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A Community Called Taizé, by Jason Brian Santos

by davesandel on October 30th, 2011

A Community Called Taizé, by Jason Brian Santos, 2008, IVP Formatio Books

203 pages

On the first page of this book Taizé Brother John writes, “We hope that this may allow North Americans to see that, beyond the repetitive chanting and a particular style of meditative prayer, Taizé is an ecumenical monastic community that wishes, through worship and community life, to help young adults discover Jesus Christ as a source of reconciliation for divided Christians and as a promise of peace in the human family.”  The Taizé community hosts up to 6,000 young people (mostly) every day during the better-weather months.  They have 100,000 visitors each year, all of whom must find their way to a tiny town in the middle of nowhere in France.

I had no idea.

This book appealed to me because we are singing Taizé songs at the Transforming Community.  I had always thought of them as quiet, meditative songs that I might enjoy occasionally.  That’s all I knew.

This book’s author wrote a thesis about the community and spent several weeks at different times at Taizé.  His first day visiting was the most tragic day of the community’s history, the day their 90 year old founder Brother Roger was stabbed and killed by a deranged woman during their evening worship service.  Jason was sitting nearby.

In the week that followed the brothers displayed remarkable calm and courage, inviting their thousands of young guests into their grief and celebration of Brother Roger’s life.  None of the planned worship services were cancelled.  No gates were closed.  Over the weeks he was there Jason’s heart burst open; he fell in love with Jesus all over again.

Brother Roger was a Swiss theology student, age 25, in 1940 when Germany occupied most of France.  At his seminary he had been instrumental informing a student group: “The Grand Community.”  Now he dreamed of having a place in France where the community could “assist some of those most discouraged, those deprived of a livelihood – a place which could become a place of silence and work.”  Through the simple phrase from the Psalms, “It is your face that I seek, O Lord,” Roger looked to God to show him how and where.

He found just the right house in a community called Taizé, a tiny town near Cluny, the ancient home of a formerly famous Benedictine monastery.  During the war he and his small cohort of believers aided the French and the Jews.  After the war they aided the Germans.  Their emphasis was continually on reconciliation.

Roger wrote a pamphlet describing the Taizé rule of life: “Every day let your work and rest be quickened by the Word of God; keep inner silence in all things and you will dwell in Christ; be filled with the spirit of the Beatitudes: joy, simplicity, and mercy.”

When Pope John XXIII opened the doors of Roman Catholicism to other churches, he embraced Taizé efforts at reconciliation, calling  it “that little springtime!”  More and more visitors came to the community, both Protestant and Catholic.  In 1962 the Church of Reconciliation was built (and later enlarged to hold 6000 worshippers, a church where both the Catholic Eucharist and Protestant Communion would be served to any and everyone at every service.

In 1970 20,000 visitors came to Taizé; in 1974 there were 60,000.  Most of them came for a week of worship, Bible study and work.  They were fed simple meals prepared by some of them.  Others cleaned up, others gardened, others scrubbed the toilets.  All of them paid a small fee for this privilege.  And they told their friends.  When the Iron Curtain was opened in 1989, many could come for the first time.  That year 100,000 pilgrims came to Taizé.

Each day there are three worship services, morning, midday, and evening.  Most of the thousands of people attending sit on the floor.  “After a few chants, everyone turns to the lectern and one of the brothers reads a passage of Scripture.  Then, after a (liturgical) response, an extended period of silence begins.  Outside of the occasional cough or sneeze, the church is utterly still for the whole period, which can last anywhere from eight to twelve minutes.  The brothers like to say that when young people first come to Taizé, the time of silence is too long, but by the time they leave, it’s too short.  When the silence is broken, intercessions are offered in various languages with the community singing one variety of ‘Kyrie Eleison” as a response” (p. 41).  In the morning, Eucharist is served from two altars, one to Catholics, the other to Protestants.  Finally, there is a closing hymn of praise.  In the evening, many young people remain in the sanctuary to pray into the night.

Silence replaces the sermon, allowing each worshipper to chew on what she has heard.  Many countries, cultures and languages are represented at each service; silence is their only universal language. It takes some getting used to, especially for music-saturated Americans and Europeans: “I learned how to sit before God and listen and remain in the stillness of the moment and allow God to penetrate my soul … the silence offers a certain freedom and space to explore, contemplate and discover the mysteries of the faith and our place in it” (p. 118-119).

On Saturday evenings everyone is given a candle for the Vigil of Lights.  As the church is illuminated by six thousand candles, “the age-old Catholic-Protestant polemic is swallowed in an ocean of reconciliation.  For the majority of the young people who visit, Taizé is the only place in the world where they can worship in communion with all Christian traditions freely … Perhaps for the first time in the history of the church, a manner of praying has emerged that links young and old, Catholics and Protestants, and dozens of different nationalities” (p. 123-124).

“In Taizé, young people are given space to pursue God.  They are given the freedom to sit, wait and listen.  In many of our churches today, however, we force-feed our young people the ways of our particular tradition.  Rather than offering them sacred space to explore their spirituality, we ask them to fit into a pre-shaped mold …

“What if our young people were offered a sacred space where they could be silent?  Instead of importing only the chants of Taizé for our worship, perhaps we should also consider adopting their sense of time and space for young people to explore the faith and beauty of their traditions.  Over 100,000 young people come to Taizé each year.  Could it be that they’re not coming for the chants but instead for the sense of freedom and peace they find in a community personified by reconciliation and acceptance” (p. 140)?

Here is a link to a youtube video of one of the most famous Taizé songs, “Ubi caritas.”

The composer, Jacques Berthier, uses only the refrain from this ancient song.  Here are all the words, translated into English:

 Where charity and love are, God is there.

Christ’s love has gathered us into one.

Let us rejoice and be pleased in Him.

Let us fear, and let us love the living God.

And may we love each other with a sincere heart.

Where charity and love are, God is there.

As we are gathered into one body,

Beware, lest we be divided in mind.

Let evil impulses stop, let controversy cease,

And may Christ our God be in our midst.

Where charity and love are, God is there.

And may we with the saints also,

See Thy face in glory, O Christ our God:

The joy that is immense and good,

Unto the ages through infinite ages. Amen.

Finally, here is another link to a Taizé song (audio only).  It is very beautiful and peaceful.  It is being sung at the Church of Reconciliation at Taizé by thousands of young people who are trusted the day they arrive with work to do, worship to attend, and their own spirituality to explore.  And when they leave, they tell their friends…

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