After our group session, there was a workshop in the main building on the Holy Trinity so rich with connect-the-dots scripture references that all I can say is: you had to be there. My aunt and I then raced from there to the tent to prepare for dinner. After offering to help set up and serve the first day, this had become our assignment for the week (no cleaning toilets, yay!). The little van that drove the food trays from the main kitchen up to Tent F arrived in a cloud of dust. We unloaded the crates of bread and the large foil-covered tins of the meal. Peeling back one of the trays I saw we were having chicken McNuggets. “How many per person?” I asked.
“One?” I repeated, wondering if it wouldn’t have been better to have none at all.
I was in charge of handing out the trays and bowls. I watched as my aunt and two others scooped out the carrots and peas and potatoes and then the solitary nugget. Most looked up incredulously, waited to be told, “Just one tonite.” There was a very round, garrulous man who was always first in line for seconds; I worried that he might be undone by the rations. “No, just one,” my aunt told him as his shoulders drooped and he reached for more bread.
He was the only obese person I saw during our entire week at Taize. In fact, it was startling to see how much trimmer and healthier most of the European and Asian visitors were; we have gotten so used to having so many obese citizens in America I don’t think we have fully understood how much our human landscape has changed. The week before I left for Taize, I saw a billboard announcing a 50-piece McNugget package for only $9.99. I thought about the struggling families who would make a dinner of it, then realized— no, this would likely become the new American afterschool snack.
When everyone had been served, Hesta and Anna— our permanent leaders— came around to serve us. Atop my scoop of carrots and peas and potatoes, Hesta gave me not one but two nuggets. An hour before I would have thought that was a delightful treat —a little bonus for our food service— but after 24 hours in Taize, I had come to feel uncomfortable with the idea of any special treatment. Why should I get an extra one, when everyone else had to make do. I thought of a moment in church that day when my aunt had sat down on a kneeler that had a scarf around the base. A woman arrived late and tapped her on shoulder: that one’s mine. It’s reserved. She had tried to find my aunt another one, but that wasn’t the point, at least not to me. There was a basic wrongness about holding a prime spot — or taking any action that placed one at an advantage over another— in this place of trust and reconciliation. If we are to began to bridge the gaps between us, we must be willing to meet on a level playing field.
I’d love to report that I’d put the nugget back, but I did not. What would have been the point? Everyone had been fed and there were still a few more for the few who needed seconds. Frankly, without the dipping sauces, they were almost inedible. Funny, how so many adults had felt deprived about something so wretched tasting. Sometimes I think we’ve just grown used to wanting more of everything, maybe most especially what we are told we can’t have.
And so we sat in our little circle on our metal folding chairs on the grass, me and my aunt and the salt-and-pepper Brits, and the Chinese couple from Malaysia, and Michael in his wheelchair and Rasmus his helper, and the handsome and slightly uncomfortable European man, whose infrequent comments revealed a vague confusion or disconnect with the thoughts that came before. I found myself drawing from my experience in leading groups throughout the years, trying to discern when a particular path had grown cold, to recognize when two divergent opinions might create an opportunity for growth, to cover the material assigned so as not to miss a segment that might have been dear to one person, and most of all, to make sure all had a chance to speak. In my concern for communicating with Michael, I realized I hadn’t given enough attention to the Chinese couple. Picking up on the line that “Individualism as a road to happiness is an illusion,” I asked the man about his culture. How in the Chinese culture the emphasis is on the strength of the group, on the family unit as a whole, not on the individual, isn’t that right?
“That’s changing,” he said. “Now our young want more to have their individuality. Even in the church we see it, the music becomes more about the personal experience of faith. Much more I,I,I.”
