Built 1,100 years ago, Cluny Abbey was razed in the French Revolution, but six miles away a center of faith is thriving. It’s called Taizé
By UWE SIEMON-NETTO
(From the September 09 issue of The German Times and The Asia-Pacific Times)
This month, festivities will commence commemorating the birth of Cluny Abbey eleven centuries ago. In medieval times, Cluny was the monastic capital of Western Europe. The abbey spawned 1,200 priories and other dependencies with 15,000-20,000 monks. It became a cradle of Western civilization but degenerated in the Renaissance and was destroyed in the late 18th century. Now a new spiritual center of global significance is blossoming nearby – the ecumenical community of Taizé.
Marie-Angély Rebillard is a sprightly 87-year old with links to the Christian splendor of Cluny’s past and to the robust spirituality of present-day Taizé, a neighboring village that is home to a burgeoning ecumenical community. Her family gave Cluny Abbey its last prior and also its last physician, plus many of the town’s notables. But she was also a close friend of Frère (Brother) Roger Schutz, the Swiss Reformed pastor (1915-2005) who founded Taizé, which now hosts 4,000 pilgrims a day, especially young people.
Rebillard was a young social worker when Schutz rode his bicycle from Switzerland to southern Burgundy, and proceeded to smuggle Jews out of German-occupied France into the part of the country that was ruled by the Vichy government. She also knew Mathilde de Brie, the owner of the manor house that served Schutz and his wards as a refuge and has since become the center of his international order of 100 Protestant and Catholic monks of whom 70 between the ages of 21 and 92 now live in Taizé.
In an interview, Rebillard said, “Mathilde de Brie, related an amazing story to me. In 1926, long before World War II, a Benedictine nun informed her of a vision: ‘I saw men in white robes on your property, and their prior was called Roger.’” Sixty years on Pope John Paul II visited Frère Roger and his white-clad monks in Taizé and exclaimed: “Coming here is like passing a spring.”
Taizé is only a 10-minute drive from Cluny, whose mayor, Jean-Luc Delpeuch, is an engineer. When I met Delpeuch in his 16th-century city hall he declared that his town of 5,000 inhabitants will become “the spiritual capital of Europe” as of Sept. 13 when the anniversary festivities begin. Historians differ on whether Duke William I of Aquitaine founded the abbey in 909 or 910 A.D. ; hence yearlong celebrations make all the more sense. Delpeuch stressed the need for spiritual centers and therefore particularly praised Taizé whose current prior, Frère Alois, a German Catholic, he had befriended years ago. Alois has led Taizé since a demented Romanian woman killed 90-year old Roger Schutz by cutting his throat during a prayer service in 2005.
Beyond the geographical proximity, there are remarkable parallels between Cluny and Taizé, according to New York-born Frère Jean Marie. “We share Cluny’s sense of beauty and its emphasis on liturgy as a means of communicating and feeding faith.” Cluny and its daughter priories, sometimes called “little Clunys,” were renowned for the magnificence of their divine service. Taizé has produced a wealth of songs and chants that became part of the hymnals of many denominations; Frère Jean-Marie is one of its hymn writers. Like the monks of Cluny, the brothers of Taizé follow a rule “close in spirit” to the Benedictine rule, “ora et labora” (pray and work), he explained. It was formulated by Roger Schutz.
Moreover, like Cluny, Taizé is international. Cluny’s influence spread as far as Poland in the East and England in the West, and its priors met once a year in Aachen, now Germany, with their abbot. In other words, Cluny was a pan-European enterprise. In the same way, “Europe was very much Frère Roger Schutz’s concern,” Jean-Marie explained. This seemed only logical given that Schutz had witnessed the horrors of the Old Continent’s second fratricidal war in the 20th century.
Today a pervasive European spirit marks Taizé. “In some weeks, two-thirds of our visitors are young Germans, at other times they are mainly French,” said Jean-Marie. In the last few years, groups have been pouring in from Scandinavia. Other pilgrims come from Russia, Eastern Europe, Africa, Asian, North and South America. Moreover, Taizé brothers live in self-chosen poverty in small fraternities on other continents where they earn their living in the secular community.
