Where the Music Died (and Lives)


A farmer’s field near Clear Lake, Iowa, is the site of a memorial marking the place where Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson died on February 3, 1959. (Bob Sessions photo)

It’s not the cheeriest of thoughts, but isn’t it interesting how many spiritual sites are connected with death? From the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and Normandy Cemetery in France to the Gettysburg Battlefield in Pennsylvania, places associated with tragedy are often considered sacred.

On a recent trip to northern Iowa, I added another such site to my list, one that at first might seem an unlikely pilgrimage destination: the farmer’s field where Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson were killed in a plane crash in 1959. If you’re of my vintage, you may know of this tragedy as “The Day the Music Died,” a phrase from the song “American Pie” by Don McLean (that melancholy song was part of the soundtrack of my generation’s teenage years, each line endlessly parsed for symbolic meaning.)

To be honest, it took me awhile to realize that this is a place of pilgrimage. But as I stood at the simple memorial, suddenly it clicked. I saw the offerings left on the ground. I realized I’d met pilgrims as I approached the site–a couple from Norman, Oklahoma, who had made a detour on a cross-country trip to pay their respects. I could see another group of visitors walking down the path. Yes, this is a pilgrimage site, all right–one that is connected not to religious faith, but instead is intertwined with music, memory and lost youth.


The path to the crash site is marked by a sculpture recalling Buddy Holly’s iconic eyeglasses. (Bob Sessions photo)

As with most pilgrimage sites, there’s a narrative that helps shape the meaning of this place, one that is told and retold by visitors. It begins the evening before the three musicians died, when they played a concert at the nearby Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.  As rising stars in the new genre of rock ‘n roll, they drew a large and enthusiastic crowd at the Surf. Buddy Holly in particular was on the fast track to fame, thanks to a string of hits that included “Peggy Sue” and “That’ll Be the Day.”

That evening, Holly decided to book a small private plane to take him to the group’s next gig in North Dakota rather than travel by the drafty and cold tour bus. There was much discussion about the two other available seats. Waylon Jennings, a member of Holly’s band, was offered a spot, but he graciously gave it to Richardson, who had come down with the flu. The last seat was wanted by both band member Tommy Allsup and Ritchie Valens, so the two flipped a coin. Allsup lost the toss and won his life.

The plane went down soon after take-off, plunging into a farmer’s field. The three musicians and pilot, Roger Peterson, were killed instantly. And ever since pilgrims have been coming to this spot in the middle of rural Iowa. Marked with a metal memorial made in the shape of a guitar and three vinyl records, the site attracts one kind of offering more than any other: coins, given in recognition of the fateful toss.

It’s interesting to speculate on why this place continues to draw people from around the world. Part of it is simply that the musicians died young, at the height of their fame (Holly was 22, Valens was 17 and Richardson 28). Part of it is the way that their music helped define an entire era, in a way that music, segmented as it is today into so many different genres, no longer does. And part of it, I think, is that the tragedy makes one reflect on the passing of one’s own youth.


Clear Lake’s Surf Ballroom is one of the nation’s music landmarks. (Bob Sessions photo)

But if this is where the music died, I must also tell you about where the music lives. The Surf Ballroom–the site of the last concert of the three–is as much a pilgrimage destination as the crash site.  If it wasn’t for the Buddy Holly connection it’s unlikely the Surf would have survived, but the fame brought by the last concert attracts a steady stream of patrons and musicians to its doors. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland has designated the Surf a Rock and Roll Landmark. Travel + Leisure Magazine has named it as one of the Coolest Music Venues in America, an honor shared with Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado and the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.

“People come from around the world to honor the memory of those who died,” says Nicki Barragy, education coordinator for the ballroom and museum. “But the Surf is a living place as well, full of dances, concerts and events. That’s the best way to honor their legacy.”


The Surf Ballroom has been restored to its 1950s glory. (Bob Sessions photo)

The original Surf opened in Clear Lake in 1934. After being destroyed by fire, it was rebuilt across the street in 1948, decorated in a tropical theme with murals of surf and palm trees and faux clouds projected on its midnight blue ceiling. Holding up to 2,100 people, the Surf has hosted many of the entertainment world’s top names, from Roy Orbison and the Everly Brothers to Martina McBride and B.B. King.

Today its 1950s interior, restored to pristine condition, is like a time machine, its hallways lined with publicity photos of guest artists from past decades. Musicians have also left their mark on the walls of the Surf’s dressing room, which is covered with hundreds of signatures (including a handwritten stanza of “American Pie” signed by McLean).


The Surf Ballroom preserves the phone booth where Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens made their last phone calls. (Bob Sessions photo)

The Surf’s museum, located in a lounge adjacent to the main ballroom, gives information on the three musicians who lost their lives as well as other artists who have played here. Its memorabilia includes a briefcase used by J.P. Richardson and the handwritten lyrics to Ritchie’s “La Bamba.” Most poignant of all is the phone booth where Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens made their final phone calls after finishing their concert.

When I visited the Surf I got the chance to talk with Margaret Majerczyk, a native of England who now lives in Iowa and who teaches dancing lessons at the Surf. She also helps host its international visitors, including many from her home country.

“The British Buddy Holly Society started in the early 1960s and has many members in England,” she says. “He was a huge influence there on younger musicians and on teenagers like myself, who grew up surrounded by rock ‘n roll music. We’ve had hundreds of members of the club visit over the years. One man has been here 31 years in a row.”

But while Majerczyk enjoys hosting her fellow Brits on their annual pilgrimage, her favorite event at the Surf happens much more frequently. “I like to watch older visitors come into the Surf,” she says. “As they come down the ramp into the ballroom, they often seem frail. But once they step onto the dance floor a transformation occurs and they’re gliding like they’re young again.”

I left the Surf in a contemplative mood. I thought of those coins left at the crash site and of how so much of what happens to us seems to be the result of random chance. I thought of those elderly couples dancing underneath the fake clouds and the benevolent gaze of Holly, Valens and Richardson, whose pictures overlook the ballroom. And I thought of how holy sites blossom in unexpected places, nurtured by the need we have to remember, to celebrate and to mourn, whether it’s someone we knew or someone who symbolizes part of our past that is gone forever.

On a happier note, let me end with Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens, followed by Don McLean singing “American Pie.” For thankfully, it turns out that the music didn’t die after all.

The Surf Ballroom and Museum are open for self-guided tours daily during the summer months and Monday through Friday during the rest of the year, with occasional closures for special events. The most popular time to visit the Surf is during its annual Winter Dance Party, which is held on the weekend closest to the date of the fateful plane crash. In addition to concerts, the event typically includes a record show, family sock hop, dance lessons, and dance and costume contests. 

The website also has directions to the memorial site where Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson died. While it’s located on private land, visitors are welcomed.


