Today is the other day that I knew would eventually come, but I didn’t expect to feel quite the way I do as I sit in my window seat and look at the Swiss countryside fading beneath me.

This is the end of the first of three trips I will make to Europe over the next year.  But this is the only one that I have done largely on my own, without my husband or a particular traveling partner beside me.  I have chosen where to go when and with whom.  I have figured out train schedules and fares, restaurant menus and tips, and places to sleep and visit.  I have made friends with Germans and French people, Spaniards and Swiss.  And I leave this Continent with more of a sense of self than I had when I first stepped foot here back in that warm April day in Barcelona.

I learned, for starters, about the sorts of things that irritate me, both about myself and about others.  Traveling brings out people’s rough edges, those things we can safely set to the side when we’re at home.  I learned that my edges revolve around my fears and loneliness.  If I feel lonely or isolated, I tend to get more quickly annoyed with others than I ordinarily would.  And if I feel afraid or threatened in any way, I have a hard time admitting it to others or dealing with the war that wages in my head over shoulds and shouldn’ts.

I went for a long walk last night by myself through the vineyards and paths of Rivaz and the surrounding Swiss villages.  I was indeed alone, but I felt like I was on a walk with the Creator of it all.  I took my time strolling around, watching the incredible sunset over the Alps reflecting its colors on the surface of the water.  I could feel my tired body getting more tired by the minute, but I pushed myself further and further.  If there’s anything that I have learned about myself, it’s that I can indeed be pushed to limits that I never would have approached before– I can survive narrowly being pick-pocketed, I can figure out how to get from one place to another (even in a language I don’t speak!), I can power hike up a mountain to enjoy a quick but life-giving view, I can not let a rainy day ruin my enjoyment of beauty.

After this flight lands in Newark, I’ll be greeted by my husband who has been busy packing the belongings we’ve accumulated over the past three years of marriage.  In three days, we will both graduate as Masters of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary.  And in a week, we’ll be turning over the keys to our apartment– the only home we’ve known together– as we embark on the next adventures laid out before us.  Peter will be traveling to Israel and Palestine.  He’ll then travel to Germany, where, in one month, I will meet him for another month of travel.  I am eager to return to the U.S., where my husband and family call home, but I know that I leave a piece of my heart behind in Europe.  I hope that I can find it when I return.

Until then…

Adventure seeker on an empty street

Just an alley creeper, light on his feet

A young fighter screaming, with no time for doubt

With the pain and anger can’t see a way out

It ain’t much I’m asking, I heard him say

Gotta find me a future move out of my way

I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now…

I am leaving Taizé today, and after a full week of being here, I think I finally “get” what is so special about this place.

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This community was started by a Swiss immigrant to France named Brother Roger.  He chose this location precisely because of its poverty and isolation, and, in the middle of World War II, he felt that he wanted to live among people who were being directly affected by the violence.  He wanted to be a presence of peace and reconciliation in a troubled place.

It’s hard to imagine such a picturesque place being disturbed by war and sadness.  And yet, decades after Brother Roger founded this community, violence erupted once again, reminding all who gather here that violence is not some abstraction that we can shelve and ignore.  The fact is that the seeds of violence and sin and despair lie within us all.

In 2005, Brother Roger was murdered– stabbed to death by a mentally-ill woman who had wandered into the Church of Reconciliation (the centerpiece of Taizé) during an evening prayer service, crossed into the Choir, and attacked Brother Roger, killing him almost instantly.

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The community did not react with violence or anger.  Instead, the community continued to exist as it always has, as a witnessing community where peace, reconciliation, and forgiveness (even in the face of murder) are at the core of every action, every word, and every intention of the community.

The spirit of hospitality that welcomes young people to gather and pray with the brothers day after day is the same spirit that allows for young people to welcome others from different countries, cultures, and languages into their own hearts and lives.

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It’s funny:  I was physically and emotionally uncomfortable for most of my time at Taizé.  But, having had this experience, I am forever changed.

And I can’t wait to go back.

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Today has been a pretty incredible day at Taizé, and, while my American friends ventured to town in order to find a restaurant, I stayed behind and was rewarded with some of the most thought-provoking and wonderful conversations.

After lunch, I sat in a circle with Julia, Eva, Dorota, and Kristina (German, Austrian, Polish, and German, respectively), and we talked about our difficulties with our mothers, with ourselves, and with God.  It was amazing to hear each of these young women– with various degrees of fluency in English– articulate some of the same struggles that I have had my whole life.  How do we make our mothers proud?  How do we get a sense of who we are supposed to be?  How can we believe in God in a day and age of such violence and suffering around the world?  It was remarkable, and I was overwhelmed with a feeling that maybe– just maybe— the experience of Taizé is not supposed to be an individualized spiritual quest.  Instead, maybe it is the very communality, the very togetherness of our being here that tells us something about who we are and who God is.

I have always wanted to have friends all over the world– and not just American friends who relocate.  I want German friends and French friends and Polish friends and Russian friends.  I want Korean friends and Australian friends and Iraqi friends.  And here, in this small space in this rural place in France, I have, miraculously, made such friends.  And indeed, it is life-changing.

