THIS year, I joined the tens of thousands of young people who trek annually to a monastic community tucked away in the Burgundy-wine-filled region of Saône-et-Loire, in rural France: Taizé, named after the village of the same name.
There, I learned the paradox that it is only in switching off from the noise around me that I can hear what is really going on. There is value in solo retreats, but a chance to journey with God, both as individual and community, within the context of Taizé’s candlelit services, was for me — and evidently for thousands of others — staggeringly different. The experience of sitting among white-robed Taizé Brothers in the Church of Reconciliation augmented my sense of spiritual reawakening.
For those of us who are unfamiliar with them, it is too easy to assume that all monastic communities are alike. But Taizé is no conventional monastery: rather, an ecumenical monastic order comprising a 100-strong monk community of many denominations. It welcomes people from around the world to come for a week (or more) and focus on living a life of simplicity, joy, and reconciliation.
In the course of their stay, teenagers and adults alike will join the Brothers for morning, lunchtime, and evening prayer. Meditative prayer, the singing of psalms and scripture, and a ten-minute period of silence in the middle of each service, dictate the rhythm of the worship. Worshippers sit cross-legged on the floor of the large church building while the brothers are seated in the centre.
Taizé’s music — so often what the community is best known for — focuses on simple truths expressed in musical phrases that are either repeated or sung in canon, and designed to help meditation and prayer.
Arriving as a newcomer, I felt some apprehension about how to spend the periods of silence. With a background of attendance at what might be described as “loud” churches, I was not used to the regularity of quietness and stillness. But I quickly found them to be refreshing; an oasis in the middle of summertime France. More than this, I learned the beauty of repetitive prayer and vibrant song. As you begin to align yourself with the rhythm of worship, the repetitive becomes pleasantly familiar and genuine, the focus on reconciliation challenging, and the power of the Holy Spirit deeply revealing.
VISITORS to Taizé pitch a tent or sleep in “barracks”. Food is provided; although basic, it serves to amplify the important things while downplaying the distraction of choice. Mid-morning offers a chance to hear one of the Brothers unpack a portion of scripture. Break-out groups afterwards form the perfect opportunity to share your pilgrimage with others, as well as the chance to meet and greet an eclectic bunch of fellow pilgrims.
In my fellowship, I found that daily meetings with a Roman Catholic businessman from Germany, a Franco-American Jew, and a Finnish Evangelical helped to balance the occasionally introspective nature of such a retreat. Some had wandered from the pathway of the Christian faith, yet longed for a sense of community and the appropriate guideposts back. Others poured out detail about family life, and asked for prayer. One girl spent a week-long retreat in silence.
So what is it that keeps busloads of young people from across Europe following signs to the town of Cluny — home to its own Benedictine abbey — before proceeding another half-dozen miles north to this small commune?
Young people visiting Taizé often speak of it as offering something different, peaceful, and open, perhaps starkly different in nature from the orthodox churches back home. It is telling that, while some Christian festivals in Europe throw pots of money at marketing their main events, Taizé does none of this. Significantly, the community’s rhythm of prayer is unchanged since pilgrims first headed to the French hills in the 1950s.
IF EVER I needed a clear picture of the reverence in which visitors hold Taizé, a great snapshot presented itself one evening. The Church of Reconciliation was packed to the rafters, but the “sound” of sheer silence within was deafening. Half an hour later, I passed the site’s café, Oyak, from which came screams of laughter and the exuberant noises that would be familiar in the squares of any European city. This was the same group of young people I had earlier noticed diligently praying in hushed silence, now singing and dancing to the sound of a Spanish guitar.
Perhaps Taizé captivates precisely because it offers no promises of an “experience”, nor claims to possess something that other places don’t. The openness and simplicity of the place are significant, too. While holding firmly to scripture, Taizé offers an open-minded haven for those who simply wish to come.
THERE is something striking about the way in which Taizé responded, in August 2005, to the fatal stabbing of its founder, Brother Roger, by a mentally ill woman. A natural reaction would have been to put up barriers, but the beauty of this place is that you are made to feel part of it rather than merely a spectator. As one of the Brothers said, a few years after the founder’s tragic death, the sense of peace that visitors experience is “much stronger than what we lived in that one [tragic] moment”.
I was taken aback, this summer, by the intrinsically special atmosphere of this remote community. It is difficult to underestimate the simplicity of encountering God in such an unpractised way. The idea of travelling together — not alone, but with many others — symbolises the Christian path. At a time when divisive rhetoric splits communities and nations, I was struck by the commitment of Taizé — founded in the horror of the Second World War — to practising reconciliation. Often, we are tempted just to think of this in relation to ourselves, but in places such as Rwanda and Northern Ireland reconciliation offers the possibility of real change for a nation, and hope for the future.
Amid the clamour, in many churches, for the correct theology and practising of the Great Commission, there is a gap for something more: something that deepens inside. I cannot imagine what it is like to give up everything in making the vows of a Taizé Brother, but what I can see is that their desire to preach Christ’s reconciliation worldwide, through both Taizé and regular events across Europe and elsewhere, challenges the different wings of the Church in a refreshing way.
We hear much in the Gospels about the concept of watchfulness, of having our eyes open to the transforming Kingdom of which Jesus calls us to be a part, but how is this such attentiveness evident today? In our churches, we often morph from one song into another when a more meditative approach would help to bring us into a deeper awareness of the gospel, creation, and ourselves.
All the Brothers at Taizé make a lifelong commitment, including forgoing any inheritance, and sharing everything. They do this as part of their devotion to peace and justice. If this valuable expression of multi-denominational Christianity can come together in strength and discover its calling through simplicity, grace, and the everyday rhythm of prayer, then there is reason to be hopeful of our calling as individuals, as communities, and as life-giving churches.
A renewed focus on scripture through a discipline of prayer, and the practice of reconciliation: could these be what are needed to bind the Church back together today?