Welcome to Taize!
The bus dropped us off in a cloud of dust. We rolled our suitcases and our duffels up to the welcome center. It was closed. Across the way there was another gathering area of sorts where two beatific young people told us we could park our things until the center reopened in a few minutes. Already the pace of life had slowed to an easy smile. It was the gift of being in “prayed up” space, a feeling that I had each and every time I arrived at St. Andrew’s Abbey back home. The air was simply thick with grace. The welcome center opened and out came Jean-Patrique, a man with dark brown Indian skin and the whitest, most life-giving smile I’d ever seen. “Welcome to Taize,” he said and reached for his clipboard. He has been a brother in the community for most of his adult life, greeting well over 100,000 visitors a year. Whatever weariness might come from a job like that was not evident in his face. I was reminded of the Benedictine rule, to “greet all as Christ,” and although Taize was not a Benedictine community, they seemed to borrow from the best of all traditions.
There was still some discussion about which room we were to be assigned to. We prayed silently —well, maybe not so silently— to be able to be somewhere without a lot of roommates. Or any roommates for that matter. Jean-Patrique would let us know what was possible later. In the meantime, the most ebullient, clean-cut, catalog-handsome, almost embarrassingly enthusiastic young German man with uber-hip glasses approached. “Welcome to Taize. I’m Stephan. Would you like some tea and cookies?” I didn’t particularly want either but couldn’t bring myself to say no to young Stephan, who filled our little plastic cup-bowls with lukewarm tea and grabbed us each a handful of individually-wrapped, butter biscuits.
We sat on a bench outside in the shade as he went through all the orientation information. There were services three times a day. We would be assigned to the Adult tent for our Bible Study and meals. Our group leaders would place us in a small group for daily discussion. There was a singing rehearsal every day at 2:00, if we wanted to learn more about chanting the songs, and thematic workshops on a variety of subjects every evening at 5:45— all optional. Stephan, we would learn, is what they call a “permanent,” a young volunteer who commits to live and work in Taize for weeks, months, or even years to help the brothers manage the steady flow of visitors and, for some, to consider a livelong call there. This week he was assigned to the welcome center.
“And where are you from?” Stephan asked, not perfunctorily, but as if our very presence was the greatest joy of his young life.
“California,” I answered.
“OH!!” Stephan shouted, clapping his hands together. “We just had someone from California here last week. Ryan.” Stephan peered at us hopefully, but stopped short of asking if we knew him. “We just love people from California. You all just seem to glow!”
And in that moment, I imagine we did.