I am still astonished by the fact that these young people come here.  We pray together, we eat together, we work together, we sleep together.  And, somehow, mysteriously, God is at work in it all.  God prays with us, eats with us, works with us, sleeps with us.  God gives us space to be here.  Our pilgrim God who has journeyed to us has made the space for us to journey to God.  I find this amazing, and I watch as the young people are drawn here.

Somehow, I get to be a little part of this story.  God’s story.  Taizé’s story.  My story is somehow a part– maybe even an important part– of the story, at least, insofar as my story intersects and intertwines with others’.

Remarkable.  Humbling.

Taizé: Take Two

06.05.09

My partner in silence-keeping is a quiet German girl named Julia (pronounced Yoolia).  She is sweet, but she does not think she speaks English well so she does not speak much at all.  I can’t help but feel embarrassed that I am so uni-lingual.  I know Spanish pretty well, I can vaguely remember some Italian from college, but, for the most part, I’m useless over here.  I have fallen head-over-heels in love with French, but, contrary to my expectation, English and German are the languages I am hearing most here in Taizé.

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But Julia and I communicate very well when she opens up– it just takes a little bit of patience.  Patience, I’ve got.  I have to have it while traveling and being here or else I’d go insane.  But, I am still struggling.  This place is exactly what I was told it would be, but it is still nothing like I imagined… sort of like marriage.  I want to BE here, I want to make friends and have good conversation with people from around the world.  BUT!  I also just want to hit the road and get back out there on my own, having the grand adventure I was having just a week ago.  I want to be sleeping well and eating good food.  I want my wine to come in a glass cup with a stem.  I want more coffee and less bread.  And I want some Claritin.  I want, I want, I want…

But, I have what I need, I suppose.  I have a lunch sitting in my stomach (albeit not one I care to write about), I have a bed to lie on, water to drink, people to talk to, a place to pray, clothes to wear.  It is so difficult to be satisfied with these things.  It is difficult to do my work here– sitting in a cold, damp, bee-infested field, telling teenagers to keep their shirts on their backs, their hands to themselves, and their voices down.  It is difficult not to be frustrated when I can’t understand other people.  It is difficult to settle myself long enough to pray, to think, to reflect.

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So, here I am at Taizé.  I thought it would be a life-altering experience, and, I suppose it still has that potential, but it is all so other.  It is not idyllic.  It is a real place with real people, and that always poses real problems.  And real joys.

Some realities:

– I am getting to know so many people– Polish, Russian, German, Lithuanian, French, Argentinian, Swiss, Italian, Dutch, etc.  Americans here are rare, but not totally non-existent.

– Today, Elizabeth (the red-headed German) said that she thought I was like “sunshine.”  I cannot say how good that made me feel, how kind that was to hear.

– In many ways, I think I am still learning how to love myself.  I think this is ok.

– I can’t help but wonder what people do here if they do not believe in God and if they do not pray or meditate?  What brings them here?  What brings any of us here?

I want to know the conversation the French have that prompts this kind of day.  And then, I want to have that conversation every day with the people I love.

“The weather is beautiful.  Let us forget anything we must do and go do the things we want.  Let us get food and wine and beer and sit together on the banks of the river.  And that is all.”

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Five beautiful French children are playing with sticks.  The people to my left are drinking Hoegaarden.  The people to my right are smoking weed.  Ah, the French.  There is not an overstressed person for miles.  Or kilometers.

But, then again, maybe I am projecting.  I need ice cream like an addict needs cocaine.  And I’m ok with that.

I arrived in Lyon with a flourish of activity.  The train station was buzzing.  It was Penn Station during rush hour, minus the English and the smell of hot dogs.  Chaos!  And I panicked.  I kept telling myself to wait and watch Lyon become my friend just as all the other cities had.  But we were not off to a good start.

I got on the subway, after an awkward encounter by the ticket machines with a woman begging for money.  She was smart, waiting for a tourist like me to come by and not know how to operate the machines.  Then, she stepped in and started pressing buttons.  I tried to decline her assistance politely, confident that I could figure this out, but she insisted, took the coins from my hand, and handed me a ticket.  Then, she asked for money.  The whole encounter was awkward and frustrating.

I exited the subway at the location I thought was correct and started to head up the hill toward my hostel.  Though I got lost for a while, I had the help of a few very kind French people who noticed that I was struggling, and I finally got checked in and claimed my bed.  The hostel is sketchy at best.  It has the delightful smell of a basement and feet, but it’s not nearly as lonely as a hotel room.  In fact, I almost immediately made friends and had a wonderful night yesterday, eating dinner with Jane, a traveling Australian grandmother, and Hannah, an American teenager of a “gap year.”  We chatted a bit and all decided to have dinner together at Les Lyonnaise, complete with a grumpy French waiter.  I so enjoyed the company of these women, and I was once again amazed at how easy it is to bond with fellow-travelers on the road.  We are strangers one day and soulmates the next.

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After dinner, we walked around the floodlit city at night.  It was so beautiful, and Rick Steves might be on to something when he says that Lyon is truly France’s City of Lights.  Utterly dazzling under a clear night sky, especially with a little French wine in the system.

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