The Music in Noise

"If there were one million families praying the Rosary every day, the entire world would be saved."
✝ Pope Saint Pius X



Taizé: Experience & Liturgy - 2021-08-24

I have recently spent a week in Taizé,[1] an ecumenical Christian community in France. It's not the kind of prayer I'm used to, but nonetheless it was a good overall experience. I figured I may as well share what I had experienced - the good and the bad - as well as what I had managed to reverse engineer of the liturgy of their prayers, and some of what I had managed to learn from asking one of the brothers from the community.

The Music

I must admit that I wasn't expecting the music to be as solemn and beautiful as it was. It truly created a great environment for prayer and contemplation, as well as a communal spirit in song & prayer.[2] When you enter into the church, there are papers with the songs they will be singing during the prayers, and there are electric signs on the sides of the church which indicate (the number of) the song which they'll be singing. These papers also have the score.

Many folks like to sing along, as the songs are short and repetitive, making them easy to learn (if you can read the language they're in). Especially those who have been to Taizé before have learned to sing the song with multiple voices, making the experience much more majestic and beautiful.

Now, as for myself, I'm not really able to concentrate on praying while singing. I end up getting distracted with singing in tune and my breathing such that I cannot concentrate on the words I'm singing. In this regard I did feel a somewhat uncomfortable pressure to sing along; almost as though if you didn't sing along there was something wrong with you. Yet even without singing along, the music is something absolutely beautiful, and it helped me to enter into a spirit of prayer, and reflect upon the readings of each prayer.

Camping

Camping is something I've always loved. The connection to nature and the struggle to accomplish even menial daily tasks are at the heart of the camping experience for me. And at Taizé I had the opportunity to combine this with a life of prayer, and a spirit of mortification. In fact, the spirit of mortification was so present during our stay, that among those in our group, whenever we would complain about an inconvenience we were facing, we would half-jokingly say that we were offering it for: the conversion of China, the conversion of Germany, or the prohibition of pornography.

In particular, I was blessed to be able to find God in the sounds and sights of His creation. Listening to the birds, the wind, the water, the sound of the gravel and grass beneath my feet; seeing the green hills, the cattle, and the storms. For a short while I took to calling these sounds "God's Symphony", but once my friends misunderstood this to mean excretion, the term became unusable.

Volunteer Work

Staying in Taizé is extremely cheap. We paid a total of 50€ per person for a whole week, camping in tents on Taizé grounds, with access to all their facilities & activities, as well as eating four (rather good) meals per day. Where's the catch? It's run almost entirely off volunteer work. The only income the community has is from their souvenir shop, primarily the pottery made by the brothers, which they charge only what they need in order to cover expenses. Other than that, all other work at the camp is run by the visitors: cooking, cleaning, washing, etc. The work you are assigned depends primarily on which age group you are in. Some of my younger friends had to cook, others had to wash dishes. In my case, as I fell into a different age group, work was optional, but we decided to volunteer anyways.

In my case, the work was holding "Silence Signs" outside of the church, starting 30 minutes before the prayers began, until the bells calling people to prayer stopped ringing. Actually a rather simple job, although if you're taking it seriously, it's not as easy as you may think - though I don't want to say I worked more or harder than those who were in the kitchen or cleaning - as in order to give example you should also remain silent during the entirety of those 30 minutes. Something which may be easy for some, but harder for others.

Regardless of what job we were all assigned, I believe this helped us to put into practice the old Benedictine phrase: ora et labora (pray and work). Everyone's job, no matter how menial, played a fundamental role in the proper functioning of the community - except perhaps mine. It created a very monastic environment, and I believe it helped structure our time while we were there so that it wasn't simply a leisurely camping trip, but a way of living out a truly Christian community life.

Silence

I'm extremely fond of prayer in silence, for as St. John of the Cross once wrote: "God's first language is silence." Perhaps some of the most fruitful experiences of prayer in my life have been while praying in silence at a perpetual adoration chapel in Seville. I think this is because silence is neutral. When you play music, or read Scripture, you predetermine to an extent the kind of interaction you want to have with God. And this can be good and helpful under many circumstances. But when we are silent is when we truly give God the reigns of our time in prayer to bring to light that which He wants to show us. Maybe He wants to humble us, and so He shows us our faults; maybe He wants to bring us joy, so He comforts us; maybe He wants to celebrate with us, so He rejoices with us. And I was glad to discover how in Taizé, silence is sacred.

