Contemplating Taizé

The Church of Reconciliation at Taizé. Photo taken by author.

Perfect times

There are times in life, it seems – times filled by places and people – that are singularly perfect.

Perhaps all times are like this, but we only notice the perfection within those moments that mold around the shape that we already are.

Perhaps this is so. And I can be content with this. To find the perfection in all things we would surely have to already be God, or at least saints, and I am young yet to have even begun that journey. But I am content right now. Strangely comfortable on these cold stone steps. The crucifix before me. All around, people gather slowly, one by one ready to pray.

I am early. Very early. Only a few dozen of the two thousand are here with me, in relative silence, reading, writing, praying. The church is welcomingly cool after the beating sun of Southern France. The empty altar sits quiet and plain, candles flickering behind, their colour blending at the far end of the church with the red and yellow splattered walls and long orange drapes like gentle tongues of flame, mirroring their smaller brothers below, clinging to their wicks.

We wait: for the brothers and the worship, the silence around us, a drawn out pause, a breath, a preparation. The busy sibling to the silence of the night. And yet it houses all, frames all. It is the perfect shape for whatever comes to fill it, and it bears all sound patiently; this humble silent pause, the silence of the church at day.

And I wait in it. My pen is noiseless now, masked by the slow steps of others on the carpet. The little sounds of preparation warming up the silence of the church, getting that silent air ready to bear our voices as soon as they are raised in praise.

I am part of this pause. Myself a silent partner to this space. And, like the waiting air of the church, I too will be filled when all arrive in communion to raise their hearts to God. Till then I am content to wait.

I am learning now to hear the world inside out. To hear the sound of silence first and then, as noises gather, to hear that silence itself silenced by the slow coagulation of the busy sounds of life.

From the beginning of June to early September, one small village in the South of France is inundated with thousands of young people from across the globe. The Taizé community, founded by Frère Roger in 1940 has been an oasis of peace and a centre of international relations amongst the younger generations of our world for decades now. Tens of thousands come during the Summer period to live, work, eat and be together.

Staying at the community is refreshing in its simplicity, in the work we do, the food we eat and especially in the style of worship that the Brothers of Taizé have developed over the last 70 years.

The worship at Taizé follows the monastic tradition, with three periods of prayer during the day, and it always includes readings from the Bible. But it is specifically designed to be inclusive to all who come. The music is the first thing to notice. The songs are written in numerous languages, enabling people from different cultures and nationalities to feel more at home as they sit and sing together. In a single service we might change from Polish, to French, English, German, Russian or Dutch, or any one of the 50+ languages that are used in the songbook. The songs often have hints of a particular style that fits the music from the culture in whose language the music is sung. But all the songs are short, ten to thirty second verses that are sung repeatedly. The repetitions allow you to become familiar with the language, but eventually to pass beyond the words and to use the music almost like a mantra, or a short repeated prayer that allows you to meditate through the music. The songs are also extremely beautiful. They are most commonly sung in four parts or in a round, and it is always remarkable to sit alongside strangers from another country, perhaps singing in their language, or yours, or neither, and to be united through the music, though if you were to speak to each other you may not be able to understand more than a few words.

One of the surprising things about Taizé worship is that it does not include any preaching. Instead, the central part of the service is a period of silence. You sit surrounded by people from across the world, and share that peace together. For some it is intimately prayerful. Others sit in quiet tears, able at last to think about the things that they spend so much time running away from. Some will sit completely still, apparently lost in meditation. Some will kneel with their heads and bodies bowed right against the floor, breathing their worries or thanksgivings into their hands. We do not have to be anything in this silence. It is an empty space where we are free to be whatever it is we are, to turn over in our minds those things we need to ponder. To hear the quiet voice in our centre that is so often blotted out by all the extraneous nothings we spend our time focussed on. It would be easy to talk of God here, but there is no need. If people choose to take the peace that can be found in Taizé worship in that direction then they can, and a large number of people who come to visit the community in France will of course be Christian. But a surprising number are not, and may never be. They come, again and again, to live in the peace and beauty that seeps through every pore of that place. Call it what you will, in the worship it is possible to step back, to look at what you are and what you do in a new way, and to give ear to what is really boiling over out of your heart.

For decades now, this has not been constricted to the Taizé community. People across the world take this unique approach to worship with them, to all their many homes and even here in Durham, occasionally in the Cathedral and in the college chapel at Hild Bede every Monday night at 9pm.

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