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In the Middle of Missouri, A Most Surprising Find


Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury, in Fulton, Missouri (Bob Sessions photo)

Let me begin with a few quotes. Can you guess who said them?

“Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”

“All the greatest things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom; justice; honor; duty; mercy; hope.”

“All babies look like me. But then, I look like all babies.”

Still not sure who said these? This one will give it away:

“We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

The speaker, of course, is Winston Churchill. If you’re a Winston Churchill fan (and if you’re not, I’m disappointed in you), you probably think you would have to travel to England to learn more about the great British statesman. But on a recent trip to Missouri, I came across the most amazing find. The National Churchill Museum is located on the campus of Westminster College in the small town of Fulton. Equally surprising is what sits on top of the museum:  a Christopher Wren-designed church, brought piece by piece from London after it was destroyed in the Blitz of World War II.


The National Winston Churchill Museum is located in the Missouri town where Churchill gave his famous Iron Curtain speech in 1946. (Bob Sessions photo)

As you can probably guess, there’s a story behind this.

But first, a few words about Winston. Isn’t it interesting how some political leaders pass into obscurity once they leave office and the reputation of others continues to rise, even after their deaths? Soldier, politician, historian, writer and artist Sir Winston Churchill fits the latter category. I thought I knew a fair amount about Churchill before visiting the museum, but I came away with an even deeper appreciation for his courage, leadership and tenacity.

The story of why the museum is located in the middle of Missouri begins with an invitation from Westminster College to Churchill shortly after he had lost his position as Prime Minister following the end of World War II. President Harry Truman, a native of Missouri, put in a good word for the school, and on March 5, 1946, the revered statesman arrived on campus to deliver a speech that received news coverage around the world. In it he warned of an “iron curtain” descending across Europe as the Soviet government tightened its grip on the countries of the Eastern bloc. Churchill was one of the first to realize the seriousness of the Soviet threat and his vivid phrase came into widespread use.


Churchill’s speech at Westminster College made headlines around the world.

So began a long association between Westminster College and Winston Churchill. Today its $4 million museum showcases the life and achievements of the great wartime leader, with special attention, of course, to his famous speech at the school. Exhibits describe his childhood growing up on one of England’s grandest estates, his checkered military career prior to World War II and his valiant service to Britain and the larger world during the conflict. According to Churchill biographer Paul Reid, this is the “epicenter of Churchill in North America,” designated by the U.S. Congress as America’s National Churchill Museum.

I found myself most fascinated by Churchill’s early years. While his accomplishments in World War II are well-known, they were preceded by a roller coaster of failure, success and then failure again. His childhood was dismal. His father (a British lord) was greatly disappointed in his son, whom he thought showed a woeful lack of initiative and intelligence. His adored mother (an American-born heiress) was emotionally distant, and Churchill’s sole source of unconditional love was his nanny.


Churchill joined the military in part because his academic record was not good enough to get him into university.

After a mediocre record as a student, Churchill joined the military. To make extra money as well as enhance his reputation, he volunteered to serve in hot spots around the world and worked as a war correspondent for several London papers. By the time he entered politics he was already well-known in Britain and had experienced enough drama, tragedy, defeat and adventure to fill the lives of 10 men. All of these experiences helped forge a steely resolve, superlative communication skills and a talent for leadership that proved essential during World War II.

The church that sits atop the museum recalls Churchill’s heroic efforts during the Blitz, England’s darkest hour. For the 20th anniversary of the Iron Curtain speech, Westminster College received from the city of London one of the churches that had been reduced to rubble during the Blitz. The 17th-century Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Aldermanbury (which had laid in ruins ever since the war) was packed up piece-by-piece and shipped to Missouri, where it was laboriously reassembled in its original form.


Interior of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury (Bob Sessions photo)

Today the church is a sunlit marvel of English elegance. The famed architect Christopher Wren had designed the building to replace a medieval church destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. Wren believed that there is nothing more beautiful than light, and stepping inside the church’s sanctuary, I found myself agreeing with him. Clear glass windows let in the sun, illuminating white walls, simple wooden pews, and an altar displaying the Ten Commandments.


The “Breakthrough” sculpture was created by Winston Churchill’s granddaughter, artist Edwina Sandys. (Bob Sessions photo)

Another tribute to the great leader sits outside the church. Created by Edwina Sandys, Churchill’s granddaughter, it is called “Breakthrough” and features eight sections from the Berlin Wall, each covered with graffiti from the days when the city was divided into Soviet-controlled East Berlin and free West Berlin. The wall symbolizes the wisdom of Churchill’s warning to the world in 1946, but it also shows the triumph of freedom over tyranny.

Winston Churchill

“I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.” November 30, 1949, in response to a reporter who asked if he had any fear of death.

One could say that the holy site here is the Christopher Wren church, but I would argue that the entire site is sacred. Winston Churchill, flawed as he was, was a man of honor and bravery who inspired millions at a time when the world’s future hung in balance. I love the fact that we can pay homage to him here, in this rural corner of the Midwest, sitting in a London church, looking up at the sunlight streaming in the window.



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Iowa City’s Harvest Preserve and Sacred Stone Circle

Copyright property of Todd Adamson

The sacred stone circle at Harvest Preserve includes 12 pillars quarried with stone chisels at least 4,000 years ago. (photo by Harvest Preserve)

You might think that this picture was taken in Ireland or Scotland, places well-known for their prehistoric stone circles. But would you believe these stones are found in Iowa? Their story involves a remote island in Indonesia, a whimsical businessman with a deep commitment to spirituality, and (I’m not making this up) hobbits. Even by Holy Rover standards, this is an unusual sacred place, one that I’m delighted to have found.

There’s a certain sense of irony in my discovery of this place. I’ve traveled many thousands of miles across the world to see a multitude of holy sites, but here, all along, was a perfectly wonderful place just a short distance from my home in Iowa City. Over the years I’ve biked and driven by it dozens of times without realizing it was there. And in a final piece of irony, it took my friends Annechien and Hanno visiting from Amsterdam for me to discover it (many thanks to Jody and Ron, too, for taking us there on a windswept and rainy April afternoon).

The story of these sacred stones in the middle of Iowa begins on the small island of Flores in Indonesia. Little is known of their origin or purpose, except that they were quarried with stone chisels at least 4,000 years ago and were at one time arranged in a circle. In 2001 the residents of the island decided to get rid of them, prompted by the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas of Afghanistan (although the island of Flores is primarily Christian, at the time there was a let’s-get-rid-of-all-pagan-monuments mood in the air).


Doug Paul of Harvest Preserve (photo by Lori Erickson)

That’s when Doug Paul of Iowa City enters the story. An antiquities dealer from Chicago told him of the Indonesian sacred circle that needed a home. Doug arranged for the stones to be brought to Iowa by ship, train and flat-bed truck, a process that took more than a year. The basalt stones range in size from 16 to 30 feet, each weighing between 3,000 and 20,000 pounds.

