Rejoice in the Lord always (Philippians 4:4) is probably the simplest, most demanding command one could hope to respect. Always is not only something we increasingly shy away from, but to always rejoice almost implies we ought to be indifferent and naive to the circumstances we come across throughout our life. For how can one rejoice in the face of suffering and loss, of injustice, selfishness or even, just blatant stupidity? How can we rejoice when cheated or misled? Or when we are enveloped in a great coat of apathy, or swamped by hopelessness and deep-seated sadness? What are we to rejoice when basic human rights are buried in the dust, and dignity trampled on? And if this is not our immediate personal reality right now, it is the reality of millions of people. Every single day, in every single country, there is a voice which cries out to deaf ears. So in what way are we exactly being called to rejoice?
The end of 2017 saw thousands of youths from all over Europe, and beyond even, marching through the streets of Basel, and herding in its arenas, halls and great churches. These youths gathering in Basel, the city whose identity lies at the crossroads of three major counties; a city whose history is balanced precariously between physical, cultural, and economic borders. And they went in droves to participate in the 40th European youth meeting animated by the Community of Taizé. They went in spite of all their differences, conflictions, expectations, preoccupations and uncertainties. They went with a desire to rejoice, to encounter that ‘inexhaustable joy’ with the other, with the stranger, and indeed, with the unknown neighbour.
At the initial meeting, on the first night, Frere Alois recalled his visit to South Sudan and Khartoum. He recalled the work of the educators, of those providing basic needs, and of those who nursed the sick and the marginalised. He recalled the camp of ‘lost people’ – individuals who, in the frenzy of flight, got separated from their families and communities. And he recalled, in particular, the women whose burden was greatest. But life, he reminisced, did not crush them. Instead, they bent down to support it (and themselves), and in servitude, lift it.
But suffering is elusive to distance. Hardship, the master of camouflage, is all around us. Yet distance, paradoxically, also sharpens and clarifies. It makes the faces of those who suffer more visible, the injustices more real, and the ‘lost cries to emptiness’ more audible. In other words, distance brings one closer to home. And it is precisely the return from this distance that led Frere Alois and his brothers to reflect on the question: ‘How can we answer the cry of those who are most vulnerable amid the daily trappings of our life?’
This question, of course, was not only meant for those who were present for the European Taizé meeting in Basel, but also for all who weren’t – for all those privileged enough to ask it, and to repeatedly ask it throughout the rest of the entire year. Surprisingly perhaps, the question was, and still is, just as much about the ‘experience of joy’ as it is about suffering, and therefore, about ‘partaking in joy’ as much as it is about ‘partaking in suffering.’
Truly, only those who have suffered pain can experience the relief of healing. Likewise, only those who have experienced deep sadness can experience the overwhelming sense of joy. In a way, it is this same paradigm of human experience that allows us to see strength and dignity in those who are most vulnerable, and who in turn, make us aware of our own vulnerability, our limitations, failures and desolations. We realise how all very human we are– a shared reality which leads to the discovery of our own personal desolate landscape, where joy may indeed, ultimately thrive.