This is the second half of my trip to Taizé in 1975. The first half is found in my previous journal entry. I sent out the first half a week ago. My two trips there in 1975 and 1984 constitute the fulcrum of my life. Yet almost none of my friends know this about me. Nor do they know what Taizé is in the first place. It’s a place that celebrates the love of God. So I guess it’s an appropriate topic for Valentine’s Day.
It was tempting to abbreviate a subject so large, But what would I leave out?Well, Eileen pointed out that it’s my expression, so write the whole thing. So I did.
I now feel that I have fulfilled my promise to my old friend to write about my religious journey – not the catechisms that I learned as a boy, but my real-life wrestling with it as a man.
To review from the first half of this story: Joyous bells accompanied my first Taizé morning. Crowds entered a circus tent while I sought out the “welcome” office to record my presence. From there they sent me to breakfast. When the crowds reappeared I spent the morning hanging out with them. That’s what I’d come for, after all. These people were just as gentle and peaceful and thoughtful as I’d heard. The picture above was taken long before breakfast while everybody was still asleep. (except for me) Yeah, I had a thing about not taking pictures of people that year. And film was really expensive.
By the time the bells rang again around noon, I knew that they were a call to prayer. So this time, I shyly followed everybody into the circus tent, which covered the wide open back wall of a huge concrete building called the Church of Reconciliation. In the summer, when thousands (yes thousands) of visitors arrived every week, the Church on its own just hadn’t the capacity to fit everybody in, like it might in early spring when visitors were fewer. So they opened the back wall and added the tent. Taizé is very straightforward and practical. This was one example. And every year, they have about 100,000 visitors in total.
On my way into the church, I was handed a small stapled booklet of mimeographed (Yes, mimeographed – remember them?) song lyrics. And different songs were printed in different languages. There were languages that I didn’t know. How was that going to work out?
The church interior was sparingly, but tastefully decorated, with a scattering of stained glass windows along the side walls and and colorful abstract patterns up front. Candles or other small lights peeked out everywhere. Significantly, there were images from Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox traditions. This Church of the Reconciliation, like Taizé itself, had been built to promote reconciliation between the various branches of Christianity, not to replace them but to value their diversity and encourage fellowship among them. And reconciliation is so much stronger than unity can ever be. They also promoted reconciliation between individuals or groups.
A choir, with a few instrumentalists, found places to gather together at the front of the church, right of center. Left of center sat an organist and a harpsichord.
There were precious few chairs or seats, except for some bleachers under the tent. But that’s okay, I was young, so sitting on a carpeted floor for an hour was just no big deal. A rectangular section of the floor, like a wide stripe running front to back in the middle of the church, was reserved for the Brothers of Taizé, the Protestant monks. They soon wandered in, clad in bright white monk’s robes. They seated themselves onto tiny wooden boxes in a neat pattern within the rectangle. Last to arrive was Brother Roger, the prior and founder of Taizé. He led two or three children by the hands, and they sat near him at the front.
Preparation for Prayer
There were no sermons or homilies, or what would normally be recognized as a “church service” or a “mass.” Instead we would have a prayer, an intense prayer that each person needed to prepare for individually. This preparation would take a half hour, and it would be beautiful. It would be beautiful.
Each brother, in his own language, offered a short message or Bible verse, a phrase or two calmly spoken out and into the resonance of the church. Nobody bothered to translate anything, so some understood the words and others didn’t. But translation wasn’t strictly necessary Eventually one of the brothers would use the same language that you do. And if nobody ever did, the message was not conveyed by words exclusively, anyway. One felt its impact and sensed its meaning in the quality of the brothers’ voices themselves. And it felt like . . . distilled worship. And since the use of a particular language was not critical, I thought of Zen, which also refuses to be bound by the demands of language.
As this sharing of verses and praises continued, one’s mind naturally turned toward the divine, no reminders or suggestions necessary. So what do you want to say to God today? Maybe you knew already, or if not, perhaps the thoughts shared by the brothers might inspire you. Or perhaps inspiration might come through the songs.
Yes, the songs . . . . . Everybody sang. The mimeographed lyrics proved superfluous in many cases, because the tempo was slow and the songs repetitive. So even if you didn’t know a song’s language, you could still pick up on the words and sing along. It reminded me of the groups outside the building earlier, singing English pop songs when they couldn’t speak English at all. They, too, had picked up the words from a certain kind of spirit.
And to keep the tune from becoming tedious, soloist singers or instrumentalists inserted themselves into the repetitions, kind of like a call and response.
We sang several of these songs/chants to prepare our hearts for prayer or to meditate. It’s hard to imagine a better place to accomplish this than when surrounded by that simple, plain, and oversized, Church of Reconciliation, and the crowds within it. Some sat in meditation, others prayed already.
