I feel the need to pause from this account of our travels and stand beside the people of France, and indeed all the places of the world, where acts of violence have taken lives and broken hearts in the last few days.
This is a sorrowful place to be at the moment. People are going about their daily lives but there is sadness in the air, broken only by the sounds of children playing, too young yet to understand.
In the middle of a huge supermarket yesterday morning, a call came over the system to stop for two minutes silence. All around us people stopped, holding whatever had been in their hands when the call came, cabbages, cheese, milk … and we stood together in an eerie silence where time seemed to stand still.
Later last night we paid a visit to our favourite place of pilgrimage. Taizé, the community on a hill in Burgundy, that is home to around 100 brothers of different denominations. I have been visiting Taizé for nearly 30 years, Shirley for 10. It remains my place of inspiration and comfort despite the fact that I have more or less given up on organised religion. Last night, sitting in the Church there for an hour before the prayers began, I tried to work out what it is about the place that continues to draw us back. Taizé is a place of welcome, a Christian community that crosses all denominational barriers. It is a place where there are no demands to adhere to any particular doctrine or belief system. You are simply invited to receive … and not to try too hard. It is a magnet for young people from all over the world as well as many older ones like us. In the summer they get around 5000 visitors each week who stay for the whole week, live in the most simple way, eat basic meals that are provided by the community and go to the church three times a day for prayers that consist mostly of singing chants and silence. There is something almost Buddhist about it, as more often than not you are singing in a language that is not your own and so your natural tendency to think about the words is disabled. You just go with the flow.
If you believe in coincidence, then for us to be in the region last night, of all nights, is quite a big one. I’m not sure I do believe in coincidence … sometimes we are just in the right place at the right time for us.
Even before the brothers came into the church, all in their white robes, I knew that the Taizé response to the attacks in Paris would be a simple act of solidarity with all who suffer. I knew that because that’s what they always do there. Even when their Prior, Brother Roger, was murdered there during a service ten years ago their response was typical of them. The first prayer at his funeral was for the disturbed young woman who had stabbed him. Then they acknowledged their own pain and asked that the many thousands of pilgrims who had come to the funeral stand with them as they mourned the loss of a brother.
Very few words are spoken in Taizé during the prayers. The emphasis is more on contemplation and singing but Brother Alois, the Prior, always speaks briefly about the concerns of the community. Last night he prayed for the people of Paris and France but went on to all the other places in the world where violence has devastated lives this week. There was no emphasis on Paris; he did not for one moment suggest that the pain of France was any worse than anywhere else. He spoke of the pain of the world. The invitation to pray to people of all beliefs was simple – to stand with those who suffer and to seek for peace. Nothing more. Anything else would have been too much. That is what Taizé does so well and it is why I love it so much.
We stayed overnight in their carpark and left early this morning when peace and silence hung over the little hill.