A Weekend at Taize: What is it that attracts people from around the world?

Several Chicago-area teens came to the youth pastor, wondering if they could try a new kind of worship a few of them had experienced. It was quiet and beautiful, they said, and it calmed their spirits. We’re so busy all the time, they said. Maybe instead of all the hype and fun in our youth group, we could try Taizé.

What is it about the music and worship of Taizé that continues to attract tens of thousands of young people from around the world to this tiny village in southeastern France? In this issue, several articles explore that question (see pp. 34, 40, and 44).

Hospitality, Taizé Style

Last year I spent a January weekend at the community of Taizé. I came at a quiet time, arriving Friday evening just in time for supper. That night, only about a hundred visitors had joined the more than eighty full-time volunteers who spend one or two years as hospitality workers (the brothers eat in their own quarters). Everyone got a tray, bowl, and spoon, and we went through the line for a hearty casserole, bread, and tea. Guests included a group from Korea, students and a professor from a Catholic seminary in Belgium, a dozen United States air force personnel from a base in Germany, and many others. It reminded me of the best part of the sixties—young people with ideals and passion, seeking a deeper simplicity and spirituality.

The ringing of bells in the bell tower was the signal for all of us to leave for worship. At the chapel, everyone received a songbook that had all the songs in many, many languages. People sat on the floor or on low stools. The brothers started entering, one or two at a time. Eventually, when all were seated, the singing began; electronic signs projected the song numbers.

An organ was used for the responsorial psalms, but the only other accompaniment was a keyboard that played arpeggiated chords (one note at a time) in eighth notes that provided security in tempo and pitch. Leadership was invisible. Scripture and prayers were led by one of the brothers using a mike near the back. At the end, the singing continued as people left gradually. Eventually the singing stopped, but a few people stayed to pray in silence.

Keeping a Tradition Fresh

The next day, I had the privilege of speaking with Brother Émile (see p. 40). I was particularly interested in what was happening musically in the community since Jacques Berthier died in 1994. His genius created the wonderfully simple and creatively rich music that is now sung around the world. Was the community working with new composers? Could this community stay fresh if they stayed with one composer and one style? The latest collection of 133 songs they were using included primarily songs by Berthier, but there were others, from J. S. Bach (one chorale) to Suzanne Toolan (an Alleluia and Kyrie). Twenty-two songs were simply identified as “Taizé”—songs from the community.

These songs remind me of icons, where individuality is not desired so much as identity within a communal tradition. And since all the songs are performed in similar ways, they form a remarkably singular repertoire. In fact, a similarly remarkable and singular repertoire—the Genevan Psalter—was created not far from Taizé some 450 years ago. The Psalter represented a new approach to worship that stood in distinction from the church of Rome. The worship at Taizé, on the other hand, is a new approach that seeks reconciliation among divided Christians.

A Balanced Diet

I have grown to love variety, and Reformed Worship promotes a “balanced diet” (see “We Are What We Sing,” RW 60). So I wonder about a community that sings only its own music. They do so partly as an act of hospitality, since so many people have come with deep thirst that has been met by the worship at Taizé. I wonder also about the removal of preaching from their worship. Worship at Taizé is deliberately elemental and beautiful, which is undoubtedly why they have been able to become such a symbol of reconciliation, welcoming Catholics and Protestants and Orthodox in ways that remind everyone powerfully of our unity in Christ.

Taizé is a community, not a church. The brothers always commend those who come searching for answers to deep questions of faith to seek out a fellowship of believers when they return home. Brother Émile reminded me that all the brothers remain members of their particular communions, of which there are many. Also, as a woman, I could never join this community. And so it is not complete.

Even so, the community of Taizé has found an approach that reaches many with the reconciling gospel of Christ. May they continue to do so for a long time to come.

Emily R. Brink (embrink@calvin.edu) is Senior Research Fellow for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and former editor of Reformed Worship.