A video put together by members of the Taize community during the Covid Pandemic lock-downs demonstrates how the songs function. The tune is called Veni Sancte Spiritus. Probably anybody who has ever set foot in Taizé has sung it. The title and short verse is Latin for “Come, Holy Spirit,” but knowing the translation is not as important as allowing those beautiful repetitive harmonies to focus your mind on your upcoming personal time with God. The YouTube version sounds a bit thin in tone because of the intervening technology. But listen to it calmly and think of our miraculous gift of life. And try not to mind that the singers are not professionals.
Here’s another example, a tune called “In resurrectione tua Christe coeli et terra laetentur! (In your resurrection, Christ, heaven and earth rejoice!) For this one, a glance at the mimeographed lyrics could be helpful, since the repeated verse is longer.
Proceeding with Prayer
After a half hour or so of preparation, the time to actually pray was at hand. All voices and music fell silent and remained so for around ten minutes. My head and heart seemed to bloom with bouquets of thoughts and emotions. Could I pick one thought from the bouquet and hand it to God?
This sort of prayer was a revelation. It was nothing like the dry and formal recitations of my Presbyterian childhood, where one person speaks and everybody else kind of listens or reads along. That sort of prayer always felt like a duty, an inconvenience to show that you’re willing to put up with some minor discomfort to demonstrate the sincerity of your devotion.
These prayers at Taizé, however, were something else again. For one thing, they felt good. And they felt comforting. Who ever heard of a prayer that you enjoy as pleasure in your body and warm comfort? Well, the African American church probably did, though their style was not to be silent.
The prayer at Taizé wasn’t formal, really. It wasn’t exactly casual either. It was . . . well . . . to me, something new and contemplative. That is, I could sense prayers forming in my heart and mind and I seemed to feel them when they left my soul to receive God’s embrace, and I thought, yes, I had been heard. I had been heard. I surely knew that I had been heard. I don’t know exactly how I knew it, or how it all worked, for that matter.
But according to the warm beating of my heart there was a connection. Honestly, nobody had ever told me that a simple prayer between just me and God could be so moving, so spectacularly rich in quiet joy and consequence.
What about the other people in the church? Were they also soaking in the same mystical sea that I was? Probably not all, considering the plethora of church traditions that they represented. Probably a lot of them just meditated. But surely, most people must have.
So such a prayer, enveloped in that mystical silence, was available to me three times a day to fill my heart with a tangible deep joy. Sign me up. Count me in. I never missed another prayer at Taizé .
After the prayer, a few more recitations and rounds of songs closed out the hour until next time. A few brothers commandeered some of the scarce chairs and sat themselves around the periphery of the room to interact with members of the congregation who wished to talk to them. Maybe it’s questions. Maybe it’s confession? Maybe it’s sharing and expressing what had been gained during the prayer? Could be anything.
And again, it was all so simple and straightforward, so unadorned. No multimedia slide shows. No staged plays or lectures. No singing of Bach tunes or psalms with complex verses and four-part harmony or contemporary gospel tunes. No long analytic sermons or homilies. No taking notes. No stopping for an offering with keyboard accompaniment. No speaking in tongues. No recitation of the apostles’ creed.
Of course, such things may have their place, but not in a prayer like this. where they seemed like distractions from a conversation with a cherished friend or from the embrace of one’s beloved wife. No wonder the day in Taizé is structured around the prayers.
Integral components of Taizé
My description of Taizé is fragmentary. It’s only what a happy-go-lucky guy like I was would pick up on in three days. So, lest I be accused of completely misrepresenting Taizé, I’ll quickly outline just some of what I left out.
I’ve shown how Taizé, particularly during the summer, looks like a multilingual drop-in church camp. And to be fair, the world could use some church camps like that, just as you see them, promoting community, diversity, the joy of joining in (which is a spiritual act) and reconciliation between neighbors. The commitment to helping various ethnic groups to reconcile is (and reconciliation is more resilient than unity.) literally finds a way to a better life for all.
And at Taizé this “church camp” component is not separate from everything else. And It comes directly from the brothers’ practice of charity, this charity being the willingness to contribute one’s life (or at least part of it) without expecting anything in return.
Thus, the community itself is not just a pleasant hang-out. It’s an extension of the prayers and charity into everyday life. A spirit of reconciliation drives the entire community-building process. And as one person once said, it’s a process so gentle that it’s indestructible.
Charity and reconciliation are at the core of Taizé’s identity and purpose, which is expressed in countless ways, both major and minor, even though happy-go-lucky guys like me may not have looked deeply enough at what was in plain sight, right in front of him, to grasp it.
But how is that charity?
Taizé’s very location reveals its charitable roots. Brother Roger, the first prior, spent the run-up to World War II casting about in eastern France for a place mired in poverty that could benefit from the brother’s skills. That would be the village of Taizé. He and the brothers, his fellow Protestant monks, moved into some fixer-uppers next to a simple country church. Rent was cheap. The brothers knew crafts, farming and literacy skills which could benefit the community, so they got to work. Today they still contribute in that manner to the people in the area.
