Drawn to the Mystery: A conversation with Brother Emile of Communaute de Taize

Brother Émile (last names are not used in Taizé) is a French Canadian from northern Ontario. We met under an awning in the garden at Taizé during a hot July day. Little groups clustered nearby. In a place that avoids titles and roles, Brother Émile does a number of things, including Bible studies with the young adults who come to Taizé for a week and with the international team of volunteers that stay for a year.

Brother Émile found his vocation at Taizé in the mid 1970s when he came for a year as a young man. “I wanted to be in a place where I could think about what it means to live the gospel today, to follow Christ.”

The week we met there were 4,500 people at the community, with 5,000 expected the following week. Over the course of the summer up to 100,000 people may stay a few days. On this day we talked about the history of worship and common prayer at Taizé.

Boers: Tell me about the beginnings of your common prayer or the daily Office.

Br. Émile: The Office has changed. There’s been a very great evolution over the years. Brother Roger [founder and leader] was interested in the monastic life from a very young age. He had great trust from the very beginning that a community of people who came together for life could contribute to a renewal in the church and lead to more authenticity, to conversion—a “springtime of the church,” we like to say today.

In the early 1940s, at a fairly young age, he wrote a book about community life and its relevance, influenced by his studies of the Benedictine tradition of prayer and work, ora et labora. Prayer was always, in his mind, at the heart of life. He prayed alone for the first two years he was here from 1940 to 1942. During that time he welcomed some political refugees, Jewish people who were escaping persecution. Eventually he was forced to leave because people found out what he was doing, and he risked being arrested. He continued to live in Geneva from 1942 to1944 and prayed in the cathedral where his sister played the organ.

After a couple of young men read Brother Roger’s book on community life, they joined him and began living and praying together. Brother Roger talked about the relevance of community life. Quite quickly they knew it would have a monastic essence. When it became possible in 1944, the community came back to Taizé. They wanted to pray together three times a day. Although they tried to have an Office in the night, that didn’t last long.

What was the content of their prayers?

From the beginning, they always prayed the psalms. Father Gelineau, a Jesuit visitor to Taizé, was working on the psalms; the first recording of his translations of the psalms took place in the 1940s. He was struck by the way the brothers used to sing because many of them were from the Reformed tradition, where people sing quite energetically. Father Gelineau felt that this strong singing was right for the psalms, that in the monasteries the psalms were sung too gently. The community also sang hymns from the Protestant tradition.

There was always a place for silence in the Office. Although I’m not sure where that came from, I do know that Brother Roger did some retreats with the Carthusians, monks who keep a lot of silence. A Quaker who used to come here a lot, Douglas Steere, really liked that in Taizé.

When did the Office get wider exposure?

The first Office was published in the early 1950s. It immediately began to attract quite a lot of attention, not only in Protestant churches but also in Catholic churches, because the Catholic liturgy was done in Latin. So Taizé was one of the first places where the psalms were sung in French.

What were the influences in the development of the Taizé Office?

The brothers were all interested in liturgy. They were quite open to exploring Christian traditions. As a monastic community, their roots went beyond the Reformation to the early centuries of the church. The brothers still like to read about the practices of the early Christians. Because they never felt they had to stay within the framework of a small common denominator, they were enriched by the Orthodox tradition, by Catholic tradition. In certain centuries certain aspects were rejected because they were not properly explained or properly lived out. But in a century that is less polemic, we cannot only accept that others pray differently, but also let our own prayer be enriched by them.

What were the significant developments in your liturgy?

In the very early years, for example at the end of the ’40s and in the ’50s, when there were not many guests, the brothers had time to work on recordings of the psalms. They also worked with the Paris composer Jacques Berthier, with whom they recorded the Christmas liturgy. The community had a number of good musicians who worked quite hard. They had time.

How does all that compare with your liturgy now?

Of course that was quite different from the Office today. We don’t even use that word any more. We say “prayer together” or “common prayer.” The evolution began as young people started coming in the mid-’70s. At that time we let go of some more elaborate songs. We tried to reduce the number of words.

Please tell us more about those changes.