Taizé’s lifestyle is humble; Cluny’s was not. The Abbey and its affiliated priories were enormously rich; their monks lived well; in the Middle Ages they were renowned for their opulent cuisine. In a book about gluttony in medieval convents, the American writer Norman Foster reports a mind-boggling discovery by modern nutritionists. Studying Cluny’s daily menus they concluded that during an average meal 12th-century Cluny friars consumed 10,000 calories, which resulted in frequent and lengthy hospitalizations; the Abbey’s hospital ranked among the largest and most comfortable in Europe.
By contrast, the Taizé brothers live modestly. A little wine with their meals is about the extent of their “luxury.” While Cluny’s commendatory abbots, who often were aristocratic laymen appointed by the kings of France, resided in sumptuous and nicely heated palaces, Roger Schutz inhabited unembellished quarters now occupied by Alois, his successor.
For virtually her entire adult life, Marie-Angély Rebillard has lived in the extraordinary spiritual tension field connecting Cluny and Taizé. Since her childhood she knew Cluny’s ruins, which are “as majestic as the ruins of ancient Rome,” in the words of the Abbey’s administrator Jean-Denis Salvèque. They are testimony to an act of unspeakable barbarism committed in the aftermath of the French Revolution – the destruction of 90 percent of this “preeminent accomplishment in all of architectural history,” according to the brilliant U.S. scholar Kenneth John Conant (1894-1984). It was Conant who in the 1920s started the first major excavation of Cluny financed by the Medieval Academy of America.
There is still a poster on exhibit advertising tiles and cut stones, doors and fireplaces from the abbey church, which until the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome had been the largest sanctuary in western Christendom, and which between 1798 and 1823 was reduced to a common quarry. In Napoleon’s reign, it supplied the building materials for the construction of the “Haras National,” the national horse breeding station.
Rebillard spoke of an eerie detail she remembered from her childhood. “I recall that preserving jars in the Cluny area were sealed with a parchment bearing ancient texts in Latin and French.” They hailed from the Abbey’s archives, which were ransacked by revolutionary mobs. In the Middle Ages Cluny’s scriptorium was considered the finest in the world. It copied the most magnificent theological and ancient philosophical texts; it was also in Cluny where a group of five scholars produced the first Latin translation of the Koran.
The Abbey’s superb library and archives were ravaged first in the religious wars between Protestant and Catholic forces in the late 16th century and then devastated by a fanatical rabble in the late 18th. As a ghastly consequence, Cluny was littered with invaluable manuscripts well into the current era. “When I restored my 13th-century house, I found a huge crack by the fireplace filled with ancient parchment manuscripts,” said Jean-Luc Maréchal, a retired engraver and local amateur historian.
If such testimony to the wanton destruction of an apex of Christian civilization has been a reality in Marie-Angély Rebillard’s life, so has been the manifest renewal she witnessed in Taizé. Roger Schutz counted the need for Christian unity as a foremost priority. “The will to unity is often lacking,” lamented Brother Alois, the current prior. “But living together, praying together, singing the Gospels together bridges our national and confessional differences.” Among Taizé’s friars are four Roman Catholic priests and two practicing Protestant pastors; the rest are laymen.
In an interview, Alois stressed the ever-growing stream of youthful pilgrims; he described the young people’s “quest for silence and simplicity, and their yearning for deep values. They are looking for a the opposite of the superficiality in their own lives.” And he marveled about their ability “to spend long hours on their knees in prayer.”
In contrast to the commonly-held stereotype that Europe and especially its northern parts have become hopelessly secularized, Alois reported an astonishing observation: “For the last 10 years we have been observing a steady increase of visitors from Sweden, in addition to the constantly growing number of young Germans; they include more and more young people from eastern Germany, who often lack any knowledge of the Christian faith. Yet they are unbiased. They are seekers. Only years later we might hear of individuals who have become Christians as a consequence of their visit to Taizé.”
Route D981 links Cluny and Taizé. Young people constantly hitchhike back and forth along this road connecting two eras of Europe’s spiritual capital. In an age not noted for its fervor for history, they commute the short distance between feudal splendor, revolutionary devastation and renewal -- a distance of six miles and 1,100 years.