The Common Good
July 2007

A Pilgrimage of Song and Silence

by Amy MacDougall | July 2007

For many U.S. college students Taize-style worship offers a sanctuary of calm and community.

At first, it was silent. A calming kind of silent.

My eyes were fixed on the dripping wax of the altar's single flickering candle. By the time the music started, my awareness of the hard wooden pew beneath me had softened, faded, and shifted to the old wooden crucifix illuminated by the candle's flame. A cantor offered smooth soprano verses from the back balcony, her voice moving through the sacred space like smoke wafting from burning incense. As the voices around me joined her in a contemplative response, they carried the ancient-sounding melodies to every corner of the cathedral.

Despite being new to Taizé-style worship, I felt wholly included in its call to unity, its observance of mystery, and its quest for peace.

Vieni Spirito creatore, vieni. Come and pray in us, Holy Spirit.

Dona nobis pacem cordium. Grant us peace of heart.

While Taizé worship services can look different from place to place, most share the common features of silent meditation, prayer, candles, icons, and special music.

As part of their centennial celebration, parish leaders at Seattle's St. James Cathedral invited Brother John from the Taizé Community of France to attend a special prayer service last October. Brother John's weeklong stay included facilitating an ecumenical meeting for area pastors, visiting Seattle Pacific University, and—the capstone event—leading an all-day Taizé retreat at Seattle University.

"Having Brother John was a huge draw for students, and this was the first retreat of this kind that we'd ever done," said Andrea Wong, the liturgical music coordinator at Seattle University. With more than a decade of personal involvement in Taizé worship on campuses like Notre Dame and Yale, Wong now coordinates S.U.'s services during Lent. When she came to Seattle in 1999, she would see about eight students at the Taizé services. These days, attendance is around 50. According to Wong, Brother John's visit made a crucial connection for students to Taizé's rich history.

"There's much more to Taizé than the prayers and music," she said. "It's about Jesus' call to be unified, and I don't think they [students] quite understood that. They saw it as a respite for their busy lives, but young adults' attraction to this style of prayer is rooted in a real community that's living out Jesus' simple vision for us."

Young people across the globe are flocking to college chapels and church sanctuaries to see what Taizé is all about, but, as Wong claimed, many remain unfamiliar with its origins.

Planting the Seed.With ideals of reconciliation and ecumenism at the forefront of his mind, Brother Roger Schutz, a Swiss Protestant, founded the monastic Taizé Community in 1940 in a remote village in Burgundy, France. He bought a house in the unoccupied region, where he hid Jewish refugees from German troops. By the 1950s, a community of Catholic and Protestant brothers from several countries had gathered to commit their lives to common prayer, simplicity, celibacy, and service. Now home to more than 100 brothers from more than 25 countries, the Taizé Community stays true to its tradition of hospitality by welcoming thousands of young travelers from around the world to its weekly services of song and reflection.

In August 2005, the Community witnessed the horrific murder of Brother Roger at the hands of a parishioner with a history of mental illness. Brother Roger was 90 years old, and he had received widespread recognition for his lifetime of global peace work, which he called his "pilgrimage of trust on earth." Each year, he wrote an ecumenical advocacy letter to youth leaders in nearly 50 countries, had it translated into their respective languages, and invited them to an international youth gathering. He wrote two books with Mother Teresa, lobbied at the United Nations, and in 1988 was awarded the UNESCO Prize for Peace Education.

During his visit to Seattle, Brother John described how the community has coped with its tremendous loss.

"Because of the horrible way [Brother Roger] died, we've felt so much support," he said. "When a founder dies, it makes you recommit to the vision. He was very present spiritually, and we really felt his dynamism among us. So, paradoxically, his death gave us a push to continue carrying out our commitments."

Reaching Out.One of those commitments is service. As part of their own "pilgrimage of trust on earth," the brothers have started smaller Taizé communities in Africa, Asia, and South America, where they live among the poor and dying. And, like Brother John's trip to Seattle, they make visits around the world to encourage and become acquainted with groups that hold regular Taizé-style services of their own.

"The idea is not to be a movement centered on Taizé," said Brother John, "but rather on sharing our concerns and lives in a cross-denominational way."

On its official Web site (www.taize.fr/en), the community's goal of inclusiveness is made evident. It mentions that Taizé has no formal membership, and involvement doesn't necessitate a visit to France. This come-one-come-all sentiment seems to be precisely aligned with Brother Roger's call for unity.