Apart from during the prayers themselves, silence and peace are very present in the life of the community. In the introduction we were given, the brother who was speaking to us made a point of emphasizing the importance of silence in and out of the church, and especially during the later hours of the day.

During the prayers, in particular, silence gave the space necessary to reflect on the passages of Scripture which had been read almost immediately prior. This is something which, lamentably, is not as present even in most reverent Catholic Masses, where ideally there should be a long moment of silence after both the Homily and Holy Communion.

Silence in Taizé is something that I truly valued, and is among the most beautiful aspects of life in the community.

The Schedule

Staying in Taizé we had to follow a schedule, and punctuality was very important. In the schedule below the activities marked in bold were obligatory. As for the volunteer work, that depended on which job you had. I'll also be adding the time for the Catholic Daily Mass, since that's what I attended.

Monday - Saturday

Sunday

Daily Catholic Mass

It was a treat to be able to attend the Mass on a daily basis once again. Ever since the churches in Seville switched to their summer schedules, I've found it extremely difficult to attend Mass on a daily basis, even more so in August. So to be able to receive the Eucharist every day that week was truly a gift; and as it was celebrated in the morning, it helped to fuel the rest of my day.

I will admit, however, that one thing that bothered me about the Mass, given the international context, was with regards to the readings. The entire first segment of the Mass is dedicated to Scripture, and therefore I believe it's important that all attendees have equal access to the daily readings. Yet the readings were always read in a different language, not necessarily understood by all attending. This would not have been much of a problem had they provided the daily readings in multiple languages on a sheet of paper, as they do with other activities (e.g. the Bible reflections), but this was not the case. I also believe that it would've been more fair had the readings been proclaimed in Latin, which is the universal language of the Church. But that's not as important.

Sunday Mass

I place Sunday Mass in particular as a separate section because it was celebrated differently from the Daily Mass - or from any other Catholic Mass in the Ordinary Form, for that matter.

I will say first that, despite how oddly it is celebrated, it is truly a Catholic Mass. They celebrate it, however, in their own style (as the Ordinary Form permits). There is a valid consecration, and therefore we do receive the true Body & Blood of Jesus Christ.

The structure they follow is more or less the same, with some additional hymns here & there, and with some additions to make the Mass similar to their daily prayers. If I remember correctly, the readings were also proclaimed in two languages (French and English).

I was disappointed, however, in how they skipped the epistle reading for that Sunday, which was Ephesians 5:21-32. I speculate it is likely due to its controversial meaning. If this is the reason, then I would find this to be greatly disappointing, as just like the rest of the readings, and the entirety of the Bible, it is divinely inspired. To hide such things does not inspire trust or confidence, but rather skepticism and a questioning of their true intentions.

The Workshops

I must admit that I was a little disappointed with the workshops, but that probably has more to do with my expectations than with the general quality of the workshops themselves. That is, I was expecting the workshops to be hands-on activities (e.g. pottery, woodworking, iconography), but instead they were presentations on different topics.

The topics were primarily international issues and cultures, environmentalism, and spirituality. I only ended up attending one workshop, so I don't consider my experience to be representative of all the others. I also believe that there were less workshops than normal due to the situation with the pandemic, and therefore in other years there may have been a greater variety of topics.

The one workshop that I did attend, however, was quite terrible. It was about women in the Bible and in the Church. From the name alone I already wasn't expecting much, and was prepared for some heretical views, but somehow it managed to be way worse than I thought. I had already expected they'd try to promote a female priesthood,[3] and I more or less guessed they'd complain about some depiction of women in the Old Testament - in this case, they decided to pick on the beautiful story of Ruth - but what I wasn't expecting was that they'd make use of Servant of God Dorothy Day, to promote their own political agenda and justify abortion and divorce, by omitting her later condemnation of these evils after her conversion to the Catholic Faith.[4] It is likely that the two women presenting continued to spew such things after this point, but I had already left.

I do not write this last paragraph to make it seem that all the workshops at Taizé are this aweful, or that this is the general position of the brothers who lead the Taizé community. It is an isolated experience. However, I do believe that this is motive enough for the brothers to develop a filtering process that would prevent this sort of presentation, if they do not have one already.

