Taizé Part I: The Allure of Simplicity: 5 Minute Read
It was pouring rain when I arrived at Taizé, an ecumenical monastic community situated in a small village an hour and a half outside of Lyon. A young adult, Emmanuel, welcomed me, shuffled me to the evening song service, and then informed me, “I’m afraid we won’t be able to get to know each other. I am spending this week in silent prayer, starting this service.”
The auditorium at Taizé is essentially a warehouse with hanging lamps and a colored wall at the front. There are a few benches but no chairs. The participants—mostly young adults—sit on the floor.
The service has no message or homily. No pastor or priest. Instead, they sing songs— lots of songs. All the songs repeat themselves over and over, most comprising of no more than a sentence in either Latin, French, German, or English. A short scripture reading in different languages follows the singing. Then a silent prayer that goes on for what feels like an hour. Then more songs.
Without notice the Brothers get up and walk out the front. A few make their way to the back and corners, inviting the questions and thoughts of curious visitors. People stay and sing as long as they like, oftentimes for hours after the service. I attended nearly 50 services like this over two weeks, and wonder if this means I can now skip church for the next year?
Speaking of skipping church, I ended up at Taizé because when I told people how much I hate going to church they suggested I give it a try. First, a friend who is a Lutheran minister in New York City told me. Then Manca, who founded L’Arche in Slovenia, told me. During my fifth Easter service in Slovenia she playfully suggested that I must be really struggling. But then she shared that she won’t even ask her 14 and 18 year-old children to come to church, yet they love Taizé. When they confirmed this for themselves over lunch at Manca’s home, I cancelled my flight back to New York in part so I could come.
At Taizé, I found that I was in good company among jaded and ambivalent church-goers. Refreshingly, the community does not feel the need to capture its identity in a mission statement—but if it did, I’m quite sure it would say nothing about existing as an alternative to the mainstream church. So why does it seem to be swelling with streams of wandering sheep and total outsiders?
Amid the horrors of World War II, the community’s founder, Brother Roger, left his home in Switzerland for Taizé in German-occupied France. Alone and in his mid 20s, Brother Roger was desperate to respond to the wreckage of the war by helping others.
Brother Roger found ways to hide hunted Jews and other asylum seekers, and to serve food to German prisoners of war. He gathered the support of his sister and a few friends who were willing to join in his dangerous model of hospitality. After seven years, Roger and eight other Brothers committed themselves to a life of ecumenical monasticism.
Brother Roger was known for his simplicity. He threw parties for children featuring 13 desserts, and somehow the children never noticed (or better, they didn’t care) that one of the desserts was a single almond and another a lone raisin. His solution for worry was to sing, and they sing about everything at Taizé: “Happy are those who abandon themselves to you with a trusting heart. You keep us in joy, simplicity and mercy.”
Today at Taizé, visitors are encouraged to fast from technology. You can only get on the (very slow) wifi for 10 minute increments before it kicks you off for 10 minutes--and even these short windows are only open for a few hours each day. You can imagine my frustration when I was put in a 45-minute line to buy World Cup Tickets!
Today at Taizé, all of the young adults, ages 15-29, sleep in tents. There is no air conditioning in any of the brick and mortar buildings, and everybody is expected to contribute to the work of the community, from cleaning up after dinner to picking up trash to washing dishes. The meals are on the same weekly rotation, and each morning you get bread and coffee—thank God—plus your choice between jam or a piece of chocolate and butter for breakfast.
Speaking of meals, they don’t make enough food for everyone to eat as much as they’d like much of the time, and if you show up even fifteen minutes late you might not get anything to eat at all—as I found out the hard way. It’s part of the simple joy of Taizé, believe it or not.
Everything opens and closes at the strangest times to discourage our instincts for imminent gratification, it seems. If they lock the “silent garden” and you are still inside, you might end up spending the night in solitude with Jesus. Again, just another simple joy.
If you want to set up a meeting with a Brother, you have to leave a hand-written note at the welcome center. One time I checked three days in a row without hearing back. Another time I found I was late for my meeting with a Brother—I never received his note.
Simplicity has its advantages. At some point, the young began to come to Taizé in droves. Two weeks before Easter one year the Brothers learned that 6,000 youth wanted to come while their auditorium could only hold 2,000, so they knocked down the back wall and set up a circus tent. “If we turn them away they will never come back,” Brother Roger told the other Brothers.
The simplicity in part creates an openness among the pilgrims who come to Taizé. (I didn’t find out I was a “Pilgrim” until I showed up.) You can talk to anyone. Anyone will talk to you. You can approach people you’ve never seen before, and they are likely to do the same. I found that you can wear the same shirt a couple days in a row and nobody seems to care. Since nothing is open, and many things don’t work, you just get to chatting and before you know it you’re having a blast.