“Ubi caritas et amor, deus ibi est" – where love and charity are, God is there.
These words from one of the Taizé community’s many chants sum up what Taizé stands for and provides. Founded in 1940 by Frère Roger and located in Burgundy, France, the community began as a monastic order and sanctuary for refugees of World War II. Since then, it has blossomed into an ecumenical, multicultural order dedicated to simple, communal life. Young people began visiting Taizé from the 1960s, and today hundreds of thousands of people are drawn to the community’s stripped-down, familial atmosphere and contemplative worship style.
So what is Taizé? What does it look like, feel like, and sound like? Arguably the best way of understanding this is by experiencing Taizé worship and community first-hand. Last weekend, I joined with other members of SCM, as well as people from all over Britain and Europe for the Taizé weekend at Old St. Paul’s church in Edinburgh. The weekend was led by Brother Paolo, an English monk from the community, and included presentations from local charities and faith communities, shared meals, prayer, Bible studies, and discussion in small groups. Each activity was built around the theme of ‘A New Solidarity’.
It was this solidarity, charity and love that I found myself contemplating during the meditative prayer service. Taizé prayer is characterized by quiet, repetitive chanting and scripture readings in multiple languages, punctuated by long stretches of silence, which can create a heightened sense of vulnerability. Almost every time I participate in a Taizé service I find myself in a very restless place at first, and this time was no different. Sitting on the hard floor in the dimly-lit sanctuary, surrounded by a few hundred people, I felt very exposed. I found my mind scrambling for concrete thoughts, as if I could somehow force myself to come away with earth-shattering insights that are ‘supposed’ to happen at this kind of event.
And yet, as I began to fall into the rhythms and textures of the music, prayers, and chanting, I began to relax and surrender myself to the simple beauty taking place around me. My voice mingling with the voices of friends and strangers as they rose and fell over the waves of musical phrases; our tongues tripping over the pronunciations of foreign words; the varied textures and echoes of musical instruments; and the silence, those vast spaces in which a multitude of unspeakable longings, hopes, and fears were expressed. I began to feel a growing sense of commonality, unity, and yes, solidarity, with everyone in the room as our prayers found a home in that space.
The latter half of the service was the prayer around the cross, a regular Taizé practice in which an icon of the crucifixion is placed among the crowd. Those who feel led are free to approach the cross and lay their heads against it, symbolizing our utter dependence on God. As I pressed my forehead against the painted wood, I thought of the incarnation and the solidarity we can share with the embodiment of Christ. For the rest of the evening, I couldn’t help but dwell within signs of that physicality, from people embracing throughout the room to the feeling of the innumerable names for God dancing on my tongue.
Silence. Music. Language. Diversity. Vulnerability. Embodiment.
All of these things are present within Taizé worship and community life, and all of them remind us of the simple truth of experiencing God’s love through contemplation and solidarity with others. During this season of Lent, when we remind ourselves of our frailty and need for community with God, the Edinburgh Taizé weekend provided a space for expressing our collective need and longing for completeness, and for sharing that with others through conversation and prayer together. While the peace and stillness offered by Taizé worship is never wholly easy or comfortable, it still supplies us with a powerful image of the world as it could be. In doing so, we share each other’s hopes and fears, and look to God to both still and stir our hearts.
This blog was written by Taylor Driggers, a student at the University of Edinburgh. Click here to see photos from the Taizé service in Edinburgh. For more information about the Taizé community, visit the website here.