Taizé 101

The Taizé Community is an ecumenical monastic order founded in 1940 by Brother Roger Schutz in Taizé, France. It is composed of more than one hundred brothers who originate from about thirty countries around the world.

The community has become a popular site of Christian pilgrimage. Over 100,000 young people from around the world make pilgrimages to Taizé each year for prayer, Bible study, sharing, and communal work. Through the community’s ecumenical outlook, they are encouraged to live in the spirit of kindness, simplicity and reconciliation.

A Taizé service is a simple prayer service centered around music from the Taizé community.  Most of the music has a short refrain which could be four, eight or sixteen bars long.  Some of the songs have verses which are generally sung by a soloist or schola and the refrains are simple and easy to memorize after a few repetitions.  The reason for the music in being easy and repetitious is so that the average person attending the service may more readily engage in sung prayer rather than reading words, notes or trying to learn the melody.

Musicians love this format for it gives them the opportunity to drop in or out and lightly improvise after the fifth, tenth or twentieth repetition.  Some music directors may stifle creativity and organize and plan arrangements regardless how the spirit is moving everyone else.  When I organize a Taizé service, I tell the musicians to go with the flow, try things, experiment, come in or out when you want, listen to the people and respond to them. I give them ownership.  Using this method, a song may have several climaxes as opposed to one  – that is arranged.

When putting together a Taizé or Taizé-like prayer service, one doesn’t have to choose music from the Taizé tradition.  I like to use psalm refrains.  If you belong to a liturgical church, you probably already sing psalms every Sunday with a cantor. Psalm refrains are good to use because they are simple, short, the assembly already knows many of them.  They are scriptural, they may be comforting and as I said, psalms may already be in the musical vocabulary of most liturgical churches.

If I was in an airplane and we hit turbulence, I might pray to myself, “Be with me Lord, when I am in trouble, be with me, Lord, I pray,” or “The Lord is my light and my salvation, of whom should I be afraid?” because I would have sung them during the regular liturgical year or thirty times during a Taizé service so I would know those refrains as Psalms 91 and 27 and by heart.

Churches often mistakenly offer Taizé services because they think it will attract people, especially young people.  In the turbulent 1960s, young people began to visit the Taizé community in search of spiritual answers. The first international young adults meeting was organized in Taizé with 1400 participants from 30 countries.  In 1970, in response to student protests taking place all over Europe and the world, as well as the Second Vatican Council, Brother Roger announced a “Council of Youth”, whose main meeting took place in 1974.  At the end of the 1970s, the meetings and surrounding activities began to be referred to as a “Pilgrimage of Trust on Earth”.  The monastic community decided to focus on youth.  Many churches, especially in Europe, send their youth and young adults to Taizé for spiritual retreats.

Faith can not be reverse engineered.  When I was a teen, my niece came to live with us because her family was moving, it was her senior year and she wanted to graduate with her class. She loved grunge rock and one day I heard her singing a Bach melody.  I asked her where she heard it and she didn’t know but she said she liked it.  It was something she subconsciously heard me regularly practicing and it struck a chord with her.  If youth are exposed to the music of Taizé, they will certainly grow to like it but offering it will not attract them if they don’t know what it is in the first place.  This is a conundrum that organized religion hasn’t figured out yet, but, the answer is so simple.

When putting together a Taizé service, the musicians must focus on what is needed in order to encourage an hour of singing.  A successful music ministry is not one that plays for or to the people, it is one that revels in the sound of a participating and singing congregation.  The most beautiful sound a music director can hear is the sound of a singing assembly. 

Consider our services in the model of the theater;  Many church musicians mistakenly think that the congregation is the audience, the musicians are the actors and God is the prompter.   This model will surely fail in rapid entropy.  It should be that the congregation are the actors, the musicians are the prompters and God is the audience.  This is a simple mistake that many churches make and is why church is perceived as boring, because it is done -to- us as in the first model.  They reap what they sow.

Within the Taizé service there may be a couple readings and of course a healthy period of silence.  Silence can be awkward and uncomfortable for many people because our brains are often sozzled with distractions and noise.  Speech must die to serve that which is spoken.  Alternatively, I’ve been to restaurants where I have seen couples sit through their entire meal and barely speak to one another.  Sadly it is probably because she married for security and comfort while he married a trophy and they realized that they have nothing in common.  Taizé doesn’t have to be that way as long as you don’t go in looking to be entertained.  You have to enter into it empty, open and willing to be filled.  Energy begets energy and in order to get something out of it you have to put something in.

The space should be lit well enough to read.  A lot of churches turn their lights down low and light a lot of candles for atmosphere.  This is nice but one of my churches did this and a woman tripped over something because she couldn’t see, she broke her hip and sued the church.  The pastor tried lying to her lawyers and encourage the staff to lie but someone who was was socially conscious told the truth.  Some churches encourage people to bring their own pillows or provide them with cushions so they can sit on the floor.  One church I knew provided tiny little water bottles for dry throats. 

The selection of music and text is important too.  Consider what is going on in the world, in the country, in the community or in the church.  What text can you sing which will break open these issues to create greater awareness or action?  Music is an expression of faith not merely entertainment.  We don’t sing because we’re happy, we’re happy because we sing.  People don’t have faith because they love music, they love music because they have faith.

Taizé may not be for everyone.  It is like Grappa, you either love it or hate it.  It may take work to feel comfortable at a Taizé service because sitting for an hour singing songs over and over can be boring for people without the patience, will or strength.  To sit and meditate on a single sentence and contemplate its veracity in their life takes conscious effort.  I can promise though, if you do sing, you will be oxygenating your blood, your heart will pump faster, your brain cells will be getting fresh oxygenated blood, your circulation will improve and you will become more alert. In essence you will leave a different person than when you came in.  Singing for an hour about thanksgiving, adoration, supplication and contrition will teach us that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact.  Out of what we live and believe, our lives will become that.  Energy begets energy.  Metanoia doesn’t happen to those who don’t try.

Why should we think upon things that are beautiful? Because thinking determines life.  It is a common habit to blame life upon the environment.  Environment modifies life but does not govern life.  The soul is stronger than its surroundings.


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