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A Visit to Taize

I was on a pilgrimage, it seemed, not fully sure of my destination. An interest in Vincent Van Gogh took my wife and me to the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. On our way to Aries, in southern France, we drove to the ecumenical community of Taize to spend the weekend.

I had been hearing and reading about "Taize" for some years. Then, in 1983, some friends sent Brother Leonard to Ann Arbor to discuss with me the possibility of having a Pilgrimage for Peace and Reconciliation in our city. Brother Leonard is a Dutchman, a member of the Gereformeerde Kerken, formerly an art historian and now a monk! I was intrigued. We spent hours talking, looking at slides of Taize, listening to Taize music, and planning the pilgrimage. The planning took about a year. And all the while I was learning more about the Taize community, especially its music. I found myself listening to Taize music and using it in the worship of our church.

Brother Leonard is sort of a jet-set monk, flying around the country and the world as an advance man for quietness, peace, and reconciliation. It was he who gave me directions to Taize, France.

* * *

Even with the directions we got lost… a few limes. (Taize is located six or seven miles north ofCluny, on the eastern side of France. If you travel about one hundred miles southeast from Taize, through the mountains, you would end up in Geneva.) But being lost didn't keep us from enjoying the beautiful ride through the Burgundy Hills, through quaint little towns, and over rolling countryside dotted with grazing cows and sheep. The yellow fields could have inspired a Van Gogh painting.

At last we arrived in the picturesque town of Taize—stone houses, a small, ancient Romanesque church—where some eighty farmers live. We went up a hill, following a sign that pointed us to the Taize Community. It is amazing how so many people find their way to this tiny, out-of-the-way village!

* * *

Brother Roger arrived in the Taiz£ Community in 1940. A Reformed pastor, he came from Switzerland with the dream of a Protestant (Reformed) community that would serve as a concrete sign of reconciliation for the church and the world.

While working and living a life of prayer, he also welcomed into his house political refugees, mostly Jews who were fleeing the Nazi persecution, and helped them escape to Switzerland. Gradually, a few more men from the Swiss Reformed Church joined him, and in 1949 the group decided to make a life commitment to live in community, in celibacy, and in poverty—sharing their material and spiritual goods. A Reformed monastery!

Some eighty "brothers" now live in the "Ecumenical Community of Taize"—ecumenical since the community now includes men of many traditions and denominations: Protestant, Catholic, and Anglican.

In the 1960s people began to flock to Taize to share with the brothers, to pray, to search for spiritual rootedness and peace. This quiet community has become a place of pilgrimage, especially for young people. During the summer two or three thousand people flock weekly to this little hill.

* * *

As we drove up to the "Welcome House," we saw many young people standing around with their backpacks. It reminded us of a youth hostel.

We were disappointed to discover that Brother Leonard was not there but glad that he had alerted people to our arrival. One of the brothers greeted us and showed us to a small, very simple room in a "house." (Most visitors who visit Taize sleep in large tents.)

Our host told us that Bible study was about to begin, so we followed him to one of the cottages and joined some thirty other people who were already seated on wooden benches. A young brother commented, both in English and in German, on the lectionary readings for the next day's (Sunday's) service. Weary from the warm day's travel, I listened rather lethargically, not realizing until much later how pertinent his words were for my pilgrimage.

* * *

Jesus is "the Way"—not just the end of the way, but the Way— the brother reminded us. So we don't need directions to get to Jesus (as I needed to get to Taize) as much as we need to realize that Jesus is already with us on the way. Jesus is not somewhere else or far ahead or at the end of all our hard pious work. Even now, even when we seem confused or lost, even before we understand—like the two on the way to Emmaus— Jesus is with us. The present can be an important time to recognize God's presence.

* * *

As we left the cottage, we queued up for snack time—a small piece of cake, and tea scooped out of a huge pot into a plastic bowl. It was like being at camp.