His wife nodded and I sensed it was not so much deference as shyness and, perhaps, less confidence in her English. Everyone could relate to this issue of how music reflected this shift in culture from the collective to the individual. I knew that I had experienced it when I first started going to church: all the worship songs at our contemporary service had lines like “Breathe new life in me” or “I love you Lord” or “Make me a servant”— all first person language— whereas the old church hymns put the emphasis on God and the whole. “A Mighty Fortress is our God” or “Voices raised to you we offer” or “God of Grace and God of glory, on your people pour thy power.” In the beginning the old hymns felt dead to me but as I have aged, and perhaps matured, they have begun to feel richer. I only wish they didn’t have so many bloody verses— my voice is shot after two.
By the end of the hour and a half, our group had come to be all that one could hope for: connected, engaged, willing to share (I would work more on the European man later). “Well,” I said, “Shall we close in prayer.”
“Gracious and Heavenly father, we thank you for this time together, for the sunlight and the warmth of kindred spirits, for the chance to learn from each other, and to grow in our understanding of the gift of joy and the fruit of compassion in this holy place together…” I opened it up to the circle and those who felt so moved added their own expression of praise, with Michael wittily throwing in the AMEN at the end. We all laughed and rose up and I found myself eager to meet again with the group the following day. “So, shall we make this our spot for the week, meet here tomorrow at 3:30?”
The two Brits said they were very sorry, but that they had to leave the next day just after lunch. The couple from Malaysian echoed the sentiment. In a blink the group had been lopped in half. When even the European man said he wasn’t sure if he would make it, I felt a sudden, gaping sense of loss, not only of the individuals who were leaving, who I’d grown to like very much and was hoping to learn more from, but of the sense of the whole; our group, my group. The people to whom I’d been called to be as one with.
With all the enthusiasm I could muster, I turned to Michael and Rasmus and my aunt and smiled. “Well, I guess it’s just us, then,” and drifted off wondering what God had in mind this time.
Most of the visitors arrived on Sunday and had been placed in small groups for the entire week. Ours was a ragtag group who had showed up midweek; a fine group, I thought, no doubt a gathering of independent spirits who didn’t feel constricted by the suggested arrival day. One of them was a man in a wheelchair with what I imagined was cerebral palsy; it was so severe that he had involuntary spasms of his arms and bent hands, drooled frequently, and spoke in a sound that was incomprehensible both for its guttural nature and its Danish origin. He was accompanied by a young man with the most beautiful Scandinavian face I’d ever seen and to be in the company of the two of them together was like a hard and perpetual blessing.
“Shall we go outside,” I suggested, a comment that would somehow establish me as the group leader.
There was a salt-and-pepper pair of Brits who spent their time in service work around the globe, had been to the monastery at Ione in Scotland, quoted Celtic theologians, and spoke wistfully of the time they felt most alive in their church when they had committed wholeheartedly to the well-being of a group of Vietnamese immigrants. Another couple was from Malaysia, although I had come to learn at lunch that they were Chinese; their daughter had gone to Stanford, was now a professor of nanophysics at the University of Paris— they had all met up in Taize for a family reunion. The group was rounded out by my aunt and a handsome, middle-aged European man who seemed more uncomfortable than most to find himself in this particular group. He, I couldn’t get a handle on.
“Jenny,” I said, turning to the English woman beside me. “Shall we start by reading the text aloud?” She began to read softly from Taize’s Letter from Chile, a treatise on joy, compassion and forgiveness that is used as a basis for small group study. We had missed the part about Joy, were starting right in on how it related to Compassion. “Opting for joy does not mean running away from life’s problems. Instead, it enables us to face reality, and even suffering. Opting for joy is inseparable from a concern for other human beings…Tasting God’s joy, however fleetingly, turns us into women and men of communion. Individualism as a road to happiness is an illusion.”
