A Reverse Pilgrimage
by Lisa M. Simonsen (March / April 2002 • Volume 18 • Number 2)
How religious leaders from the university and community joined together to host two Taizé monks from France to lead nine days of ecumenical prayers for peace in Minnesota
We called it a "Reverse Pilgrimage."
This event, while not a guided trip to the Holy Land, put a new spin on the idea of religious journey. Denomin-ational sponsors, campus pastors, and congregational clergy collaborated in a grand plan to bring two Brothers–monks from the Community of Taizé in the Burgundy Region of France-to the prairie of Minnesota. Their purpose was to invite young adults into the experience of Taizé worship, study, and prayer that has been attracting hundreds of thousands of young people to rural France for the past 30 years.
To familiarize those new to Taizé, the brothers describe themselves as:
An ecumenical monastic community of brothers located in Eastern France. About one hundred brothers from twenty-five countries live what they call "a parable of community," first envisioned in the aftermath of World War II. Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed, and Catholic, their ecumenical vows are a lived witness to peace and reconciliation. The songs of Taizé, set in a simple, meditative setting, have spread to Christian churches around the world. Those who travel to pray with the brothers are encouraged to return home to foster reconciliation in their own communities.
—Pilgrimage of Trust brochure
The project came to life more than a year earlier, through the inspiration of several denominational church leaders who had either been to the Taizé community or experienced the brothers on another pilgrimage. They made contact with local university clergy, and soon the idea of a Minnesota pilgrimage was birthed.
Academics around the table represented the majority of institutions of higher learning from throughout central and southern Minnesota: campus ministries at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities and St. Cloud campuses, and Augsburg College, Bethel College, the University of St. Thomas, St. John's University, Gustavus Adolphus College, and Luther Seminary. With support from the Minnesota Council of Churches, as well as synods, dioceses, presbyteries, and conferences from the Catholic and Protestant communities, there was a strong web of support for the venture.
Conditional to the Brothers' undertaking was the need for members of a young adult planning team to travel to France during their spring break for initial preparation. The students would need to understand the context of the environment they would be trying to emulate back in Minnesota.
A college contingent enthusiastically set out last March for a transformational experience of international worship, Bible study, and prayer in the context of monastic life. Simple meals of soup, bread and apples, cold showers, unheated Bible camp-like accommodations, daily assigned chores, and worship and study created a common sense of both deprivation and Spirit-based community brought about by keeping one's mind on "things above."
Through completion of a separate ecumenical pilgrimage for the "young-at-heart" planners, everyone returned to Minnesota with an initial experience and a common vision of the tasks ahead. There were venues to be selected, services, studies, and workshops to be planned, and ways to announce what was going to take place.
The final pilgrimage itinerary emerged as an October 12-20, 2001 event. It began with a young adult weekend retreat at Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, Minnesota) and was followed by study, prayers, and worship at one or more colleges over the next four days, with an additional outreach effort to the broader community at the Basilica of St. Mary in downtown Minneapolis.
Also included was a worship leaders' workshop, a special afternoon for high school youth, and a culminating Festival of Light on the final evening.
Since the Brothers' visit took 13 months of preparation, the planners had no idea how profoundly the events would be received. As the monks and friends journeyed from campus to campus with their prayers and songs of peace, conducted in the darkness of candlelight, multitudes of students were eager for a word of hope and reconciliation in the aftermath of the havoc wrought on September 11th.
Students were also offered times of interaction such as free meals with the monks before worship, a fellowship time following the evening services where mulled cider was served, and "office hours." The monks and other religious leaders posted themselves at these events for those who wished to talk, an added comfort during these troubled days.
The planning process was itself an opportunity for further collaboration and trust-building among chaplains and their campus faculty, staff, and administration, the surrounding community, and among themselves.
On a humorous note, planners on one campus noticed that some "Burma Shave" style signs reading "Meet the Monks" were stolen from the front side of a hosting campus congregation and repositioned on the lawn of a nearby fraternity. Rather than a misdemeanor, the incident was simply written off as additional advertising! (It is not known how many fraternity brothers actually took advantage of the opportunity to meet the Taizé brothers, despite the free wine and cheese offered at that site.)
Though the pilgrimage itself has come to a close, one lasting impact of the visit remains. Through some generous university and community partnerships, a five-foot exact replica of the stationary cross adorning the Taizé altar was commissioned and sent on its own pilgrimage from event to event throughout the nine days, along with a series of Taizé worship booklets for interested faith communities to borrow.
That pilgrimage continues at campuses and churches out on the prairie. The cross–itself an icon of our Lord's pilgrimage of trust and reconciliation–remains on the move to this very day.
Surrexit Christus (The Lord is risen!) Alleluia!
Lisa M. Simonsen is a campus pastor at the University of Minnesota, working with the Lutheran Campus Ministry of the Twin Cities.