That's it, in fact. Being at Taize is like being at camp. All the visitors help out—dishing out food, cleaning up, doing dishes, and so on. But aside from those chores, visitors are basically on their own. They may choose to spend their time in group study, conversation, reading, walking, talking with one of the brothers, or meditating silently in the fields. The brothers live on a completely separate part of the hill, an area off-limits to guests except by personal invitation.

Every morning and evening the brothers lead services in the Church of Reconciliation—a rather large structure which from the outside, as one writer said, resembles an oversized army beer hall. Set in the ground before the church's door are five large panels that present these striking words in five different languages:

BE RECONCILED
ALL YOU WHO ENTER HERE
parents and children
husbands and wives
believers and those who
cannot believe
Christians and their
fellow Christians.






* * *

These words express the vision of the Taize Community: to be a symbol, a living parable, of reconciliation in a fragmented church in a divided world. The members of the community come from various countries and many religious traditions. They remain members of their churches and thus share their traditions in their common life and worship.

Brother Roger has often pointed out that reconciliation does not involve the victory of some and the humiliation of others; it is not a matter of proving who is right and who is wrong. Reconciliation among Christians begins with the grateful discovery of the gifts of God in various Christian traditions. Accepting the best gifts of the Orthodox Church would mean entrusting ourselves, in prayers and liturgy, to the joy of the Presence of the Risen Christ and the Holy Spirit. A particular gift of the Catholic Church is the Presence of Christ as the basis of reconciliation in the Eucharist. The churches of the Reformation offer confidence in the Word of God and the encouragement to put that Word into practice in our daily lives.

The purpose of reconciliation among Christians is not to separate us from the world, not to make us strong against others, but rather to promote confidence and reconciliation in the whole hurting human family. "What captivates us about the reconciliation of Christians," Brother Roger has observed, "is that Christ wants to make that unique communion which is his church a ferment of reconciliation for the entire human community—and that is not without creative consequences for world peace."

This deep concern for healing in the world sends about half the brothers of the community to live a life of prayer and service among suffering people in places like Brazil, Calcutta, Nairobi, and New York City. Since 1982 a few of the brothers have been on a Pilgrimage for Peace and Reconciliation—visiting various cities for weekends of study, prayer, worship, and encouragement.

During such a weekend in Ann Arbor people from about thirty churches gathered to pray around the cross, to sing, to study, and to celebrate the Festival of the Resurrection. The focus of our gathering became the very basics of our Christian faith and the biblical basics for justice, reconciliation, and peace. For at least a weekend—as we prayed, sang, and meditated in stillness—we had an inkling of Jesus' vision that we all be one. There was peace in the church! And together we planted seeds for further growth into peace in all of life.

* * *

It is very peaceful as one enters the Church of Reconciliation. A single sign, urges all who enter to "SILENCE. " The stark interior is lit by light filtered through a line of stained-glass windows along the top of the wall and from candles flickering in the chancel area. Always candles. Lots of candles. Because it is Saturday, we will celebrate the Festival of the Resurrection. (Fridays focus on Prayers Around the Cross.) We all receive small candles that we will light later in the service, setting the whole place aglow.

There are no pews. Most people kneel or sit on the thinly carpeted floor.

The service does not seem to begin or end at any exact moment. Like most other things at Taize, it just seems to happen. The monks, wearing white robes, enter and kneel in an oblong group in the middle of the church. No one is "upfront"to "lead" the service. The leading happens from within the group of brothers or the circle of musicians. The liturgy is very simple, and everything moves along in an unhurried way, yet with some intensity. There are prayers, two or three Scripture readings, and extended times of silence. And, of course, there is singing—the singing of that hypnotic, haunting Taize music. Simple phrases are sung over and over again ("ostinato," musicians call it), weaving a fabric of sound together with instruments and solo voices, like cantors.

* * *

The music is written by a friend of the monastery, Jacques Berthier. Because the people who visit Taize seldom stay long and come from a variety of countries and religious backgrounds, the brothers wanted a very simple music, easily accessible to the worshipers. Berthier has done it. He has composed music characterized by short phrases, simple chants, repeated over and over again—songs that can be sung without books or music. Repetition helps the mind grasp basic truths and easily ingrains them into the memory.