The Taizé songs of the mid-’70s were not immediately integrated into the prayer of the community. For many years, the Office had the same basic structure: opening psalm followed by a second psalm, Bible reading, and then responsorial psalm. In the morning there was a second reading, then a time of silence, a litany, the Our Father, and then a blessing by Brother Roger. Everything was over in half an hour or forty-five minutes. The evening Office was basically the same structure.

In the mid-’70s, the short songs started to take on some importance. They didn’t immediately affect the structure of the prayer; they were more a second part of the prayer. Instead of leaving the prayer, the brothers would stay to continue the singing. There were one or two songs then, and we sang them as long as we could. Then there were three songs; then ten; then there were twenty. That made it a little easier to make the prayer last.

Gradually the music found its way into the Office itself. As that happened, it transformed the common prayer into something much simpler and much more participatory. That was always a concern for the brothers—that people be able to participate and not be spectators of the prayer. Their desire to have prayer be accessible explains a lot of what goes on here.

How do you evaluate this form of praying?

We are aware of the limitations and limits of such prayer. It is poor prayer in a way: few short Bible texts, short songs, short Bible prayers. Working in many languages creates limitations. But it is well suited to our situation.

How did Taizé music become so widespread and influential?

We never really expected that visitors would want to take the songs back to their country, their parishes, their congregations. Gradually, we came to realize that the repetition of a few words was helpful not only for solving the problem of worshiping together with people from many languages. Repetition helps worshipers to focus on a few basic truths of the Christian faith; it allows them to be filled by these truths.

And so you gave them more importance here as well?

Gradually the songs became part of the prayer. We let go of a great deal of beautiful hymns that may have been aesthetically superior but were not helpful to use with a large crowd of people using many languages. But then people also saw the positive side of repetition and simplicity. So then for many years we no longer dared publish a prayer book—1979 was the last edition. We waited twenty years before publishing A Prayer for Each Day. It is aimed at people with less liturgical experience.

Even in this short songbook, we give a few indications of how to pray together. We felt called to go in the direction of simplicity. It’s an ongoing search. We don’t claim to have reached a satisfactory point. Maybe someday we’ll come to integrate longer texts again. We do that in the winter when there are fewer people. We can sing certain songs then. As I said, it’s an ongoing process.

What can you tell me about the structure as it is now?

Strangely enough, the structure has remained the same really, even if the songs are different. There are still one or two psalms in the introduction, Bible reading, meditative chant (often the words are taken from the psalms). In the morning we still have the responsorial psalm. There’s a reading of the text in many languages, a long time of silence, and then the litany.

What have been some important changes in the music?

At the beginning of this new period in the ’70s, there were just canons and ostinatoes, texts with a few words. We felt there were other ways of doing things. We could have more text if we had solo parts while the assembly continued to sing the ostinato. And we also discovered that young people were happy to move from one language to another. That helped. We continue to search in that direction.

What is your primary goal in how you conduct your worship and prayers?

Our concern today is that people understand something of the Christian mystery. I’ve often thought about a professor who spoke about how he had changed. He said, “I used to teach with the conviction that if my students didn’t understand what I was saying, they would come and ask questions. Now I see that’s not how it is. No, if they don’t understand, they go away.” He’s talking not only about students, but about people in general. “When they do understand something, they start to ask questions.” We want people to be able to quickly understand something of the heart of the Christian mystery. If they get a glimpse, then they’ll want to go further. They’ll start to ask questions: How can I deepen the faith? How can I get to know the Scripture more? That idea guides a lot of what we do here.

How does this affect decisions about the liturgy?

There’s been some concern here about the choice of readings, for example. In the Catholic Church, Vatican II tried to have a lectionary where they could read most of the Scripture. Some of the questions we ask here are, Are all Scripture passages appropriate for reading in the liturgy? Should some not be more private, personal reading? Are some readings too difficult, especially if there’s no sermon or explanation? Should our readings focus more on what is at the center?

How does your focus on youth affect what you do?

Young people say that one of their problems is that they are bored in church. When we asked them why, they responded: “There’s always one person talking at the front.” They don’t like worship that is passive. That doesn’t mean they want noise or a superficial atmosphere. It surprises lots of our adult visitors that young people have a thirst for silence, for meditative, contemplative prayer.