I heard a groaning sound and turned to the man in the wheelchair. Embarrassed, I said, “I’m sorry, I forgot to have us introduce ourselves. What is your name?” The young Danish man beside him said, “Michael. His name is Michael.” I asked Michael to share his thoughts but I can’t for the life of me remember what they were: I only knew that they were so profound and elemental that anything else would be superfluous. Mainly I just looked at the young man, at the way he looked at Michael straining to get the words out, sputtering and stalling and flinching, and all the while this bright and glowing boy just come of age sat calmly listening, waiting, taking it all in so he could translate. I began to think of the two of them together as an icon on patience, one I could pray before my whole life and still never learn to listen with such tender and attentive care. “And what is your name?” I asked his helper.
“Rasmus,” he answered shyly.
“And are you a member of Michael’s church?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “I don’t belong to a church. I’m a drummer. I have my own band,” he said, suddenly blushing and directing our eye to his t-shirt which read in bold letters THE TESTOSTERONES.
I burst out laughing and thought about what Br. John had said in the morning session. God was definitely not boring…. (to be continued)
After a rich time of midday prayers and a lunch of rice & beans, bread, Boursin, and applesauce, my aunt and I decided to try out the singing practice at 2:00. She was not a singer any more than I was, but we were eager learners and I thought I might learn a bit more about the songs in other languages. We entered the workshop space and found a luminous Nordic girl— 20 or so, with braided pigtails— standing in the front of the room calling out “Altos here, sopranos over here.” I froze. The blurb in the welcome sheet had made this sound like it was a come-one-come-all affair. Now I suspected it was going to be more along the lines of a professional choir rehearsal.
“Well, I have a very deep voice and I really can’t sing at all,” I joked. “Where would you like me?”
She did not seem to share my humor, nor did she have any sense of where she might put me. A lady nearby said, “Try the altos.” My aunt scooted across the room nervously whispering, “I think I might be a soprano.”
Soon we were doing vocal exercises that seemed to imitate sounds in nature: crows, whooping cranes, wildebeest. Everyone around me looked to be very much in their element. My voice was already tired. I had never been trained to sing and was always certain I used my voice incorrectly somehow, even in speaking, which I did a lot. At least twice a year I tended to lose my voice altogether. I looked over at my aunt who seemed to be holding her own while the Leader— who was clearly the sterner cousin of the girl on the Swiss Miss chocolate box—began assigning us the parts to one of the Taize songs. Well this would be good I thought. “Veni Sancte Spiritus,” the words began. Come Creator Spirit, come! and we layered our parts one upon the other. It is this moment of feeling a part of the whole, of feeling your voice meld into the one great sound that I imagine fills choral singers with delight. Not me. I couldn’t even hit the full range of notes assigned us, and didn’t enjoy trying— too much pressure. Slipping out the back door, I left my aunt looking jubilant with her soprano group, and went to find a moment’s peace before the small group sessions.
It was not until later when I found out that my aunt was not jubilant at all. She quickly realized that she could only hit half the soprano notes, and shortly after I left, a woman beside her, a German woman (it would always be a German woman who would correct you, we would soon discover), told her sharply, “You are not a soprano. Go over there with the altos.”
My aunt moved over sheepishly, taking a place in the back. She made it through a song or two before another woman, a German woman, told her, “You are not an alto. Go try the sopranos.” My aunt knew that wasn’t going to fly so she scooted in with the baritones, who quickly informed her that there are no female baritones, at which point she just kept her mouth shut and listened until the practice was over.
So here’s one thing I know about church singing: the people who do it well aren’t much interested in the people who don’t. But it didn’t matter. Taize chanting was not about the perfection of any given voice, but the joining of all voices in prayer. And when those voices rose up from kneeling souls, they were the most beautiful sound on earth. And the blessing of singing them was why I had come, not to learn to sing them better. I smiled and thought of the author John Updike who claimed that the reason he went to church every Sunday was that it was the only place on earth where no one would stop him from singing. If you’re like me and John, we welcome you into the pews.
