Remembering our Limits: The Ritual of Taizé as a Gesture of Humanity
In the ecumenical monastery of Taizé in France, the resurrection of Christ is celebrated each weekend. The prayers at Saturday evenings are extra special. Everyone receives a candle when entering the church. Half-way into the prayer a special song is chanted and children at the centre of the church begin to light their candles. Then they start spreading the flame to the people around them, encouraging others to do the same, and in that way hoping to kindle all the candles in the church.
As I see it, everyone is given three essential tasks in order to make the ritual possible. First of all it is to light one’s own candle by receiving the flame from another person. Secondly it is to pass on the flame to the people around oneself, and thirdly it is to make sure that one’s own candle keeps burning. These tasks symbolizes what I at a deep level understand to be among the most important for human beings. I want to mention especially three aspects.
First of all this action says something about the importance of feeling good about one self. To love the other as myself, as the commandment says, means that I also have to love myself, not just the other. The candle reminds me that I cannot share the light with others if I do not have it myself.
Secondly, it illustrates the dependence on others in order for the flame to survive. (Since the candles in Taizé are often of bad quality, helping each other is essential in order to keep the flame alive.) It’s a reminder of that the kingdom of God is within us and in that way also between us; in the good relations in the world. Our light is kindled by loving interaction in each other’s lives, not as distant islands.
The third aspect, and the one I’d like to dwell on here, is that this ritual tells me something about some natural limits that are part of the human condition. From the Greek myth about Prometheus, one of the many lessons that can be drawn is that humans can only gaze within the limits of the torch stolen from Hephaestus. Both physically and mentally we are limited by this flame in a world of darkness. The human can only understand a fraction of all there is to know and is therefore, as a consequence and necessity of existing, forced to be ignorant about most of the world. The further away something is from him, the less of its complexity and wholeness he can perceive. Our hope lies in focusing our thought and effort on that which lies within the reach of our flame.
By focusing on what is close we can hope to be able to choose the most appropriate way of action in order to pursue what is right to do in a particular situation, as is also the case Saturday evenings in Taizé. It might be tempting to extend our tasks and try to do more than just receiving, passing on and keeping our flame. Maybe by running around in the church and lighting as many candles as possible, or even trying to find the switch that could replace the flames with electricity. But as we should know too well by now; for hubris there is only nemesis, and for exaggerated institutionalizing there is only sterilized heartlessness. If we look at Jesus, he did not try to help all the people in the world at the same time. He tried, rather, to be a light on the path that he walked and in the meeting of the people he came across. I believe nothing more can be asked of others. And surely, if everyone puts all their effort into it, there’s no more effective way of getting all the candles lit. Within a few minutes thousands of flames in the church of Taizé shine — all in their unique, humble, and encouraging way.
The ritual in Taizé is of course a symbolic and idealized one. There have been and will always be things that make it very challenging to receive, sustain and spread goodness in daily life. Still it is of central importance, and such a ritual can be an effective and good way of communicating it. In today’s globalized world I think for example the lesson of limits thought by Prometheus is more important to remember than perhaps ever before. Because when we are told that everything is close, I believe everything is at a certain distance. All is within sight, but nothing within reach.
Most people througout history have lived in some kind of local community. Such communities bind people in two ways. Firstly it binds them to each other and secondly it binds people to nature. Traditionally these bonds have been tight, in such a way that one could physically encounter the people and the nature one was tied to. The tendency in the industrialized society with the weakening and loss of local communities necessarily implies a change in these relations. Without a strong community life people cease to depend on each other and on the local soil. Instead, people become dependent on needs-satisfaction from the state and the market that claims not only to take over but even to exceed what was previously provided by the community. This is a turn from the personal, close and concrete, to the impersonal, distant and abstract. It is in indeed like Ivan Illich has pointed out a turn from hope to expectations. From the hope that the field outside the window will once more blossom and give food to the table to the expectation that the local grocery will always provide enough food. From the hope that friends will be around and help when one gets sick, to the expectation that doctors will always carry out the ‘necessary’ treatment. I see this as a tendency to a way of living where people put less thought and effort into what actually lies within the range of their possible room of action. It is a turn from what is possible to sense in much of its complexity, to what one must necessarily remain mostly ignorant.
As mentioned, I can see few tasks in life more elementary and important but still difficult than the one indicated by Saturday evenings in Taizé. In order to be able to conduct it, it seems to me crucial to reduce the impersonal dependence on state and market. Rather I believe we should (re)turn to a more personal dependency on the people we dwell with and the soil we dwell on. It is in these direct and personal relations that joys can be shared and difficulties can be confronted.(Frustration in the face of state and market-affairs often result from so-called system failures, which means that there is no-one to confront for what one suffers since it’s the logic of the system and not a person that causes the problems.) This implies that we must be able to see concrete people as something very different and more important than the abstract humanity, in the same way as the concrete soil and the general planet earth must be separated. We must remember our limitedness as human beings and distinguish between what we can sense, touch, love and sustain our flame out of from what we cannot. For these and other reasons, it seems to me that to reestablish strong local communities is the best prescription for regaining contact with each other, with nature and ourselves and thereby doing our humble practice of spreading more light.