However, a central criticism of the Taizé Community is that women are excluded from positions of leadership. Given its monastic structure, the formal community only welcomes men as full-time residents and leaders. This traditional, male-dominated reality has left some supporters uncomfortable.

Take Eric Stone. He's chaplain of the Wesley Foundation, a United Methodist campus ministry at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

"I don't think that everything about Taizé is wonderful, awesome, incredible," said Stone. "I think there are some patriarchal tendencies—not surprising when you have a monastic order."

Despite such criticism, Stone said he finds the lyrics and prayers to be meaningful and progressive overall. Stone holds a Taizé-style worship service every Sunday evening, which draws anywhere from three to 15 students, he said. He hopes to add a midweek service over the lunch hour.

Gail J. Stearns, director of The Common Ministry at Washington State University, feels that Taizé participants both here and in France may be aware that a male hierarchal model is part of the original Taizé structure, but that the message of peace and the presence of women (both as participants and worship leaders) serves to temper this concern. "Not that I'm excusing the exclusion of women from the community's membership," said Stearns. "It is something I don't understand."

Looking Inward.While Stone admits that Taizé is not for everyone, he believes in providing a reflective, more traditional option for students who are drawn to that style of worship.

"In a world where we are bombarded constantly by sound, that time of silence is profound," he said. "There was a time when walking on campus might provide that same time to reflect and center on God. But—judging by all the iPods and cell phones glued to students' ears today—I imagine they find it refreshing to have the time away from those distractions."

Stearns concurs: "We are missing the boat by equating college students with guitars, drums, and praise music. Students love the silence."

Justin Duff was one of those students. A 2004 graduate of Central Michigan University, Duff participated in weekly Taizé-style services on his campus for two years.

"I've never been a fan of contemporary Christian music; I generally find the lyrics to be overly dramatic and lacking in real substance. The songs of Taizé were simple, not dramatic, pure," he said. "I always felt like they helped me to have a calm transition from the weekend into the school week."

Providing a way for students to slow down and feel centered amid the multiple demands of school and life is important to Robert Smith, Lutheran campus pastor at University of Chicago. Calling Taizé music "the perfect complement to this goal," he said he appreciates the coexistence of simplicity and depth offered through Taizé.

Counter the Culture?In Smith's understanding, the connection students feel to this style of worship reveals "a desire for meaning and tradition that points far beyond the vagaries of popular culture." He continued, "Word, sacrament, and song are the antithesis to the megachurch, technologized worship so many people associate with youth and young adult ministry."

So, what can be made of society's general view of young adults as being obsessed with the hip, the modern, and the technologically advanced?

While University of Michigan senior Kathryn Gaylord-Miles accepts the daily technology overload as an inevitable part of life, she sees Taizé as a necessary release. "I spend so much time in front of computers and looking at professors' PowerPoint presentations that I get sick of working with technology," she said. "I love the meditative quality of [Taizé]."

And, according to Brother John, that's exactly what we can conclude from Taizé's broad appeal. "The young people who are discovering this style of worship give us proof that it's not necessary to be up-to-date or have the latest gimmicks," he said.

Erin Beary, Seattle University's campus ecumenical and multifaith minister, agreed.

"The thing that changes people is being with people. That's what happens in Taizé," she said. She recalled a memorable conversation overheard in a small group discussion at the fall retreat wherein a student asked why certain denominations have rules that prohibit sharing the Eucharist with others.

"Ecumenical interactions make people ask hard questions because they allow for curiosity," she said. "And students want very much to share the table together. Once they get a taste for it, they want more."

Beary stressed that a main benefit in holding a retreat of this kind is that it becomes a place where confronting conflict and confusion is not only tolerated, but truly encouraged. And while the reasons for participating in Taizé-style worship vary from person to person, many come with a deep desire to build bridges within what they see as a broken church family.

Aimee Khuu, a senior at S.U., holds onto this hope for unity. "The divide that exists between Christian communities is commonly overlooked yet corrosive and, considering the mission of the church, quite distressing. Taizé is a beautiful way to break down those borders," she said.

While religious and ideological conflicts are nothing new, Brother John said the current global tensions have brought noticeable changes to their services. People's concerns seem heightened and their prayers carry with them a sense of urgency, he said. The increased need for community is clear.

That seems to echo the sentiment in Brother Roger's last speech during a meeting in Lisbon, Portugal, in December 2004. These were his final public words:

"Right at the depth of the human condition lies the longing for a presence, the silent desire for a communion. Let us never forget that this simple desire for God is already the beginning of faith."

Amy McDougall is a graduate student and teaching assistant in English at Washington State University in Pullman.

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