This was our theme for the week. Our leader, Br. John, a former New Yorker who had lived in Taize for most of his adult life proclaimed, “God tells Moses that “I AM WHAT I AM” (Exodus 3:14). So He is always alive in the moment— always faithful and always changing. God, my friends, is never boring, so if you’re bored in your life, you know that God is not there.” Everyone laughed and we took a few minutes to break into sections by languages, with volunteers stepping into translate. John, who like all the brothers dressed like preppy European professors— khakis, collared shirts, v-neck sweaters— lectured in English with frequent pepperings of Hebrew.
We turned to Exodus 34:5-6, where the LORD descends from a cloud and begins to tell Moses what kind of God He is. “Yahweh is a ___________________ God….” Br. John stopped us here and asked what word or phrase was used to fill in the blank in our various translations. I knew that even a roomful of people with English language bibles would have a range of different words. Now voices shouted out in many languages, “Compassionate,” “Tenderness,” “Merciful.”
Rahhum, Br. John said, pressing his fist to his diaphragm. Rahhum means that feeling straight from the gut, a deep belly-rooted connection. “It comes from the word rahamim. Literally, a mother’s womb. So, when you are trying to understand who God is, what the name of God means, what qualities He possesses, the first image to picture is a mother holding her baby.” This connection he said is primal, pre-rational.
“So God is compassionate and _________________ What? What word do you show next?” “Gracious,” “Clemency,” “Benevolent,” And for this he gave us the Hebrew Hamun. “It means a gift that is not deserved or earned.” Picture a wealthy king to whom a poor beggar comes asking for a favor, and the king grants it joyfully.
I found myself falling in love with the Hebrew translations and the way they gave new life to the texts. Started thinking about the Master’s degree I planned to begin in the coming year and if I could add Hebrew to the mix of courses or if that was reserved for seminarians. “So we are starting to form a picture of who God is, of what his name is. He is compassionate and gracious and now we come to third thing, the part where people who want to jump can find their out,” he said smiling. “What is the third thing God tells us about who He is?”
“Patient,” “Long-suffering,” Slow to anger.”
“Aaahh! There it is. That big bad word. Anger. People love to tell you that they don’t believe in God because he’s so angry and judgmental. Modern man is ashamed of anger, but in the Hebrew culture if was simply a part of life— not good, not bad. Of course, the text does not say that God is angry, or easily angered, or quick to anger, but rather that He is SLOW to anger. Patient, long-suffering. He gives us a lot of rope before he steps in.”
He then said something that I think will stick with me for the rest of my life. “Anger is the psychological expression of the word NO!” I thought about my frustration at the valuables counter (Money changes everything) the night before: how much I resented her not allowing me to take the process casually. I did not want to consider the master plan that was put in place for the ultimate good of all the visitors. I wanted my laziness and my sense of entitlement to be indulged and that brave young girl had said No.
We turned to 1 John 1:5 and read, “God is light, and there is absolutely no darkness in Him.”
“So what is it that God, by the very definition of who He is, must say No to?” Br. John asked. “Evil.”
We went on to learn that the next words were from the Hebrew Hesed— in essence, “steadfast love,” — and Emet, or truth, the foundation of God’s covenant. And finally, the most beautiful and gracious passage of all, “maintaining faithful love to a thousand generations, forgiving wrongdoing, rebellion and sin…” (Exodus 34:7)
An hour and half had passed like a blink. I could have stayed in that tent all day and taken feverish notes, but found instead that Br. John was wrapping up. Pointing now to the final passage from our Exodus section he spoke of moral responsibility, and of why God needs to say No sometimes. “….But He will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the consequences of the father’s wrongdoing on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation.”
I had written about the challenges of this very passage in the book I had just finished writing, “Elijah & the SATs.” Felt affirmed to hear him make the same two points: 1) notice how much more generous the rewards are for doing good than the punishment is for doing evil: thousands of generations of blessing vs only three or four of punishment, and 2) that the notion of the father (or mother’s) wrongdoing impacting the children and grandchildren is— far from some ancient vindication— simply what we see revealed every single day in a culture where even kindergartners know the terms “dysfunctional family.”