“It sounds strange, but I felt like the stones were sending me a message,” says Doug. “For whatever reason, they wanted to be here in Iowa. And actually, if you send a line straight down through the center of the earth from Iowa, the nearest land mass on the other side is Indonesia, so maybe there is some connection between the two places.”

While Doug originally thought he might erect the stones in an existing public park, he and his wife, Linda, decided instead to purchase a place for them on the outskirts of Iowa City. Two farms were in danger of being turned into housing developments, and Doug and Linda felt that their mission was to save the land as well as find a home for the stones.

“From the very beginning of this effort, I felt like I was put on a need-to-know-basis,” he says. “At each step I found out what I needed to know to go forward, but I didn’t get all the answers I wanted. I still don’t have them. I’m a pretty unlikely person to make this happen, but it felt like something I was called to do.”

Today Harvest Preserve is a spiritual sanctuary of 100 acres on the northeast side of Iowa City. Its grounds include a charming boathouse overlooking a pond, several large areas of restored prairie, and thick woods laced with walking trails. The property is owned by a non-profit foundation that will ensure its existence for many generations to come—a testimony to the incredible generosity of Doug and Linda.


A bronze sculpture by Nigerian-born artist Nnamdi Okonkwo sits in Whitman’s Glade at Harvest Preserve. (Photo by Bob Sessions)

One of the pleasures of exploring Harvest Preserve are the pieces of art that appear in unexpected places. In a sun-dappled area called Whitman’s Glade, for example, is They Are Waiting, a piece by Nigerian-born artist Nnamdi Okonkwo. And across the road from Harvest Preserve sits Man on a Bench, a massive, 20-foot-tall sculpture being carved from 110 tons of Indiana limestone by Doug Paul and fellow artist J.B. Barnhouse.

“I think that figure has been there for at least 10,000 years, but he was finally brought out of the ether by our efforts,” says Doug.


“Man on a Bench” sits overlooking Harvest Preserve. (photo by Lori Erickson)

You might think that Doug Paul sounds a little eccentric, but he’s actually a highly successful entrepreneur. Most of all, he’s a spiritual seeker and a dreamer, and he created Harvest Preserve as a gift to other spiritual seekers and dreamers (as one myself, I am truly grateful for the gift Doug and Linda have given to the larger world).

While the land is now governed by the Harvest Preserve Foundation board, the Paul family remains intimately involved. Doug and Linda’s daughter, Julie Decker, serves as program director, and Doug devotes much of his time to maintaining and nurturing the property, gradually bringing back more of its native flora and fauna.

“I used to own the land, and now it owns me,” says Doug. “I’m its full-time volunteer.”

As Harvest Preserve enters its second decade, its board is trying to strike a balance between public access and protecting it as a place for quiet contemplation. While there are events open to all, entrance is generally limited to members who pay a fee that helps with maintenance costs (people can also do volunteer work to pay for a membership). Some of the most frequent visitors to the preserve are children, brought as part of after-school programs.


The stones that make up the circle are buried so that about half of their length is below ground (Lori Erickson photo).

I’ve only known the Harvest Preserve for a few weeks, but already it’s become a spiritual home for me. I love its winding paths through the woods, its quiet pond by the boathouse and its vistas of Iowa sky and prairie. But most of all, I love the Sacred Stone Circle that sits on a hill overlooking the woods, next to a meadow that is always atwitter with birdsong. Each time I come here I feel refreshed and at peace—the true mark of a holy place.

“As far as I know, this is the only stone circle transported in its entirety to the U.S.,” says Doug. “I think the stones talk to each other and talk to the land. They make it easier for people to connect with the divine energy that flows everywhere, but which seems to accumulate in some spots in particular. For whatever reason, they wanted to be here.”

Here’s another curious fact about Flores, the island where the stones originated. In 2003, archaeologists found the remains of nine short hominids estimated to have lived some 18,000 years ago. The discovery, which disrupted what scientists thought they knew about human evolution, made headline news around the world. The diminutive people (who stood about three and a half feet tall) have been dubbed, naturally, Hobbits.

We’ll likely never know if there’s any connection between these so-called Hobbits and the sacred stones. But when I took a friend to Harvest Preserve, she said something that rang true to me: “This place is magical.” And the more I think about it, the more I believe this is true. Harvest Preserve is a place where the veil between worlds is thin, where stone men appear out of the ether, and where circles of sacred stones are transported across space and time to grow in fertile Iowa soil.


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We Who Are Many Are One Body

Today’s post is a sermon I gave yesterday at my home church, Trinity Episcopal in Iowa City.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio

Gospel Reading: John 20:19-31

When it was evening on the day of Resurrection, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.


Is there any figure in the Bible who’s easier to relate to than Doubting Thomas? It’s no wonder the phrase has become part of the English language as a term for a skeptic.

Through the centuries, theologians have taken two general approaches to this story of Thomas demanding physical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. The first group—who have tended to be Roman Catholic—have emphasized the fact that while Jesus says it’s best to believe on the basis of faith alone, he nevertheless was willing to show Thomas his wounds. Some Christians have taken this as a blessing for such practices as the veneration of relics and going on pilgrimages. The second group of theologians—who have tended to be Protestant—say not so fast, for the story’s point is that we are to rely on faith alone.

And then we have the contemporary, secular interpretation, which is that belief is pretty much impossible, not matter what the circumstances. To illustrate this, let me tell you of the experience of Barbara Ehrenreich, social activist and author of books that include Nickel and Dimed. Her newest book, Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything, tells about her quest to make sense of the mystical encounters she has had since the age of 17. Throughout her life she has had ecstatic experiences in which the whole world seems to be aflame and alive with a mysterious presence. Here’s her description of one of these experiences:

At some point in my pre-dawn walk … the world flamed into life. [There was a] blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it… It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once.

Ehrenreich’s mystical encounter is similar to those reported by many saints and holy people through the centuries. But her reaction is modulated through the lens of our rational, skeptical culture. These experiences are something of an embarrassment for an educated person, especially one who has always professed to be an atheist. When asked by an interviewer if she now believes in God, Ehrenreich dismisses the possibility by saying this:

I would not explore the monotheistic religions. The religions that impress me are those which involve ecstatic communion with a deity or spirit—like voodoo. I like that much better than belief. I have respect for that. But…I’m not looking for anything, and I’m not going to church.

Or, as she put it in another interview, “Don’task me to believe anything.”

Don’t ask me to believe anything. That’s the line I keep coming back to. For in our culture, religious belief is often seen as a sign of ignorance. And I have to wonder, what does it take for someone like Ehrenreich to believe in God? If seeing the world on fire and alive doesn’t do it, what will? And what hope is there for the rest of us, who go through our days with no mystical visions or spiritual fireworks?

