"And these words that I command you today, shall be in your heart, and you shall teach them diligently to your children and you shall speak of them while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way,when you arise and when you retire". "Teach the youth according to his way, even when he grows old, he will not swerve from it". Deuteronomy 6:6-7, Proverbs 22:6
I had the greatest pleasure in spending a few hours in wonderful company during the "A Taste Of Taizé" workshop organised by the Unitarian Christian Association, at Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel Hampstead, this past Saturday. There was plenty for us to learn about regarding the ecumenical community of Taizé, their ethos and their particular form of worship. For me one of the most interesting aspects of this unique community is its great popularity with the young. In particular what surprised me the most was that despite what one might assume, the incredible simplicity of Taizé was not an obstacle to the inspiration of the young but actually seems to be the prime draw. Clearly gimmicks and patronising attempts to be "cool" are not necessary.
Modern day Unitarian congregations seem in some regards, to find it difficult to attract young people. This is also the same in many other denominations who's congregations also lack many young adults. Often it is just assumed that children and teenagers are not particularly interested in all things religious and would rather spend time with their friends (or tucked up warm in bed) than sitting in a draughty chapel on a Sunday morning. Taizé disproves this, as does the presence of many enthusiastic and pious youngsters in evangelical congregations and in many a mosque or orthodox Jewish synagogue. Young people can "do" religion and often with a great deal more honestly than adults.
For me the idea that youngsters can love religion and spirituality does not come as any surprise. Firstly and importantly young adults are often idealists and visionary in their outlooks. They yearn to make a mark on the world and improve it where possible. Christianity (and other faiths) are also strongly motivated by a profound vision and desire to improve the world we all live in. Teenagers are also searching for fellowship and while they yearn to be individuals, they also need to share membership with something larger than themselves. Religion also creates fellowships and communities often based on deeply worthwhile foundations. Adolescents are also searching to define themselves, to find their purpose and role in the world. For the first time they begin to see themselves as separate from their parents and strive to create a distinctive identity. Religion speaks to our notions of purpose, it guides us in knowing who we are, and how we as individuals, fit into the broad tapestry that is God's creation.
So if religion speaks so eloquently to the soul of youngsters why are so many religious institutions devoid of the young? Why do so many young people turn their back on all sorts of faith and embrace often harmful faith substitutes? And why does Taizé succeed where so many others fail?
The most obvious answer to the success of Taizé has to be peer group reinforcement. This small French community is very much focused on the young. In the main large groups of young people from many countries are its main pilgrims. They spend several days together, either camping together or dwelling in very basic accommodation which in itself is great fun, far from parents and family. From the time they wake up, to the time they lay down to sleep, they are in the company of their age group and everything they experience is experienced together with people who understand them implicitly. Surely we can all remember when we were that age, and the importance that our friends played in our lives. Very often a group of friends have almost as much, if not more, importance to a young person than their actual family. This is also visible in a sadly negative way, in the phenomena of gangs. I believe that this is because at a time when a person is attempting to define him or herself, a degree of separation from family, which has solely defined one until this time, is natural and yet humans are social beings and we are at our happiest in the company of others, so the surrogacy of a family of friends is always needed. If a religious congregation has few young adults then the likelihood of other youngsters wishing to take part becomes less and less. I would suggest that Unitarian congregations actively work at creating projects specifically for young adults, spaces in which Unitarian youth can learn, pray and celebrate together.
In Taizé everyone is expected to roll up their sleeves and help in the day-to-day running of the village. From washing floors to helping cook and serve the food, all have their part to play. The stereotype of lazy teenagers who would rather languish in bed for days on end is only partly true. The majority are itching to be active, and so many are hugely active in those areas in which they are interested. Indolence rarely makes anyone happy not even the young. Working with one's peers as they do in Taizé satisfies youngsters' need to be active, and gives them a sense of purpose, a part to play. It is always heartening to see the genuine joy that volunteering never fails to engender in young people, and communities that foster this attitude are doing well by their youth. Religious Jewish youth are frequently involved in volunteering for projects designed to assist the poor or infirm. They visit hospitals and nursing homes, they create raffles and Chinese auctions to raise money for good causes and their connection to their faith is deepened as a result. I think it is axiomatic that a faith lived in practice engraves itself on the heart and not faith that lives only in the mind or only on the lips. As the brother of our master is said to have taught:
" Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead" James 2:17
In every town and city of our country there are many poor and lonely people. Unitarian congregations and parents should encourage and assist their teens to engage in projects to help and bring happiness where it is lacking. They may not jump at the chance if they have never experienced it, but once they are involved, their hearts will be captured by the joy of feeling God's presence in the act of helping another, and not only that but it will deepen their empathy for others and boost their confidence. The great Unitarian philanthropists and worthies of the past should be made known to our young, to serve as role models. And the example of Jesus should also serve as inspiration. This concept is beautifully expressed in the words of one of William G Tarrant's hymns:
My master was a helper,
The woes of life he knew,
And he who would be like him
Must be a helper, too.