The Taize music also carries out the ecumenical, international, and reconciliatory ideals of the community. As a phrase is repeated again and again, cantors sing in various languages so that each person present feels part of the worship. The more languages a person knows, the more involved he or she can be. The Scripture also is read in at least three or four languages. The reading and singing are very concrete ways of experiencing closeness with so many people— all united before God.

As the singing leads to interior silence and focuses attention on the Presence of God, it prepares worshipers for prayer and for receiving the Word of God. It is also a response to the Word and prayer. And it is prayer itself. The singing fosters prayer, reflection, and contemplation. I have found that singing "O Lord, Hear My Prayer" as a response to silence in worship, as a preparation for congregational prayer, or at any time, helps people realize they are in God's presence. It was thrilling to join in singing this song in the Church of Reconciliation and to have it continue to echo in my heart. In the same way the very simple "Jesus, Remember Me" or "Eat This Bread" sung during the bread and wine of holy communion can deepen the experience.

* * *

It was the liturgy that impressed me the most at Taize. Through music, readings, prayer, and silence each service creates time and space to be in the presence of God. And because the service pays attention to all of us and includes all of us, worshipers discover a sense of unity with people of God from around the world. The Eucharist is then a visible expression and experience of that unity.

Services in the Church of Reconciliation don't have any recognizable ending. At some point the brothers file out… but the people don't leave! A few brothers—including Brother Roger—come back into the sanctuary to speak with people privately. But the singing continues—maybe for another ten minutes, maybe for a half hour or more. When people want to leave, they simply do so—again in silence. The stillness and unity of the service are not broken by chatter. Those who stay to pray can do so.

One night I stayed until the last person departed—a full hour after the monks had left. Even when everyone was gone, the music seemed to continue. It stayed with me.

As we left on Monday, we had an inkling why so many people flock to Taize. It was peaceful. It was relaxing. We had met people from Germany, Italy. France, Scotland, Bolivia, The Netherlands, and New Jersey(l). But it was rather an ordinary, seemingly unorganized, unspectacular experience. Brother Roger is quoted as saying: "People coming here for a spiritual 'trip' soon realize they've got the wrong address. "

For me it was something like a hot-air balloon ride—gentle, peaceful, calm, freeing. Not spectacular, yet unforgettable. The experience stays with me like the wind, like the Spirit…like the music and stillness of Taize fdling that God-shaped place in the heart. God seems something like a half-remembered tune, weaving in and out of my existence, intoxicating and luring me toward even more— toward a deeper, wider, freer experience of the Divine.

The destination of my pilgrimage doesn't seem to matter. The Presence on the way is enough.

Excerpt
Taize Music Resources
Recordings

Wait for the Lord
This U.S. recording of Taize music, although technically superior to other recordings, sounds like a performance. Taize music is not performance but participation.

Cantate! and Resurrexit
Recorded live at Taize, these two are my favorites. Though not of very high technical caliber, these recordings will evoke the experience of Taize worship for both those who have visited Taize and those who have not.

Taize in Rome
Recorded live in various basilicas, including St. Peter's, this recording includes words from Pope John Paul II and Brother Roger on the subject of Christian unity.

Music

Music from Taize, vol. 1 and 2
Each volume is available in several editions: Vocal Edition (for choir, cantor, organist, guitarist, conductor); Instrumental Edition (solo and ensemble parts for various instruments); People's Book (melody only for placement in bulletins).

Cantos de Taize
This new Spanish edition includes 37 selections from volumes 1 and 2 and 18 pieces composed exclusively for Spanish texts.

Prayer Services

Praying Together in Word and Song
Included are three simple prayer services that integrate song, Scripture, prayer, and silence.

All of the above are available from G.I. A. Publications, Inc., 7404 S. Mason Ave., Chicago, Illinois 60638; 1-312-496-3800.