But the irony is, we may say we don’t believe in anything beyond the rational and scientific, but we do. For you can’t be human without operating on faith. Think of the beliefs that many of us have. If I do everything right as a parent, my child will be successful and happy. If I eat the right foods and exercise intensely, I will be in perfect health and live to an advanced age. If I could make another $20,000 or $50,000 or $100,000, then I would be totally happy and secure. Frankly, we have faith in a lot of things that make the virgin birth seem like not very much of a stretch.

Over the past few years, some of the most interesting adult forums at Trinity have been part of the “This I Believe” series. Inspired by the NPR series of the same name, they have featured some wonderfully thought-provoking discussions. I remember listening to parishioners who believe in the scientific method, the importance of myth, and the value of poetry in times of war. Their stories have given deep insights into their lives and beliefs.

Robin Williams: He's one of ours.

Robin Williams: He’s one of ours.

As Christians, of course, there are many religious beliefs that we are supposed to ascribe to. But on any given morning, you might be surprised by what your fellow parishioners are thinking. I wish that we were more honest with each other about our struggles to believe. I’m amused by the number of Episcopalians, for example, who have told me that they have trouble saying the Nicene Creed. They’ll say: “I just keep silent on the parts I don’t believe in” or “I quietly change some of the words.” Someday I’d like to make a T-shirt similar to Robin Williams’ Top 10 Reasons to be an Episcopalian. The T-shirt would have on it the text of the Nicene Creed, with all sorts of crossed out words and changes scratched in the margins. And the top of the shirt would read: “You Might Be an Episcopalian if You Think the Nicene Creed Needs an Editor.”

Part of what we love about our church, of course, is the value we place on reason. But as with Thomas in the Gospel story today, sometimes our rational minds tie us into knots.

If I were asked to speak at adult forum as part of the This I Believe series, I would focus on a line in our Sunday morning service that I think is the single most audacious and revolutionary thing we say. When Lay Eucharistic Ministers are commissioned to go out with their little boxes of blessed bread and wine, we say this: We who are many are one body, because we all share in the cup of blessing and the one bread.

This is pretty strange, isn’t it? For it’s obvious that even on a symbolic level, we’re not one body. But the statement claims that we are indeed one—Democrats and Republicans, male and female, altar guild members and toddlers in the Zookeepers young families group. This claim goes far beyond the walls of this church, too, for it includes southern Pentecostals, Nigerian Baptists and Chinese Catholics. It includes cradle Episcopalians and those who are visiting a church for the first time. And this sort of radical inclusiveness was present from the very beginning of our faith, when Jesus broke the rules of his day by insisting that everyone was welcome at his table—prostitutes and rich men, tax collectors and Pharisees.

Cheerios: nearly as essential as bread & wine

Cheerios: nearly as essential as bread & wine

Perhaps belief is best thought of as action rather than as intellectual assent, which is actually far more in keeping with the Biblical witness. Your belief is expressed in showing up here on a Sunday morning even when you’d rather be at home. It’s revealed in your willingness to bring your squirming children and feed them Cheerios in the pew. Sometimes the most profound statement of faith we can make is simply showing up at the door of the church.

I like how the philosopher Stanley Hauerwas puts this: “I am not interested in what I believe,” he says. “I am not even sure what I believe. I am much more interested in what the church believes.”

Let me give you an example of what this looks like in action. Several years ago I was contacted by someone who had heard about our Healing Touch ministry. Their infant daughter was in intensive care at the UI Hospital because of complications after a heart operation, and the parents asked us to see her. So a small group of us did so nearly every day for six weeks. During that time we became close to the parents, who were far away from their family and friends.

When it became clear that their baby daughter would not recover, the parents asked me to be with them in her last hours. Let me tell you what I was not thinking as I made my way to the hospital. I wasn’t thinking pious thoughts or planning how I would put this loss in a theological context. Instead I was worried that I was going to be such a teary, emotional mess that I would not be any help at all. I felt like anything I could say was a platitude and totally inadequate.

So at the baby’s bedside, I latched onto the Book of Common Prayer. While I had no words to say, within its pages I found words that had been polished and worn smooth by being prayed so many times. I remember how grateful I felt that I didn’t have to do this on my own. More importantly, the baby’s parents didn’t have to do it on their own. The words of the service for the dying became the boat that helped them cross over to that new, foreign country where they would no longer have their daughter.

As we stood there in that sterile hospital room under the fluorescent lights, I gradually came to feel something unexpected. I began to have the slightly uncanny sense that we were not alone, that all of the people who had prayed those words before us were there too, living and dead, and that our grief was being enfolded in something that is the closest thing I have ever experienced to the Body of Christ.

So that is what I think of on a Sunday morning when we say “we who are many are one body.” That is why I believe that when we say the Nicene Creed, and some of us can’t say the part about the virgin birth and others stumble over true God from true God, it somehow equals out. Because together, our words make a whole. And I am grateful that on those Sunday mornings when I’ve feeling distracted, or grumpy, or cynical, I can look out in the congregation and I always—always—see someone whose face reflects the peace that passes all understanding. And I know that on that morning, that person is making up for what I lack.

And let me assure you also that there are some mornings when I can breeze through the Nicene Creed and believe every single word, things seen and unseen, begotten not made, God from God, Light from Light. On those mornings, I’ve got it covered for you . . . You’re welcome.

So we muddle through, most of us. Because somehow, together we are more than we are separately. This is the single best argument I can make for coming to church, for why we need more than individual mystical experiences like those of Barbara Ehrenreich. For we who are many are one body, even when we struggle to believe.


Posted in sermons | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments

Deep in the Mountains of Iowa


Ryumonji is a Soto Zen Buddhist Temple in northeast Iowa. (Lori Erickson photo)

Today I want to tell you about Ryumonji, a Zen monastery near Decorah, Iowa. That probably sounds like a perfectly reasonable sentence to you, but to me it’s in the same category as “Today I want to tell you about an ice cream shop I discovered on Mars.” The reason for this is that I grew up on Decorah, a small town in northeast Iowa. While it was a lovely place to grow up, this was during an era when its religious diversity seemed to me to be limited to the occasional presence of a Swedish Lutheran in a Norwegian Lutheran congregation.

So you can imagine how surprised I was to learn that a Zen monastery and temple had opened in the countryside about 20 miles from Decorah. Last summer I finally had the chance to visit in person, and I came away impressed and a little astonished. Zen is not only sprouting in rural Iowa—it’s flourishing.

