A “mountaintop experience” this was not. That designation would seem to suggest some singular moment of transformation; an encapsulated point of epiphany; an ephemeral revelation of God’s nature soon forgotten. No, to be in Taizé is to gradually discern God through humility, service, fellowship, and, certainly not least of all, prayer. The youth were guided through spiritual mentorship beforehand to have a certain awareness of these things as we embarked on our pilgrimage. Clearly, the adult experience is going to vary not only from person to person but from that of a youth as well. Not to mention the adult “programming” at Taizé is also slightly different in terms of bible study and a few scheduled activities. Thus, I’ll not speak for the experience of our youth or presume to perceive their spiritual encounters, but will reflect on my own time in Taizé, which was remarkable, trusting that the time our young people had was not too dissimilar.
“A Simple Day”
Morning, noon, and night the bells intone a gleeful chorus to the whole community, singing continuously for around twelve minutes signaling that it’s time for prayer at the church. This is the foundation of each day. Prayer (what we would call a worship service) at Taizé is spirit-filled, soul-cleansing, life-centering. Songs are sung, scriptures are read, and prayers are lifted up, all in many languages, for Taizé is a place where the whole world gathers, regardless of race, creed, background, or religion. And then, there is the silence. Not only is silence a requisite upon entering the church, but has its own place in the middle of the prayer service. Around ten minutes of complete silence. Ten. Minutes. To pray, to meditate, to listen. Spread across a whole day that’s thirty minutes devoted to silent, deep, personal prayer and reflection. We were at Taizé for six days and only on the sixth day was I finally able to clear my whole mind and remain centered for that duration. The silence was the most difficult, and perhaps the most fulfilling thing I encountered at Taizé. It, in and of itself, was a micro-journey in figuring out how to get everything else around me to stop in order to arrive at a profound place of simple existence, that I might in some way commune with God. Ultimately, I don’t know that I (or any of us?) really ever “figured it out,” per se. It just…happened.
“Work for Food”
For many, meal time is not just for eating but for working as well. Someone must set out the hundreds of trays, plates, bowls, spoons, and food, and then that food must be distributed to the masses and afterwards cleaned up. Hint: the Brothers of the community do not do this! Nearly everyone taking part in the community is issued some task or chore, food related or otherwise. I, with others, was responsible for preparing the meal space and putting food on people’s plates at lunch. Breakfast is simple and always the same: a roll of bread about the size of a small baking potato, and two sticks of chocolate the size of your index finger are served with choice of hot tea or hot chocolate. Lunch and dinner vary but always consist of something hot (usually a stew-like conglomeration of vegetables and/or potatoes), with bread, cheese, a piece of fruit (a peach or an apple in our case), and something sweet (a small, individually wrapped something-or-other). I almost forgot – tea and a small snack are served each day at 5:00. I’ll tell you, I don’t normally eat this well/balanced at home! These meals aren’t Texas-sized, but they are always, easily enough. Going back to the community chores associated with these meals, I’m hard-pressed to say which is the more sustaining – the food or the serving of one another. For that is one point of the whole community concept – to live and serve in fellowship and love.
“The Bread of Life”
No, I’m not referring to the copious amounts of bread we ingested over the course of the week! Morning prayer occurs before breakfast and the Eucharist is partaken daily at this service, making a round, flat wafer dipped in wine the first sustenance anyone receives. There is something profound and disparate and changing about nourishing the soul before nourishing the body, which is truly the effect of this practice. These words are often sung at Taizé and they continue to resonate with me: “Let all who are thirsty come; let all who wish receive the water of life freely. Amen; come, Lord Jesus.”
“Steeped in Study”
Part of the community life is the study of scripture, led in a larger group by one of the Brothers and continued in a smaller group where discussion centers on the day’s passage. I was part of a group of (incidentally) all women from the likes of England, Northern Ireland, Germany, Sweden, and Norway. Stephanie, a fellow chaperone from UP, was also a part of the group. I didn’t feel any sense of minority being the only male figure. Nay, on the contrary! I was the great beneficiary of many unique, wise, and refreshing perspectives. Situated in some chairs in a grassy yard, a small tree shading us against the backdrop of a vast countryside, the conversation went round and round the circle (there were about 8 of us). Or, sometimes we sat in quiet to ponder meanings and questions of particular passages. Sometimes we talked about the happenings of the day, or of life back home, or would just make small chatter. Nothing is complex, made complicated or overanalyzed in Taizé. Study is simple and allowed to permeate.
I thought I would share a few short thoughts on some of the passages we concentrated on during the week and how I might live into these teachings.
Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what then should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
Each person lives a unique life and walks a unique path and can serve God in individual ways. It doesn’t have to be grandiose. It doesn’t have to turn heads. It’s easy to fall into fixed or preconceived notions of what seem to be obligatory or contrived forms of serving Christ. But, even a friendly smile and a ‘hello’ to a stranger can serve God.
And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
What is faith? What is repentance? The woman who bathed and anointed Jesus’ feet did not fear to trust and love fully. I can equate myself to the woman, denounced as a sinner by Simon, the Pharisee, in the passage from Luke. There’s no great secret to salvation. I am no more or less a sinner than Simon or the woman. Salvation came when the curtain of the temple was torn in two, and serving/loving those around me in Christ has the power of returning me to my true self.
"Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Amazing news! Humanity has long been imbued with the Holy Spirit to be witnesses of Christ’s resurrection. That doesn’t mean I have to go around telling everyone I see about Jesus…we all know how…uncomfortable...that can be. To me it means: loving and serving. Which, again, can come in many forms. One can get caught up looking for God in high places. I hear these angels saying, “Get your head out of the clouds and look around you…though the kingdom is near, there’s much earthly work to be done!”
"Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
This I find to be one of the most hope-filled and awe-inspiring lines anywhere in the bible. It’s fascinating to speculate on what exactly Jesus meant with regard to himself, the thief hanging next to him, and the nature of heaven and the afterlife. But clearly, something truly wondrous, mysterious, and powerful was imminent with Jesus’ death drawing nigh. Ultimately, though, this passage teaches me to view every day on earth as a day with Jesus in paradise.
One of the things the youth were asked to consider as they journeyed to Taizé was to take note of in what ways they perceived God during the week. So, I will include some of my own perceptions in closing.
I perceived God when…
Having a lengthy conversation with Caroline while on the train
A man named Martin from Germany approached me the first morning in Taizé and said “Hello, my name is Martin!” Later he bought a group of us ice cream and was most friendly the entire week.
Serving food to hungry folks at lunchtime
Brother Jean-Marc relinquished 15 minutes of his hour-long practice window to show me (and allow me to play) the wonderfully unique organ in the church
Taking communion each morning
Singing songs with other gathered worshipers long after the evening service had ended
Learning about Brother Roger
Seeing our youth acting as adults
Interacting in fellowship with so many people from so many places