenoaks in Kent, singing our way around some of the Cathedrals and Churches of Burgundy, not to mention several diversions to the local vineyards and cellars where the Pinot Noir grape is king and time is measured in vintages rather than months and years.
One of our excursions took us to Taizé, originally a tiny remote village in the Saône-et-Loire region of Burgundy, which now plays host to an ecumenical monastic order comprising about 100 monks. Periodically several thousand predominantly young folk descend on the place, take up residence by camping out in the fields surrounding the village and seek heightened religious awareness through a simple routine of prayer, contemplation, worship and organised activities. One such activity appeared to be the reason for our visit, namely to sing Gabriel Fauré’s beautiful Requiem in the vast Chapel of Reconciliation at the heart of the Taizé community in front of as many visitors as may wish to attend.
The name Taizé may be well known to readers who have a church background, as the contemplative style of worship and particularly the collection of chants written for the community by Jacques Berthier, Joseph Gelineau and many others have been used in churches throughout the land.
The community was founded in 1940 by a young Roger Louis Schutz-Marsauche, a protestant monk known simply as Brother Roger. He bought up empty properties in the village of Taizé and, together with a small band of fellow brothers, held his acts of worship and devotion in the tiny village chapel. Eventually the number of visitors simply outgrew the space available and the new Chapel was built on a site adjoining the village.
On an ordinary day in August 2005, some 2,500 young people gathered for morning prayer in the chapel. A deeply disturbed 36-year-old Romanian woman stepped out from among the worshippers and stabbed the 90-year-old Brother Roger with a knife she had bought earlier that day: he died shortly afterwards. My friends Helen and Paul who organised our tour had in fact visited on the afternoon of the murder, totally unaware of what had occurred in the morning. They told me they were struck by the prayerful silence of all who had gathered in the chapel in a state of shock, mourning the loss of a beloved man and much loved figurehead.
We took the opportunity to visit the old chapel, a tiny place nestling among the beautiful old houses of the old village. Its peace and stillness sat in stark contrast to the youthful bustle and noise of the main site. The old church on the other hand felt like a place that was outside of time. It is almost totally dark inside, tiny stained glass windows, simple benches for pews. Just outside the west door in the modest and crowded little cemetery surrounding the church, I found Brother Roger’s grave site.
A simple plain wooden cross bore his name and instead of some impressive example of the elaborate architectural monuments so beloved of many, a vibrant little garden of brightly coloured flowers marked where a godly man takes his final rest.
As I walked back to the new site with its vast and remarkable chapel and hoards of young at the beginning of life’s journey, that simple grave we had just visited represented to me the only memorial to be found for Brother Roger. But as the afternoon wore on it dawned on me that I was of course walking amongst his living memorial: the community he founded perpetuated by the permanent community of monks as well as the 100,000 visitors who make their way to Burgundy each year, to take up Brother Roger’s invitation and a little encouragement along the pilgrimage of life.