This serene enclave is presided over by Rev. Shoken Winecoff, its founding teacher and abbot. You know how there are some people you immediately like within two minutes of meeting them? Shoken is like that. He strikes me as someone who has done his spiritual homework, and I felt more peaceful simply being in his presence.


Shoken Winecoff Roshi is the founding teacher and abbot of Ryumonji. (Lori Erickson photo)

A former Roman Catholic priest and native of St. Louis, Shoken left the priesthood at the age of 28, became a psychologist, married and had a son. But as with so many people, his renewed commitment to a spiritual practice came as the result of hardship, in his case a painful divorce. “My divorce was my greatest teacher,” he says. “It was a very valuable lesson in giving up control.”

Shoken’s study of Zen Buddhism in Minneapolis led to him seek ordination as a monk, a path that included spending three years at a Japanese monastery. In 2000 he came to the wooded, rolling countryside of northeast Iowa to establish a Soto Zen Buddhist temple as a satellite of the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center. Forty acres of land near Decorah were donated for the temple, which is named Ryumonji, which in Japanese means “Dragon Gate Temple.” (Despite being named after a dragon, the temple’s first parishioners were actually cows, according to Shoken.)

Ryumonji’s first building was completed in 2004 and its fourth and final building was constructed in 2013. Its architecture follows the model of a traditional Buddhist temple and monastery, with two wings on either side of a central meditation space known as the Buddha Hall. A bell tower, another traditional part of Buddhist monasteries, contains a hand-cast bronze bell that peals across the wooded valley below.


Ryumonji is constructed in the style of a traditional Zen temple and monastery. (Lori Erickson)

While Shoken is the one permanent resident of the monastery, a far-flung community claims it as a spiritual home. At any given time several people live on site, helping with maintenance chores as well as deepening their practice, and about two dozen gather regularly for meditation and ceremonies. (And I was happy to hear that its first parishioners are still present. When I was there, their mooing in the distance sounded remarkably contemplative—they’ve evidently picked up some of the vibe here.)

As with many monasteries, you have to do some searching to find Ryumonji, and I took several wrong turns on my way there. Such isolation is deliberate, according to Shoken. “There’s a long tradition in many spiritual traditions of going to remote places to grow inwardly,” he says. “In Buddhism this is called ‘going deep in the mountain.’ I like to think of Ryumonji as being deep in the mountains of northeast Iowa.”

In talking to Shoken, I was struck by the way he seems to blend the best of the two religious traditions that have shaped him. “Zen Buddhism has neither god nor no-god, soul nor no-soul,” he says. “It does not take any stand on such matters. And so I didn’t have to renounce Christianity in order to become a Buddhist.”


Ryumonji welcomes everyone interested in learning about the teachings of the Buddha. (Lori Erickson photo)

The deep peacefulness at Ryumonji felt familiar to me. Despite its Iowa setting, its atmosphere felt similar to what I’ve experienced at Zen monasteries in Japan and South Korea. How wonderful that Zen has flowed from the Far East into this corner of rural Iowa, adapting and changing in some ways but remaining true to its serene heart. I can’t think of any better summation of Ryumonji than these lines that are quoted on the monastery’s website from the 13th century Zen Master Eihei Dogen:

Catching the moon, cultivating the clouds,

Untouched by worldly dust fluttering about

A thatched hut, snowy evening, deep mountain.

Growing up in northeast Iowa, I never realized there were mountains there—but I could see them from Ryumonji.

Ryumonji offers weekend retreats and two-month stays for those seeking an extended practice. Public sittings are held Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 9:00 a.m. For an orientation to zazen, arrive fifteen minutes early. For a visit outside of these times, please make advance arrangements to make certain someone is there to receive you. See Ryumonji for contact information.

Posted in Buddhism, Zen | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

What Good Is Philosophy?

9780226130385Scott Samuelson teaches philosophy at Kirkwood Community College in Iowa. I’ve long known him as a friend, but with the publication of his new book I’m delighted to discover that he is also a wonderful writer. I’m working my way through his The Deepest Human Life: An Introduction to Philosophy for Everyone, and will eventually blog about it. But in the meantime I want to give you an excerpt from a speech Scott gave recently at Grinnell College. In it he gives an example of what philosophy can mean in the life of a student. It’s also one of the best descriptions that I’ve read of the power of philosophy to make us question our assumptions and dig deeper into the meaning of our lives:

Towards the end of the 5th century B.C., Chaerophon went to the Temple at Delphi to ask the Oracle if his friend Socrates was the wisest of all people.  The answer came back, “No one is wiser.”  When Socrates got wind of the god’s pronouncement, he was puzzled.  How could he be the wisest when he’s completely devoid of wisdom?  He set out to prove Apollo and his priestess wrong.  His strategy was simple: find one person with even a little bit of positive wisdom, which would clearly beat him whose wisdom level was at zero.  As the story goes, Socrates wandered around Athens questioning its citizens—politicians, poets, craftsmen—about the special truths they claimed to possess and eventually came to the conclusion that the god had spoken the truth.  Socrates really was the wisest of all.  He did have a little bit of positive wisdom: he knew that he knew nothing.

Like all good parables, this story generates deep puzzles.  How can it be that experts don’t know about their respective crafts?  Is Socrates’s questioning a blessing or a curse to his fellow citizens?  What good, if any, is philosophy to a world that seems to hum along fine without it?

It took a student of mine who had never read Plato to bring home the real meaning of this parable—and remind me of the liberating power of the humanities.

Her name was Jillian Kramer, a nurse’s aide at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, and she was in Biomedical Ethics, a night class filled mostly with nursing students, lab techs, and a few souls with distant dreams of being doctors.  One of our most lively discussions was sparked when I casually asked the drooping class, “What’s a hospital for, anyway?”  I challenged the expected answers as they came out.  To fix people.  But what about those who have a terminal case?  To ease people’s pain.  But what about those whose pain can’t be eased?  To help people whose pain can be eased.  What about those who don’t want their pain eased?  To help sick people who want to be helped.  Is there no obligation to healthy people?  Though Jillian was bright, serious, and open-minded, academic philosophy wasn’t her thing.  But our discussion sparked something in her, and she asked me if she could write on the purpose of hospitals.


What good is it?

A couple of weeks later, as students were handing in their papers and filing out, I pulled her aside and asked how the project had gone.  Our conversation in class, she explained, had perplexed her; at first she thought my question silly, but after the discussion, she realized that she didn’t have a very clear idea of the overarching point of a hospital, which struck her as exceedingly weird.  To help her formulate a thesis, she lit on the idea of asking everyone and anyone at the hospital about the institution’s true purpose: doctors, nurses, patients, administrators.  What she found perplexed her.  When they could come up with an answer at all, they gave the same pat responses as the students in class, which she was able to prove inadequate.  The best answer, she said, was given by some doctor, who, after having his first couple attempts shot down by a nurse’s aide, said, “Maybe we’re supposed to do all of the above.”  But she soon figured out that that too was inadequate.  How are they to know when to cure, when to ease pain, when to help patients transition back to normalcy?  Should they always give patients what they want?  Should they always give them what they need?  How do you know when to do one rather than the other?  What should govern the variety of services that they provided?  Why were they there?

