Veni Sancte Spiritus

I didn't take any photos of worship at Taize. Cameras are not encouraged, and neither is talking. The community church isn't a spectacle or a show to be recorded and ticked off on one's inner checklist of must do experiences. It is not a place to meet and greet your chums. It is a place to be still enough to to lose your amnesia; to recall, no matter how dimly, the great truth we all keep forgetting: Emmanuel, God is with us. The church, like everything else at Taize is simple and functional. It is huge, a concrete building that reminds me of a school gymnasium. There are no seats, only a thin industrial felt covering glued to the gently sloping concrete floor. Benches and steps are provided around the edges for those unable to sit for too long on the floor, and there are a few low prayer stools. It sounds spartan, but it doesn't feel that way. The walls are sprayed with some sort of thick material to aid the acoustics and there is a display of cloth and candles at the business end which, with the subdued lighting, gives a very pleasant calm interior. Colours are yellow and orange and red, the colours of fire and the Holy Spirit. There is room for a couple of thousand to sit on the floor, and there are roller doors which open up more space if need be. People come to the services up to 45 minutes early, to get a preferred position, and just to be still in the prayer soaked space. As the bells peal to announce the service, the church fills. Young people are never entirely still of course, but it is almost eerie to be where a thousand teenagers in one space fall silent of their own accord as they enter. The brothers walk calmly in and occupy their position in the middle of the congregation, and then, more or less on time, the service starts. And here is the first big surprise of Taize.

No one is on display. No one. There is no-one standing at the front leading. No-one gives a sermon. There is no super-pastor and no rock group cavorting behind a phalanx of chrome mike stands. A panel on the wall gives the number of the chant to be sung, a single electronic keyboard picks out the tune, and a thousand voices pick it up and carry it for as long as it seems right to do so. Somewhere, in the body of the church, soloists overlay the chant with intricate melodies, but no-one sees who the singers are. It is not random or disordered. After a few services the liturgical pattern is easily discerned: an invocation of the Holy Spirit; praise; a Bible reading, usually in two or three languages; a response; ten minutes or so of silence; intercession and praise. Almost all of the service, including the intercessions, is sung. After the service the brothers station themselves discreetly around the church for counselling and prayer ministry; some wearing purple stoles as they hear confessions. On some occasions a cross is placed in the centre of the nave and young people queue for an hour for a chance to pray with their heads against it. There are no sideshow histrionics or flopping around on the floor but there are many, many lives that are not the same on the way out as they were on the way in. We were present for the mass on Pentecost morning, and even there the simply vested priest spent a minimal time behind the altar. I knew that Brother Alois was the head of the community but I only figured out on the last day we were there which one he was. No one is on show. Not the prior, not the priests, not the brothers, not the people. No one.

The service ends with the brothers walking from the church as unobtrusively and discreetly as they entered. The music and the worship continue, often for an hour or 90 minutes afterwards until everyone has completed their business with God. I know I have attempted "Taize worship" in the past, and been present on many occasions when others have tried to do the same. Nothing I have experienced until now is much of a reflection of what actually happens at Taize, because, as usually happens when imitations are tried, we have all copied the wrong things. It's easy enough to buy books of the music and learn the chants. Used in this way the chants can enhance the worship we usually offer, but we have missed the point. Boy have we missed the point.

During the day I attended a Bible study given by a German brother. He was teaching from the Gospel of Mark, in German and English with a woman giving a simultaneous translation into French. He spoke for an hour every day with no notes because he didn't need them. He wasn't giving a presentation. He was telling us from the heart what had fed him personally. He KNEW this stuff, and because he knew it, every ten minutes or so he told me something I never knew before. He lived the Gospel, and in the same way, in chapel his brothers lived the Gospel. I watched them as they knelt and as they assumed silence. I noticed their posture and their stillness. These were, all of them, men with serious personal spiritual practices. This is the point. At the heart of Taize is worship, and at the heart of the worship is a body of men who pray.

The Taize chants, many of them, function as quite effective mantras. Being in another language, they are inaccessible to the rational mind, they are short enough to be easily remembered and they are rhythmic. A few minutes singing some of them is enough to bring a person to the very edge of meditation. The mind is stilled as the body is stilled and the deep awareness which lies under our false self is temporarily freed to be in the presence of what is. The chants are thus an effective way of praying. But copying the chants and peppering our services with them won't reproduce what is experienced at Taize. To find what thousands of others have found in that vast, holy, concrete place needs the presence a core of people who, by long experience and practice know how to be still before God and who can use the music to release their own stillness for the benefit of others.

The challenge of Taize isn't the challenge to adopt a particular musical style. It is the challenge to a radical openness to the Holy Spirit and to deep, disciplined prayer: during, but mostly before and after the worship. The Kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Come Lord, and open in us the gates of your Kingdom...


Peter Carrell said…
Thanks Kelvin
I am alerting our clergy to these Taize blogs - some of us may never get there, so your writing is the next best thing!