I'll go back to heaven again.
Hand in hand with the dew
that melts at a touch of the dawning day,
I'll go back to heaven again.
With the dusk, together, just we two,
at a sign from a cloud after playing on the slopes
I'll go back to heaven again.
At the end of my outing to this beautiful world
I'll go back and say: It was beautiful. . . .
When Chon Sang-Pyong wrote that very wonderful poem (귀천) in 1970, he was extremely sick after years of living rough, without a fixed home, no one caring for him, suffering from constant malnutrition, and having undergone several sessions of electric-shock torture at the hands of the Korean security police. He thought that he might soon be dead, and tried to sum up his response to life in a few words. He could not imagine how many people would be challenged by and receive hope from his poem, with its affirmation that this is ultimately a beautiful world, no matter what terrible things people do to other people and to themselves. It is amazing that he could write it. But it was in the same year that he received baptism from a Catholic priest in Pusan and was given the name Simon.
He survived, of course, another twenty-three years, and by the time he “went back to heaven” in 1993 he had already shown many people how beautiful the simplest things can be. Since his death, his message has spread even wider, with his books still “steady best-sellers” in the bookstores, with stage plays and television dramas inspired by his life, and with translations of his poems into English, French, Spanish, and (soon) German and other languages. More than 10,000 copies of our bilingual English-Korean edition of his major poems have been sold and the Insa-dong cafe “Kwichon” kept by his widow, Mok Sun-ok, is usually full.
That is to say that people are looking for signs of hope. As with Chon Sang-Pyong, they mostly find meaningful signs of hope in the lives of people who are poor and sincere. Indeed, the young people who mostly buy his books tend to say that he is the only completely sincere poet they know. By that they mean that he never pretended to experience life in unauthentic ways, for the sake of seeming “poetic”. In the midst of great poverty, with fragile health, he could write, “I’m the happiest man in the world.” He always recognized that without the constant care of his wife, he would not have lived so long or been so happy.
With the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, many people in the United States and across the world today find themselves wondering, and doubting, whether the world is really so beautiful and whether they can ever be happy. They will need to search within themselves for the answers. In that sense, the pain of the present moment will then have done good, because without that inner quest, our awareness of beauty and happiness can only be a matter of superficial sentiments. Without full awareness of the potential ugliness and pain that life can bring, we cannot hope to come to a proper knowledge of what it can mean to say that the world is beautiful and we are happy.
Another way of expressing that can be found in a phrase written many centuries ago by one of the Church Fathers, Saint John Chrysostom: “The resurrection of Christ makes of our lives an endless festival.” Certainly everyone enjoys a party, and the prospect of unending celebrations appeals a lot, but we mostly would respond to that by pointing out that we do not always feel festive, and that there is so much pain in the world that we often feel that we ought not to be happy. Yet the result is frequently sadness, discouragement, and ultimate resignation; no dynamism and no energy to set about changing the world seem to emerge from an acute awareness of what is wrong with it. Ugliness does not teach us what beauty might be.
Violence and injustice are pernicious because they undermine trust between people and confidence in the possibility of finding meaning in life. To respond to violence with violence only adds to the violence, without in fact bringing any solution to the inherited memories of past wounds that inspired the hatred that provoked the violence. We have to look elsewhere for the sources of love, hope and trust.
The community of brothers that I belong to began in 1940 when a young man from Switzerland, named Roger, went to live in the village of Taizé, in eastern France, with the hope that others would join him. At that time the whole of Europe was being torn apart by violence and warfare, despite almost two thousand years of Christianity. From the very beginning, the Community of Taizé has had the word “Reconciliation” at the heart of its vocation. It seemed to Brother Roger, as he came to be known, that in today’s world, words count for little. What is required are concrete, lived realities. A few people, giving up their private lives and careers, and living a common life of sharing and prayer because of what the Gospel is about, might become a source of inspiration and hope to many.
Today, every week during the summer especially, thousands of young adults, with people of all ages, come to Taizé from all over the world to search together for the sources of hope. At the height of summer there are 5-6,000 people from over 80 countries each week. They come from many kinds of situations; every week there are groups from the different parts of the Balkans – Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, etc – that have experienced terrible conflicts and massacres. Others come from the parts of Indonesia which have been torn apart by ethnic and religious conflict. In other regions there are other challenges to hope, like those working to assist the AIDS-infected orphans in parts of Africa. All across the globe, there are countless forms of human suffering caused by (and causing) loss of mutual trust.
Many years ago, Brother Roger, launched what he termed “a Pilgrimage of Trust” by which he hoped that young people might become bearers of hope. They are, he said, “invisible bearers of peace who, by the gift of their own selves, strive to undo the seeming determinisms of violence and hatred that history has produced. They are working to bring into being another future for the whole human family.” Many young people find themselves challenged very directly by some particular form of suffering. In some cases it may be the need to care for a sick parent, or a handicapped neighbor; others, in poorer countries, realize that many children in their neighborhood cannot attend school and so take time to teach a few of them informally; many others in rich countries see how little sincere communication there is between people in their university or workplace and try to serve as a leaven of trust.
In the Pilgrimage of Trust, such people come together sometimes, at Taize or in meetings organized in other places, to pray together, to listen to one another, and to give each other new hope and energy in order to go on in what may seem a very humble form of loving. During the times of prayer in these meetings, there is often a moment when a large icon of the Cross is laid on the ground. The young people and the brothers gather around it and a few at a time come forward to lay their foreheads on the Cross, as a sign that they offer all that they are living to the suffering Christ, who is the Risen Christ. At another moment they light small candles, passing the flame from one to another, as a reminder that the reality of Christ’s love shines like a small flame in the darkness of the world’s suffering. Jesus said: You are the light of the world. When the meeting ends, each goes back home, to carry on putting the Gospel of love and hope into practice.
The wave of hatred and violence that threatens to direct the international response to the terrorist attacks on the United States moved Brother Roger to send a message to those close to Taizé in the US: “At a time when many people close to us around the world are disconcerted by the violence, by the incomprehensible suffering of the innocent, my brothers and I are praying for those who are undergoing a time of trial and we ask for consolation for all of them. We also pray that the Holy Spirit may inspire the hearts of those who are seeking ways of peace in the human family. I wrote this prayer for the Sunday morning service in Taizé, and I would like to share it with our friends in the United States:
Holy Spirit, however powerless we may be, enable us to bring peace where there are oppositions and violence, and to make a reflection of God’s compassion visible through our lives. Yes, enable us to love, and to express it by the lives we lead.
One of the songs composed for Taizé says “Everywhere where there is love and sharing, God can be found.” That is surely what Chon Sang-Pyong meant when he said the world is beautiful. Hidden across the surface of the globe are countless men, women, children, who bring life and hope to others by little acts of kindness. The acts of terror may hit the headlines, but what shapes the future of humanity stays hidden. That is why the Fox said to the Little Prince: “The essential is invisible to the eyes; only the heart can see it.” Sometimes, when the papers and television are full of disasters and crime, it is important for us to remember how much good news there is hidden in the world around us; otherwise we might be tempted to stop trusting and loving. And that would be a real disaster.