The burden will grow lighter,
If each will take a share,
And where there is a helper,
The master’s man is there.
At the centre of the Taizé experience is a simple, yet heartfelt faith. The services observed 3 times a day starting at 8:30 (who said teenagers can't get up early!) are based around a short bible reading and many chants. The chants are most often centred on one sentence from psalms, that are sung over and over again. This repetitive nature, is quite hypnotic and very moving, and gives you a great opportunity to focus deeply on the words you are singing. The community is not focused on complex theological discussions or on sectarian controversy. Instead people are united by an amazingly peaceful devotion to the Almighty. The subdued lighting and the use of many candles help to maximise the aura of peace that floods though the church. Young men and women share the same need as many adults, to cleave to God and to express praises and devotion to their Father in heaven, perhaps even more so, as they have yet to have their eyes and minds closed and jaded to the majestic and magical in life. We are informed that our teacher Jesus of Nazareth was himself passionately involved with his faith as a young boy of 12 years, and even left his parents side to go and sit at the feet of God's teachers in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem:
"Why did you seek me? (He asked his parents.) Did you not know that I must be about my Father's business?" Luke 2:49
Religious communities do not as Taizé demonstrates, have to shy away from faith, from God or from scripture, to be appealing to youngsters. All that is required is honesty and the ability to demonstrate how faith is relevant to everyday life. And let no one think that a lack of sermons and fiery preaching is evidence of a lacklustre commitment to faith. Rev Jeffrey Gould explained to me that when Brother Roger, the founder of Taizé, was stabbed to death during a service by a mentally ill woman, the other brothers were determined to finish the service, and first thing the next morning they continued creating that otherworldly atmosphere of peace always evident with their worship, in the midst of such a huge tragedy.
Teaching is best done by example. One can preach to one's children day in and day out, but it will be almost worthless if your example fails to live up to your exalted words. One can give endless sermons about the value of charity, but if you cross the street to avoid walking near a beggar, do not expect your children to exalt in charitable giving. Parents and other adults in children's lives, who shine with a love of God, are likely to pass that love onto their children. As the opening verse of this post makes clear, only when the words of heaven are in your heart can you even think of transmitting them to anyone else. Unitarians, who put such a heavy importance on the centrality of personal conscience and individuality, often fail to transmit their faith to their children. They feel as if they must let their children discover for themselves what to believe. I feel this is an error, that eventually will lead to the almost total destruction of our community. There is nothing wrong in teaching your children what you believe to be true, what you regard as central to your life. To involve your children in the joy of fellowship and worship is not to diminish their freedom of thought. Because while you transmit the heritage of your faith to them, you can make it clear that your love and regard towards them is not predicated on their beliefs and that should they, in conscience, feel that they can not subscribe to your beliefs, your relationship with them would not be damaged. The community in Taizé places a great emphasis on discussion. The brothers discuss many issues of religion with the youngsters and then they themselves divide up into smaller groups and continue the discussions amoungst themselves. I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that adolescents in general very much dislike being told what do do. Their growing independence does not sit comfortably with commands from authority, but this does not mean that they are not willing to learn. And in my view, it dramatically helps if those who are teaching demonstrate that they too are willing to learn. As the sages of Israel taught; students "increase the wisdom of their teachers" Pirkei Avos.
Our society here in Britain lets young people down. I agree wholeheartedly with the views of Katharine Birbalsingh on our education system, specifically her understanding that there is a climate of low expectations. I myself have seen this during my work in a University. Acts of petty violence and debauchery are dismissed because apparently "they are only kids" as if it is acceptable and predetermined that young adults must act that way.The same attitude can also be seen in the almost dogmatically held belief that young people WILL experiment with drugs and sex. All of us, young or old, should be aware that we can do better and not constantly be told otherwise. Young adults crave independence, by taking away their responsibility we take away their independence and make them more and more likely to become slaves to peer pressure.
Encapsulating everything in Taizé is love. A genuine and expressed love for all people. This acceptance and regard is perhaps one of the biggest attractions for the young. Brother Roger himself radiated this love which was rooted in the love of God, as he wrote:
"If you knew that God always comes to you…What matters most is discovering that God loves you, even if you think that you do not love God."
I am very grateful for the small taste of Taizé that I was privileged to experience and hope that I can continue to learn and be inspired by their message and their example. This small little community founded as an act of loving kindness towards Jews and others fleeing Nazi persecution, has grown into a fountain of love and light.
"For a good tree does not produce bad fruit, nor does a bad tree produce good fruit. For every tree is known by its own fruit. For men do not gather figs from thorns, nor do they gather grapes from a bramble bush. A good man out of the great treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man brings forth evil for out of the abundance of the heart, his mouth speaks" Luke 6:43-45
Brother Roger certainly has produced many good fruits, and his work continues despite his death. Clearly by Jesus' own definition this man was good, and we can all afford to learn from him how to serve God and care for our fellow man.