Paul Ricœur


“Liberating the core of goodness”

For many years, Paul Ricœur, the philosopher, was in the habit of coming to Taizé. Of Protestant background, he died 2005 at the age of 92.
Here is the text of a letter Brother Roger addressed to his family the day after his death.
The excerpts that follow are taken from a conversation with Paul Ricoeur that took place during his visit to Taizé in Holy Week 2000.

Taizé, 21 May 2005

To the family and to all those who loved Paul Ricœur, I would like to say, with my brothers, that we share their grief, in the trust-filled waiting for our resurrection.

During fifty years, he visited Taizé a good many times and we so much appreciated his great culture and his capacity to express the values of the Gospel in the situations of today. He often helped us in our reflection and more than once I was led to quote in the letters to young people some of the strong expressions he had formulated on topics important to us, such as on the meaning and the origin of evil. One day he said these words to us: “However radical evil may be, it is not as profound as goodness.”

Today, with you, I would like to pray: Christ of compassion, you enable us to remain in communion with Paul Ricœur, as with all those who have gone before us and who remain so close in our hearts. They are already contemplating the invisible. In their footsteps, you are preparing us to welcome a radiance of your light.

Close to you, in profound communion.

I assure you of the trusting of my heart – Brother Roger of Taizé

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Goodness breaking through

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. I see thousands of young people who do not express a conceptual articulation of good and evil, of God, of grace, of Jesus Christ, but who have a fundamental tropism towards goodness.

The language of the liturgy

We are overwhelmed by a flood of words, by polemics, by the assault of the virtual, which today create a kind of opaque zone. But goodness is deeper than the deepest evil. We have to liberate that certainty, give it a language. And the language given here in Taizé is not the language of philosophy, not even of theology, but the language of the liturgy. And for me, the liturgy is not simply action; it is a form of thought. There is a hidden, discreet theology in the liturgy that can be summed up in the idea that “the law of prayer is the law of faith.”

From protesting to attesting

I would say that the question of sin has been displaced from the centre by a question that is perhaps more serious—the question of meaning and meaninglessness, of the absurd. (…) We are heirs to a civilization that has in fact killed God, in other words that has caused absurdity and meaninglessness to prevail over meaning, and this gives rise to a deep protest. I use this word “protest,” which is very close to “attest.” I would say that now attesting follows from protesting, that nothingness, the absurd, death, are not the last word. That relates to my question of goodness because goodness is not only the response to evil, but it is also the response to meaninglessness. In protest there is the word testis, witness: you pro-test before you can at-test. At Taizé there is the road from protesting to attesting and this road passes by the law of prayer, the law of faith. Protest is still negative: you say no to no. And there you have to say yes to yes. There is thus a seesaw movement from protesting to attesting. And I think that it comes about through prayer. I was very touched this morning by the singing, those prayers in the vocative: “O Christ.” In other words here we are neither in the descriptive nor the prescriptive mode but in the exhortative and in acclamation! And I think that acclaiming goodness is really the most basic hymn.

“Who will teach us happiness?”

I like the word happiness a lot. For a long time I thought that it was either too easy or too difficult to talk about happiness, and then I got beyond my scruples, or rather I deepened those scruples with respect to the word happiness. I take it in all its various meanings, including that of the beatitudes. The formula of happiness is “Happy the one who….” I greet happiness as a “re-cognition” in the three meanings of the word. I recognize it as mine; I approve of it in others, and I am grateful for the happiness I have known, the small experiences of happiness, which include the small experiences of memory, in order to heal me of the great unhappiness of forgetting. And there I function both as a philosopher, rooted in the Greeks, and as a reader of the Bible and the Gospel where you can follow the trajectory of the word happiness. It seems that there are two levels: the best of Greek philosophy is a reflection on happiness, the Greek word eudaimon, for example in Plato and Aristotle, and on the other hand I am very much at home with the Bible. I think of the beginning of Psalm 4: “Ah, who will teach us happiness?” It’s a rhetorical question, but it finds its answer in the beatitudes. And the beatitudes are the horizon of happiness of an existence placed under the sign of kind-heartedness, because happiness is not simply what I do not have and what I hope to have, but also what I have tasted.

Three figures of happiness

I was reflecting recently on the figures of happiness in life. With respect to the created universe, the beautiful landscape in front of me, happiness is admiration. Then, a second figure, with respect to others: recognizing others and, according to the nuptial model of the Song of Songs, it is jubilation. Then, a third figure of happiness, turned towards the future, is expectation: I still expect something from life. I hope to have courage to face the misfortune I am not aware of, but I still expect happiness. I use the word expectation, but I could use another word that comes from the First Epistle to the Corinthians, from the verse that introduces the famous chapter 13, on “love that understands everything, that excuses everything.” The verse says: “Aspire to the greatest gift.” “Aspire”: that is the happiness of aspiring that completes the happiness of jubilation and the happiness of admiration. (…)

A joyful service

What strikes me here, in all the little daily services of the liturgy, in the meetings of all kinds, the dinners, the conversations, is the total absence of relationships of domination. At times I have the impression that, in the kind of patient and silent meticulousness that characterizes all the acts of the members of the community, everyone obeys without anybody giving orders. This creates an impression of joyful service, how can I put it, of loving obedience, yes, of loving obedience, which is the complete opposite of submission and the complete opposite of an aimless meandering. This fairly narrow path between what I have just referred to as submission and meandering is broadly marked out by the life of the community. And we, the participants (not those who attend, but those who participate), as I feel myself to have been and to be here, benefit from it. We benefit from this loving obedience that we in our turn exercise with respect to the example that is given. The community does not impose a kind of intimidating model, but a kind of friendly exhortation. I like the word exhortation because here we are not in the order of commandments, still less of constraint, but neither are we in the order of mistrust and hesitation, which is the case today in professional life, in urban life, both in the workday world and in leisure time. It is this shared peacefulness that represents for me the happiness of life with the Taizé Community.

Last updated: 25 May 2005