The problem, Jillian argued to me, is that the hospital can subordinate its whole purpose to mending broken people.  Too often pregnant women are treated like they’re sick, mourners are dealt with like they’re psychological cases, folks clearly dying are pointlessly “fixed.”  If the hospital is merely a mechanical body shop, then we live in a less than fully human world.  “Imagine,” she said, “doctors who’d spent decades studying and practicing medicine, who had never much thought of why they were really doing it!”  Imagine, I thought, poets, politicians, craftsmen, and citizens generally not understanding the ultimate point of their respective endeavors.


Socrates as Hospital Consultant? (painting by Luca Giordano)

Many of her co-workers, she figured, did good jobs—just going on their feel for what they ought to be doing.  (After Socrates discovers that the poets can’t explain their poems, he concludes, “I decided that it was not wisdom that enabled them to write their poetry, but a kind of instinct or inspiration.”)  But she wondered if they wouldn’t be better off opening their minds to the full truth of it.  (“If,” Socrates famously says, “I tell you that to let no day pass without discussing goodness and all the other subjects about which you hear me talking and examining both myself and others is really the very best thing that a man can do, and that life without this sort of examination is not worth living, you will be even less inclined to believe me.”)  She had to get going and handed her paper to a rapt professor.

I sat down and read her essay then and there.  She wrote of how Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian I had assigned, helped her to see the problem more clearly.  People who are sick grow alienated from those around them: their pain exiles them from the human community.  The closest she could come to formulating the goal of a hospital was: to be there for people.  To be there when they’re sick.  To be there when they’re dying.  To be there for the families who just lost loved ones.  To aid people when you could, and when they wanted.  But most of all to be there for them, human to human.   To be there especially when they’re suffering and to help them, as far as possible, to transition from the lonely realms of pain to the regular world again.  The point of medicine is care.  Doctors are there, she marvelously concluded, to help the nurses.  But doctors, she feared, overrate their wisdom based on how much they know about science.  (Socrates on the craftsmen: “On the strength of their technical proficiency they claimed a perfect understanding of every other subject, however important; and I felt that this error eclipsed their positive wisdom.”)

Jillian admitted at the end that she didn’t feel complete confidence in her conclusions: they were simply the best way she had of putting what she had discovered deep-down.  She concluded by saying that her inquiry had opened her to the significance of what she was training to do.  She was more inclined to value the work she’d always intuitively known was valuable.  Had she read Plato’s Phaedo, she might have called her conclusions about the hospital “beliefs worth risking.”

Posted in Healing, Philosophy | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Scrolling and Linking Our Way to Superficiality

Young woman reading (in the style of Petrus van Schendel) by anonymous (Wikimedia Commons image)

Young woman reading (in the style of Petrus van Schendel) by anonymous (Wikimedia Commons image)

For many centuries, the practice of lectio divina–close, meditative reading of holy texts–has been one of the most important forms of Christian meditation. Many other faiths, of course, also recognize the value of a slow immersion in sacred words.

Contrast that with our reading habits today. Instead of novels, we read blogs (guilty as charged). Instead of reading a chapter in a book, we read a few paragraphs on a website. When our interest flags, we click on to another site, and then another and another.

So when I read this article from the Washington Post I immediately saw myself in its description: Serious Reading Takes a Hit From Online Scanning and Linking

From the article: “We’re spending so much time touching, pushing, linking, scroll­ing and jumping through text that when we sit down with a novel, your daily habits of jumping, clicking, linking is just ingrained in you,” said Andrew Dillon, a University of Texas professor who studies reading. “We’re in this new era of information behavior, and we’re beginning to see the consequences of that.”

Cognitive neuroscientists, according to the article, believe that we are developing new brain circuits for skimming through vast amounts of information online. But this rewiring comes at a cost. Superficiality triumphs over comprehension. Speed replaces accuracy and engagement. Most disturbingly, when we do sit down to try to read something more serious, those habits of flitting from one topic to the next make it difficult to remain focused.

The article continues: Before the Internet, the brain read mostly in linear ways — one page led to the next page, and so on. Sure, there might be pictures mixed in with the text, but there didn’t tend to be many distractions. Reading in print even gave us a remarkable ability to remember where key information was in a book simply by the layout, researchers said. We’d know a protagonist died on the page with the two long paragraphs after the page with all that dialogue.

The Internet is different. With so much information, hyperlinked text, videos alongside words and interactivity everywhere, our brains form shortcuts to deal with it all — scanning, searching for key words, scrolling up and down quickly. This is nonlinear reading, and it has been documented in academic studies. Some researchers believe that for many people, this style of reading is beginning to invade when dealing with other mediums as well.

I must confess that thanks to my iPad, I read fewer books than I used to. There’s always something more out there to sample–some bright and shiny tidbit of information or news (did you see the newest pictures of Prince George in New Zealand, for example?).

The one thing that seems to work for me is taking some time right after I get up in the morning to read more serious things. I know not everyone has that luxury, of course, and for you that time might come at another time of day or week instead. But I increasingly treasure the time before the day begins, before the details and tasks intrude on my consciousness too much, when I drink a cup of coffee and slowly work my way through a few pages of something that demands concentration. Over the past few years I’ve read the Gospels of Luke and Matthew this way, as well as several of Paul’s letters. I’ve savored books by Henri Nouwen, Anne Lamott, Richard Rohr, and James Martin. And each day, I read five of the Psalms (if you do five a day, you can do the whole shebang in a month). I’m a believer in the words of Dorothy Day (founder of the Catholic Worker Movement): “My strength returns to me with my cup of coffee and the reading of the Psalms.”

The article in the Post mentions the beginnings of a Slow Reading movement, a counterpart to the Slow Foods movement. The initiative is particularly important for children, for if you’ve never had the experience of truly immersing yourself in a piece of literature as a child, you’re not likely to take it up as an adult. And even if you once had the ability to read in-depth, because the brain constantly adapts, you may lose it. In a sense, we become what we read, just as we become what we eat.

Dear readers, do you find your reading habits changing because of being online so much? And does that have an impact on your spiritual life?

