Nearer, my God, to thee?

Click to follow
The Independent Travel
With my Berlitz phrasebook in my hand, I felt practically fluent: "Ici la autobus vers Taiz, Monsieur?" The driver of the SNCF coach to Chalon-sur-Saone looked down, bemused. "Oui," he shrugged. I sprang up the steps and snagged my rucksack on a handrail.

I was on my way to Taiz in search of spiritual refreshment. In 1940, Roger Louis Schutz-Marsauche, a French-Swiss monk, arrived in this village in the heart of rural Burgundy and proceeded to shelter Jews and political refugees from the Nazis. Now the monastic fraternity he had founded, known as the Taiz Community, receives 2,000 to 6,000 visitors every week throughout the summer months.

The brothers have undertaken the monastic vows of commitment to a common life, prayer, celibacy and community of goods - fortunately not a prerequisite for the casual visitor - and meet three times a day for prayer in the Church of Reconciliation, the focus of daily worship. They generate their own income, and meet the cost of receiving so many guests through the sale of pottery, ceramics, simple jewellery, icons, candles and books, which they produce and sell in a small on-site store - which, to their credit, is a kitsch-free zone.

Visitors to Taiz are expected to join in the daily rhythm of life, which is loosely structured around the morning, midday and evening calls to prayer. The rest of the day is taken up with work, meals , meditations on the Bible (led by a brother), and discussion groups.

Work at Taiz is seen as each individual's contribution to the life of the community and lasts about two hours a day. Beware, however, of washing-up duties with the French girl guides. (The water fights erupt continuously like geysers.) Thankfully, I folded hundreds of blankets with Gregory, a French schoolboy, and Dareg, a Russian nuclear physicist. On other days I built frames to house tent-poles with Dominic, an accidents and emergencies doctor from Newcastle who, like me, had come without his partner. Many people come alone to Taiz, and it would be difficult not to make new friends there.

The discussion sessions are organised on a language basis. English speakers, the fluent and the flustered, form small groups of about eight or nine people.These I found were open, warm and frank. An American artist, a Russian window-frame fitter, an Australian aboriginal-rights activist; everyone said something and everyone listened.

I asked Neil, an accountant from Dorking, why he had come. "I hope it will help me find my way," he said. "My job is not `me' - it's something external I've constructed and I could easily kick it down." Others I met came to consider their situations back home, to get away, reflect and pray.

Although Taiz is Christ-centred and draws Christians from all denominations, many people come who are not religious: who simply do not know, or who are searching for something outside themselves. Acceptance of a creed is neither presumed nor demanded here. The brothers are available should a visitor wish to meet in private.

Food and accommodation at Taiz are basic. Most people stay in dormitories, and tents are erected in the summer. A limited number of single rooms and more private accommodation are available for families with young children, married couples, those over 55 and those opting for a week of silence. Oyak, a caf two minutes' walk from the Church of Reconciliation, sells pizzas, beer and wine, cigarettes and currency, and has a fiesta- like atmosphere most evenings. Even the Brits whip out their guitars.

For those in search of good food and a comfortable hotel room, Cluny is just eight kilometres away. An afternoon or longer in this compact town will more than compensate for a little absence of luxury at Taiz. On Saturday mornings, outdoor stalls and pitches are packed with selections of cheese and sausages. And there is plenty to do and see in and around Cluny: the famous abbey, art galleries, chteaux, grottos, even a stud- farm.

I returned from Cluny at prayer-time and found the Church of Reconciliation bristling with pilgrims from Estonia, South Africa, Chile, Mexico, India, Germany, Italy. The five bells housed in a wooden tower near the Yellow House were quietening. The brothers in their white habits shuffled on to wooden prayer-stools and sat in two long lines, forming a brilliant stripe that divided the church like a glowing central aisle. The last chime faded. Silence. From somewhere near the candlelight of the alter, a single voice called out "Alleluia". Eight hundred people replied, "Al- le-lu-u-ia."

"Toi, tu nous aimes, source de vie" we sang as we filed out 30 minutes later. Later, on the coach back to Chalon-sur-Saone, I got out my phrasebook and worked out what it meant. He certainly does, and I shall be back to drink again.

To book a visit to the Taiz Community, write or telephone three weeks in advance: the Taiz Community, 71250 Cluny, France (00 33 85.50.30.02). A contribution of Fr28-37 per day (£3.70-£4.90) for students and Fr77- 104 (£11-£13.85) is recommended to cover meals and accommodation. Take a sleeping bag.

Comments