Have you ever been to Heaven?
Me neither. But the sanctuary at Taize may just be the closest thing to it. The walls soar to cathedral heights, but there’s nothing old or gray or obsolete about the beauty here: everything is orange and glowing and rendered with an eye to simplicity. We approach in silence, pick up a songbook and enter the otherwordly space. There are no pews in Taize. All the pilgrims sit on the floor, or on a handful of freestanding wooden kneelers which people learn to arrive early to snag. The center aisle is partitioned off from the two sides by a small row of dried greens that form a divide between the visitors and the brothers, who sat in an order that appeared to be by age, or seniority, in simple wooden chairs along the edges or in kneelers down the center.
In their white robes they entered, one by one, from behind a wall just off to the side of the altar; they did not process in any formal way, but seemed to arrive, much as the members of a symphony would, just in from whatever workshop or prayer meeting or meal they had been attending, and now dressed in white robes and appearing to glide. I watch enrapt as they entered the space. Tried to let go of the noise in my head from the events of the day. I looked up at the icons, at the orange flames of silk cloth that rose up along the back of the altar. I said to myself again and again You’re here now You’re in Taize You’re about to sing in a service in Taize. I kept repeating it to myself to make it real. On several of the side walls, there were small LED lights that indicated the number of the song that will be sung next. I opened my book and found so little English I wanted to weep, but here the words to all the songs were written and translated, so you could sing in the original language or in your own. I decided to sing in Polish, in Italian, in Latin, in French, in German to hear the words on my tongue, to see if they might draw me closer to the God of all the earth.
There are two things that are essential to a Taize service: singing and silence. The chants are rarely more than two sentences long— sometimes only a few words—so that they can be repeated again and again till they take hold in the spirit of the singer. There is no formula for how may repetitions there will be. Sometime a song can go on for 15 minutes. Sometimes twice that. And always, at the center of the service, where traditionally a sermon would go, there is silence. Deep, thick, pure silence held prayerfully by hundreds (or thousands) of people. The silence lasts for at least 6 minutes and often closer to 12. The brothers claim that most visitors complain, at first, that the silences are much too long, and, by the end of their journey, not nearly long enough.
It is these moments of silence, silence like a deep well, that are the great sublime gift of Taize.