Posted in Meditation | Tagged | 7 Comments

The Dalai Lama’s Ski Trip

The Dalai Lama on a chairlift in the mountains of New Mexico, April 1991. (photo courtesy of Bob Shaw)

The Dalai Lama on a chairlift in the mountains of New Mexico, April 1991. (photo courtesy of Bob Shaw)

What happened when the Dalai Lama went skiing at a New Mexico resort in 1991? Douglas Preston recounts the delightful tale in Slate’s The Dalai Lama’s Ski Trip. Preston served as press secretary during the Dalai Lama’s visit, wrangling politicians, celebrities, media people and spiritual seekers as they sought to be near His Holiness. While the majority of his multi-day visit was taken up with meetings, lectures, and other official duties, one afternoon the Dalai Lama decided he wanted to go skiing.

Picture the scene: four monks dressed in maroon and saffron robes riding a ski lift to the top of the mountain. As they were ferried upwards, the Dalai Lama marveled at the skiiers below, impressed by the novices navigating the bunny slope. Just then, according to Preston, an expert skier entered from a higher slope, whipping along:

The Dalai Lama saw him and said, “Look—too fast! He going to hit post!” He cupped his hands, shouting down to the oblivious skier, “Look out for post!” He waved frantically. “Look out for post!”

The skier, who had no idea that the 14th incarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion was crying out to save his life, made a crisp little check as he approached the pylon, altering his line of descent, and continued expertly down the hill.

With an expostulation of wonder, the Dalai Lama sat back and clasped his hands together. “You see? Ah! Ah! This skiing is wonderful sport!”

As the group of monks was getting off the lift, they were so distracted by the gorgeous mountain view that they didn’t move away in time and were plowed into by four teenage girls who were on the lift behind them. A chorus of teenage shrieks went up as all the monks were topped over, like so many red and yellow bowling pins. The Dalai Lama was sprawled on the snow, helpless with laughter.

“At ski area, you keep eye open always!” he said.

And at the end of the essay (which I encourage you to read in its entirety), Preston recounts this brief encounter with a waitress at the ski resort’s restaurant, a story that shows that the Dalai Lama, even in the midst of a fun outing, never misses a chance to nudge someone farther along the path to enlightenment:

As we finished, a young waitress with tangled, dirty-blond hair and a beaded headband began clearing our table. She stopped to listen to the conversation and finally sat down, abandoning her work. After a while, when there was a pause, she spoke to the Dalai Lama. “You didn’t like your cookie?”

“Not hungry, thank you.”

“Can I, um, ask a question?”


She spoke with complete seriousness. “What is the meaning of life?”

In my entire week with the Dalai Lama, every conceivable question had been asked—except this one. People had been afraid to ask the one—the really big—question. There was a brief, stunned silence at the table.

The Dalai Lama answered immediately. “The meaning of life is happiness.” He raised his finger, leaning forward, focusing on her as if she were the only person in the world. “Hard question is not, ‘What is meaning of life?’ That is easy question to answer! No, hard question is what make happiness. Money? Big house? Accomplishment? Friends? Or …” He paused. “Compassion and good heart? This is question all human beings must try to answer: What make true happiness?” He gave this last question a peculiar emphasis and then fell silent, gazing at her with a smile.

“Thank you,” she said, “thank you.” She got up and finished stacking the dirty dishes and cups, and took them away.

Posted in Buddhism | Tagged | 3 Comments

A Pilgrimage to Iona, Scotland

iona retreat webpage bannerIf you’ve ever dreamed of going on pilgrimage (and if you’re reading The Holy Rover, you almost certainly have), I have a suggestion for you: sign up for Iona: A Celtic Pilgrimage of Renewal, to be held July 12-19, 2014.

st_martins_crossIona, a small island in the western Hebrides of Scotland, is the spiritual birthplace of Celtic Christianity. During the early Middle Ages, it was one of the most important and influential centers in Christianity. Remote and windswept, it is a “thin place” where the veil between heaven and earth is most permeable. Within the past century Iona has once again become a major pilgrimage destination, drawing seekers from throughout the world.

I won’t be able to join the pilgrimage, alas, but two friends of mine are leading it and you will be in very good hands with them. Ben Webb is an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Iowa and the executive director of the Center for Regenerative Society; his wife Sarah Webb is an environmental educator and leader. They are warm, wise and delightful people.

Here’s how the Webbs describe the upcoming pilgrimage:

In our morning and evening sessions, we will circle around our daily themes using a combination of reflective reading, poetry, journaling, and small and large group discussions as we explore:

  • the rich natural and cultural heritage of Iona, its history and its people
  • the extraordinary sixth-century mission of Columba and the Irish monastic schools that contributed to a social tipping point in civilization
  • the “contrary way” of Celtic Christianity and its ongoing contribution to personal and congregational life today
  • the story of the contemporary Iona Community and other innovative models of emerging religious life
  • the recovery of contemplative, prophetic and sacramental practices so vital to personal and community renewal
  • resources for worship and daily spiritual practice, including poetry, prayers and blessings from the Celtic tradition

mapscotlandAfternoons are free for solitude and personal reflection as you explore your own growing edge within, including walks and hikes to places of great natural beauty or historic interest, and ample opportunity to enjoy the companionship of fellow retreatants and new soul friends. There will also be daily opportunities to experience Celtic models of worship in our Anglican Retreat House, in the Abbey with the Iona Community, the Catholic House of Prayer and the Parish Church of Scotland, or amidst the many ancient “altars of unhewn stone” that the Creator has provided on Iona since time immemorial…

While together on Iona, we’ll explore alternative resources within “the contrary way” of Celtic Christianity and the modern Iona Community that can help us reverse and revive three neglected dimensions in Christianity today that are vital for transformation:

  • contemplative practices that help us live and lead from within
  • prophetic practices that help us confront false religion and unjust society, offer alternatives, and demonstrate how we can live together in contrary ways
  • sacramental practices that instill a worldview of reverence for the earth

Come and see for yourself how the Celtic spiritual and monastic tradition can inform our task of renewing faith communities grounded in a reverence for all creation, the contemplative life, and the prophetic renewal of church and society.

I heartily recommend this trip. If you’re interested, you can find out more at Iona: A Celtic Pilgrimage of Renewal. And when you get back, I hope you’ll tell us about it!

Posted in Pilgrimage | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

In Taizé


The village of Taizé in France has become one of the great pilgrimage centers in Europe. (Bob Sessions photo)

At last we come to the end of our Holy Rover tour of northern Europe. This last post is about a place some of you may be familiar with because of its music: Taizé, an ecumenical community in France whose influence has spread throughout the world. In my home church, we sing Taizé chants nearly every Sunday. These meditative, simple songs typically feature a line or two from the Psalms, creating a kind of lectio divina in music.

Those who sing this style of music may not realize it’s rooted in a particular place: Taizé, which is located about an hour’s drive north of Lyon in east-central France. Surrounded by rolling pastures and scenic vineyards, the village is home to only about 100 people. The Taizé Community occupies a set of buildings on the outskirts of the town.