It is a question of how people can participate. One way is by limiting the number of words. The liturgy is not a place to receive explanations on God or about God. Rather it is a place to encounter God. So we try to reduce the number of things that are explanatory. That doesn’t come naturally. In some churches I have heard people announce that there are going to be announcements at the end of the service! All these extra words are unnecessary, they bore people. So that’s been one of our concerns, to limit words.

We do the Bible study in the morning at ten o’clock outside the church. We never make announcements in the liturgy.

What do you find is important in worship?

Certain things are conducive to creating an atmosphere of being there to encounter God: lighting, for instance, and position. For example, sitting in the same position as you are when watching a film or TV show is not quite the thing for meeting God. The body can also express the search for God. Although we realize it’s not possible for everyone to sit on the floor or kneel down the way we do at Taizé, lots of people appreciate the fact that there are no benches in the church.

A constant task of the church is to discern what is cultural, that is, what belongs to a certain period in its history but is not part of the essence of the Christian mystery itself. Perhaps there was a time when people were eager to receive lots of explanation. Possibly the divisions among Christians were responsible for this need to prove that one denomination is right over another And that kind of teaching was offered. That’s not what people want today. Although there’s room for deepening the faith intellectually, that does not necessarily have to be done within the liturgy.

Taizé seems to be touching a need; the responses are incredible.

If you compare the difference between the early to mid-’70s and the ’80s and following, the length of the time of prayer has more than doubled. People stay twice as long and continue singing.

People often come to us with nervous fatigue because of the kind of life they live—answer ten e-mails before noon, drive in busy traffic, and so on. We have to take that into account. People cannot enter a church and immediately be contemplative. That’s one of the valuable things about repetition. Maybe the words don’t sink in right away. Maybe they gradually sink in and you let go of some of the protective layers you have to live with in everyday life.

How can you really touch the heart? That’s always a question. Not in a sentimental or emotional sense but in the biblical sense, the real you. How can the liturgy do that? After all, that’s what it’s made for.

A character in a Bergman film asked, “Can we get to know God with our senses?” Orthodox theologian Olivier Clément [a friend of Taizé] says, “That’s what the liturgy is about: getting to know God with our senses that are transfigured.” The Orthodox, of course, have been attentive to that. Everything must participate in our prayer: what we see, feel, hear, smell (the incense). We’ve always felt that we’ve a lot to receive from the Orthodox church.

One thing we hope for is that churches would be open to people’s thirst for contemplative prayer, a place where the heart can rest in God, where there is room for silence. It’s not normal that we are so deprived of silence.

What are the challenges and obstacles to being people of prayer?

No matter how beautiful a prayer is, there’s always going to be a need for perseverance, for commitment, for being faithful. There will always be times when we don ‘t feel the beauty of prayer. Then we pray the question rather than what we feel.

These challenges demand a lot of courage, conversion. People are not going to be able to persevere alone in personal prayer. In regular common prayer, we join together and take our part—every week, or month, or day. When we are left alone, it is easy to give in to discouragement. But in common prayer we support one another. We are never all at the same place at the same time. This week I support you and next week I need your support.

What have you learned about prayer that the wider church needs to hear?

Taizé is not a movement. We are not forming groups. Many people all over the world do weekly or monthly services using the music from Taizé, but we say to them, “Don’t call it Taizé.” If you have to find a name, maybe call it “Prayer with the songs of Taizé.”

It takes very little to make space for prayer. At the same time, change needs to be introduced gently. For example, sometimes you could just keep singing after the regular service. Or have a different service and keep the regular one too.


In a Word

Daily Office

Office dates back to the earliest days of the Christian church. It has roots in the Latin word officium, which is similar to the more common Protestant term service. The related words officer and official refer to those with particular duties or services to perform, for example, in government or business. In the church, Office historically referred to set times of daily prayer services that have been part of the life of Christian communities for centuries—and that date back to the Jewish times of daily prayer (see Dan. 6:10). More typical Protestant language for prayer includes morning and evening prayer and vespers. The use of the word Office throughout this interview recognizes that these services of daily prayer have long roots.

Arthur Paul Boers is assistant professor of pastoral theology, Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Waterloo, Ontario. He spoke recently at the Calvin Symposium on Worship and the Arts on his latest book, Never Call Them Jerks: Healthy Responses to Difficult Behavior (Alban, 1999; www.alban.org).


Reformed Worship 63 © March 2002, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.