Taizé might not have expanded beyond that local village focus but for the intervention of God and World War II. The brothers were Swiss citizens, which enabled them to smuggle Jews and other targets of the Nazi state into their Taizé house (located on the border of Nazi controlled France) and then to Switzerland and safety. They were eventually found out, however and had to sit out much of the war in Switzerland.
They returned to Taizé at war’s end and returned to work. But this time, German war reparations were available for constructing buildings and other projects. This was too good an opportunity to pass up. They decided to think big. The war had betrayed a deep poverty of spirituality, charity, community, prayer and reconciliation in the European population. Such poverty was just as tangible as the material poverty suffered by the villagers of Taizé, but on a much grander scale.
So the brothers would declare a “council of youth,” an open invitation to young people (and some oldsters as well) to explore or even establish a Christian faith, by considering or practicing it during the summer. This “council of youth” is what I had inadvertently dropped in on.
Most of the German war reparations were devoted to constructing the huge church building, designed by one of the brothers who was an architect.
Everything else about Taizé then grew step by logical step in response to the exigencies of the moment, from the council of youth and from the brother’s other charitable practices. Thus, the reasons why Taizé functions in any particular way (such as the songs, for example) come from practical solutions to problems at hand. It’s not just style. And it all rests on works of charity. So Taizé is an organic and inseparable part of its tiny corner of France the same way a Frank Lloyd Wright building is an organic and inseparable part of the ground that it rests on. If you take just parts of it, they won’t perform as intended.
I left out some activities that were part of the week-long council of youth. These included Bible studies given by the brothers or just among tent-mates, and activities meant to honor and express meaning through the different branches of Christianity. There were also social activities such as meeting others from your country (the USA meeting was a blow-out) and also to meet individuals of different generations.
Taizé across the globe.
The council of youth was never intended to be a branch or denomination of the Christian church. Participants are expected to return to their home church at the end of the session (almost whether they want to or not!) Some exceptions are made for those who may feel called to join the brothers. They and others who need similar resources for meditating on their future might, as one example, spend a week in absolute silence. And there are a variety of ways that one can serve the community on a more long-term basis as volunteers (that is, workers). Or perhaps you’ll be inspired to serve your home communities.
Taizé later expanded across the globe in two forms, one consisting of small groups of brothers moving into a troubled or impoverished community (including one in the USA) to live there on a long-term basis to contribute to its development as a charity, just as they had in France. The other form was holding something like councils of youth in various places (usually urban — like Cologne, for example) on a short term basis.
For me, Taizé as that place most Christian in spirit (Pope John called it that little springtime). It’s one of the most significant centers of Christianity in today’s world, and it’s unique. I left Taizé with a whole new frame of mind about Christianity, and my place in it, which I carry to this day and every time I pray or even just perform activities throughout the day. If not for Taizé I would probably not be a Christian today. With it, how could I not be?
And why is that?The reconciliation between otherwise distinct ethnic groups is enough right there. So very few Christian churches can handle that.
And I’d be lying if didn’t tell you that a big reason is simply that it is beautiful. It’s a beauty that you can fall in love with, beautiful in my eyes, whether or not I’m there to see it. It’s not just beautiful in forms or musical harmonies, but in actions.
And just like how my partying eyes were opened to the practice of charity that was taking place right in front of me, I wish I could help people who want to open their eyes to the beautiful multiplicity of humanity that surrounds us everywhere in America, and find some way to help them reconcile. Again, reconciliation is so much more resilient than unity.
And by the way, I occasionally hear about or attend a “Taizé service” here in California. So far, these services may be enjoyable and sincere, but they usually incorporate only parts of Taizé’s inseparable components, usually the songs, sometimes recitations in a variety of languages But why the variety of languages? Where we live is mostly monolingual in public.
Similarly, I’ve heard of a group starting a center modeled on Taizé back east somewhere. But are they starting by performing charitable works and living among the poor? I don’t know.
Well, if you, the reader has made it this far, I am truly honored. You must care for me a lot to wade through it all. Thanks for thinking so much of me and the unique center of Christianity that guides me wherever I go, that changed the course of my life. I promise to write shorter messages in the future. . . .simply about the events that happen around me that people outside of California or Oregon might find interesting.
Oh! I almost forgot to recommend videos. Here’s a YouTube playlist of three-minute versions of a few Taizé songs.
Here are some clips from my “jazz Valentine,” Cécile McLorin Salvant. First of all, an album recorded in her early years when she adhered closely to jazz standard forms
And here are a couple examples from her second-most recent album.
Bye for now – I’d love to hear from you and perhaps know the people and places that changed your life.