The entrance to the Taizé Community is marked by a bell tower. (Bob Sessions photo)

I must admit that my first reaction to Taizé was disappointment. I was tired, as this was our last day of touring at the end of a three-week trip. The weather was cold and bleak. And unlike many of the religious sites I’ve visited over the years, Taizé isn’t particularly scenic or beautiful. Instead it’s made up of a collection of utilitarian buildings surrounding a no-frills church. But by the time we left the next morning, I realized my initial reaction to Taizé was wrong. For even after only a brief visit there, I came away convinced that this is one of the most significant pilgrimage sites I’ve ever visited.

The community was founded during WWII by Brother Roger, a native of Switzerland who came to France (the country of his mother) to help those whose lives were devastated by the conflict raging across Europe. He settled in Taizé and began sheltering Jews and others fleeing from the Nazis, but in 1942 was forced to flee because his activities were discovered by the authorities. In 1944 he returned to Taizé and continued ministering to those in need, helped by a small group of brothers who had joined the ecumenical religious community he had founded.


The interior of the Taizé church is spare and simple. (Bob Sessions photo)

In the 1960s the quiet life of the Taizé Community began to change as young people began coming in ever-larger numbers to the village. To meet their spiritual hunger, Brother Roger developed a style of worship and singing that was suitable to pilgrims hailing from many different countries. Because Taizé songs have so few words and are repeated multiple times, it’s easy to sing them even if you don’t speak the language or aren’t particularly musical. Over the years the liturgy at Taizé became both increasingly simple and more deeply rooted in the monastic traditions of chant and contemplation.

Today Taizé attracts thousands of young people from around the world (while pilgrims of all ages are welcomed, priority is given to youth). During the height of the summer, there are up to 6,000 people in Taizé at the same time, gathering for worship services held three times a day in its church. Because the building is far too small to accommodate such numbers, the church’s walls can be opened so that those sitting outside can participate. Each service includes a few Bible passages read in multiple languages, an extended period of silence, and Taizé songs.

The Taizé church has icons lit by candles. (Bob Sessions photo)

The Taizé church has icons lit by candles. (Bob Sessions photo)

Brother Roger’s community has grown to include more than 100 brothers from 30 countries. About 65 live on site, while the rest do mission work around the world. The brothers come from a variety of denominations and do not give up that affiliation to join the community. The village is also home to three groups of Roman Catholic nuns, who assist in the hosting of the huge numbers of pilgrims.

Visiting in November, we missed seeing Taizé in full flower. But even with only a few hundred people in residence, it still buzzed with energy. At dinner that evening, we visited with young people from Sweden, England, Holland, Finland, Japan and Germany.

We were especially pleased to meet Jason Hill, a Presbyterian minister who has come on pilgrimage to Taizé several times and is discerning a call to join its community of brothers. “During the height of the pilgrimage season, Taizé is like a United Nations of languages, nationalities and cultures,” he told us. “But even though people come from many different backgrounds, there’s an incredible sense of unity and love that is formed here through worship and the discussion groups that take place each morning. People are asked to commit to spending a full week here so they can fully immerse themselves in the experience. It’s intense and life-changing.”

The brothers, who support themselves by making and selling handcrafts, lead discussion groups, provide spiritual direction, and develop liturgical materials. But most of the day-to-day work at Taizé is done by volunteer staff, who are young people who come for an extended period of service, typically six months or a year. The pilgrims themselves also help with cooking, cleaning and the many other tasks involved with hosting thousands of guests each year.


Brother Roger, the founder of the Taizé Community, is buried outside the village’s small stone church. (Bob Sessions photo)

After dinner, Jason walked with us down the hill a short way to the small, stone church where the community of Taizé had begun. Outside its front door is the grave of Brother Roger, who at the age of 90 was killed during a Taizé service by a mentally disturbed woman.

“There were many thousands of people at his funeral, including religious leaders from around the world,” said Jason. “While Brother Roger’s death was a terrible tragedy, the community rallied around the woman and her family and forgave what had happened. It was a powerful example of how they live out their values of peacemaking and reconciliation.”

After our conversation with Jason, we went to the evening service in the church, which was filled with about 300 worshipers, most sitting on the floor. The lights were low and most of the illumination came from the dozens of flickering candles on the altar. The most moving part was the singing. The monks in the center of the church created a low-pitched anchor for the more soaring voices of the women, filling the womb-like space with resonance and beauty. It was one of the most remarkable worship experiences I’d ever had. At the end of the service the monks filed out silently but the music continued, led by the young people themselves. After an hour I finally left, but the songs were still being sung.

As I went back to our dorm room, I encountered a bewildered, exhausted young woman on the sidewalk. She explained in halting English that she had just arrived from South Korea and was looking for her room.

Many languages are spoken at Taizé. (Jason Hill photo)

Many languages are spoken at Taizé. (Jason Hill photo)

After I helped her connect with some friendly staff members, I marveled at the power of Taizé to lure pilgrims from around the world. “We’ll take good care of her!” the young people called to me as we parted. I’m sure they did.

Since leaving that small village, I’ve thought often of our too-brief stay at Taizé. In touring Europe, I’ve often felt that many of its religious sites seem more like art museums than living places of worship. In Taizé , in contrast, I found the simplest of buildings, but a thriving, living community. There’s a lesson in that, certainly. If Christianity has a future in Europe, it may well be sparked by what’s going on in Taizé. After all those thousands of young people go back to their homes, they bring part of the spark of Taizé with them. Most of them will likely settle into a comfortable agnosticism, I expect, like so many of their fellow Europeans. But some will remember their experiences in that darkened, holy church, that sense of being surrounded by song and prayer.


Pilgrims from around the world make their way to Taizé. (Jason Hill photo)

The next morning a light snow was falling as we carried our bags to the car. I could hear the faint sound of music coming from the church. As we drove away I vowed to come back one day, to stay longer and immerse myself more deeply in the rhythms of life here. But in the meantime, I am happy to know that the singing continues in Taizé, day and night, a sign of hope in a dark world.

The philosopher Paul Ricoeur, who visited the community many times, said this about Taizé:

What do I come looking for in Taizé? I would say to experience in some way what I believe most deeply, namely that what is generally called “religion” has to do with goodness. To some extent the traditions of Christianity have forgotten this. There has been a kind of narrowing, an exclusive focus on guilt and evil. Not that I underestimate that problem, which was a great concern of mine for several decades. But what I need to verify is that however radical evil may be, it is not as deep as goodness. And if religion, if religions have a meaning, it is to liberate that core of goodness in human beings, to go looking for it where it has been completely buried. Now here in Taizé I see goodness breaking through, in the community life of the brothers, in their calm and discreet hospitality, and in the prayer.

And finally, a sample of Taizé (note: this is not my video). The song is Nada te Turbe (Let Nothing Disturb You).

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