Bible Reflection

Every day (except Sunday) we had Bible reflection at in the morning. They had divided us into age groups in order to make it more cohesive, so during the discussion it would be easier to relate to others.

Before starting, we had to pick up a paper that had the reading for the day, as well as some questions for small-group discussion. Then one of the brothers would give an introduction to the passage which was about a hour long. After that, we would split up into our small groups of about seven people, and go over the passage as well as answer the questions.

I must admit that, at least personally, I don't think I was prepared for this. Generally I'm used to group readings of the Bible being an intellectual exercise. In this regard, I believe that I wasn't going about the Bible reflection in the right way, which is probably what lead to my mediocre experience. It instead felt more like I was getting to know the other members of my group, than exploring the spiritual depth of the passage with them and their unique experiences. In this regard, I wish that I had had a little more guidance as to how to go about the small groups. In retrospect, it may have been better to avoid the questions altogether and work directly on the text, as I have experienced with Lectio Divina.

The Liturgy

I'm generally a person who needs a lot of structure. In fact, when I first started attending Catholic Mass, I carried a small notebook with me in which I had written down the ordinary for the Mass, with all the prayers in it, so I could follow along with the structure. So it is to no surprise that in Taizé I did the exact same thing. I did, however, have to reverse engineer the structure, as they did not provide any kind of rubric.

Below are the structures of the three different prayers celebrated throughout the day: morning, noon, and evening. To an extent, it would seem very inspired by the Catholic Liturgy of the Hours.[5]

Morning Prayer

  1. Introductory Hymn
  2. Psalm
  3. Old Testament Reading
  4. Morning Hymn
  5. Segment of the Reading
  6. Hymn
  7. Silence
  8. Petitions (Kyrie)
  9. Our Father
  10. Hymn I (Preparation of the Blessed Bread)
  11. Hymn II (Communion)
  12. Hymn III
  13. Hymn IV
  14. Hymn V (exit)

Noon Prayer

  1. Introductory Hymn
  2. Short Reading
  3. Hymn
  4. Silence
  5. Prayer
  6. Hymn I
  7. Hymn II
  8. Hymn III (exit)

Evening Prayer

  1. Introductory Hymn
  2. Hallelujah
  3. New Testament Reading
  4. Evening Hymn
  5. Segment of the Reading
  6. Hymn
  7. Silence
  8. Petitions (Kyrie)
  9. Hymn
  10. Prayer
  11. Hymn I
  12. Hymn II
  13. Hymn III (exit)

Regarding this structure, I will note a few things. First of all, regarding the selection of the readings and hymns, I asked a brother from the community and he said that the readings are selected for an entire year, and the readings for each day can be found on their website.[6] The hymns, however, are selected based upon the origin of the visitors to the community for each given week - as well as the language in which most of the prayers, as well as the Mass, are said in. As for where it says "(exit)", this does not mean it is the end of the session, but rather that at this point it is normal for people to leave. Generally they continue to sing more hymns afterwards - especially with evening prayer.

On Friday and Saturday, the evening prayer is slightly different, as they celebrate an adoration of the Cross on Friday (in commemoration of the Crucifixion), and a candle vigil on Saturday (in waiting of the Resurrection). Since I only got to experience these once, I was not able to write down their structure, but I believe it was pretty similar to the normal evening prayer.

Conclusion

My week in Taizé was a mixed experience, and for the most part a very new experience. It showed me new ways to enrich my relationship with God, and also helped me to discover God in my love for the outdoors. At the same time, there were parts which I had difficulty with, or that were even scandalizing, disturbing the peace of an otherwise beautiful experience. I was able to share moments of prayer, song, and overall joy with my friends who had come with me; and was able to strengthen my relationship with them. As such, in spite of the problems it may have, I hope to visit Taizé again some day with the foreknowledge I have now.

References

  1. Taizé Official Website
  2. "Taizé - Laudate Omnes Gentes" on YouTube
  3. "Call No Woman Father" from Catholic Answers
  4. "Dorothy Day" § Social Activism on Wikipedia
  5. "Liturgy of the Hours" from Wikipedia
  6. Bible readings for each day - Taizé

Last updated: