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.”
After the morning worship, which was rich with the collective dreams and visions of the night before, we walked up the hill for breakfast. Depending on how you’re used to eating, you would either love or hate the breakfast at Taize: one white roll, one thin stick of dark chocolate, a pat of butter, a packet of jam, and selection of powders to mix in hot water to make the beverage of your choice. I took two scoops from the bucket of instant coffee, one each from the buckets of hot chocolate and dried milk, and made the richest mocha on earth. It helped. Breaking the bits of chocolate in the bread and dunking them til it grew soft and melty helped. Morning broke and with it a new willingness to receive whatever it was that Taize had to offer. Our first Bible study would begin after breakfast and I was eager for the opportunity to learn. This was my greatest delight, to draw from the wisdom of those who had gone before— from the prophets and the apostles and all the saints and scholars who had done their time with these texts— to add it to my own, and to find a way to pass it on to those for whom the door was still shut.
By the time we left the sanctuary it was pouring rain. We ducked and ran up along the path that led past El Abiodh, which was both the infirmary and the entrance to the guest house where my aunt was eligible to stay. We opened the door and shook off the rain. A young permanent was at the entrance. “May we use the bathroom please? We’ve been assigned to a room way on the other side, and there is no bathroom anywhere near us.” She smiled and said, “Of course.” By the time we got out, there was no one in sight. I found myself shifting into survival mode— what would we need to brush our teeth, or to pee again later?— and grabbed two cups and a small pitcher of water from the kitchen.
The room was warm and dry and we were grateful for that. My aunt fell asleep instantly. I did not. The rain came down so hard I began to envision the mud outside collapsing in on us here in the forgotten room. Suddenly the Agnus Dei began to resound in my brain like a torment. “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.” It was strange because there was no Agnus Dei sung in the services, nor was it a part of the contemporary service I attended back home. I’m not even sure how I was so certain it was called the Agnus Dei. “Lamb of God…” I had to pee. Again. Slipping out of my sleeping bag, I squatted down on the floor with the cup, tried not to wake my aunt, tried to imagine meeting this need with a roomful of strangers. Felt the shame of bodily needs “….have mercy on us.” How spoiled we are with our indoor plumbing and our creature comforts of every kind. I began to imagine all the people, the women, who squat like this in mud and cold, in mud and heat, swatting flies with a baby on one breast and children all around, clamoring for more of something, each with their needs, their bodily needs, one spilling into the next til illness comes. “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world…” I was beginning to think I would not find peace here at all. And then I saw it, that orange glowing altar, and the Agnus Dei now refraining like a choir of angels and the certain knowledge that the only way to keep seeing that altar was to serve the poor. Was this how a person began down the path that would lead to a life like Mother Teresa’s I wondered as I wrestled and flopped, “…have mercy on us.”…until finally the light broke through the sliver of window and I heard my aunt’s voice.
“Good morning!” she chirped like a character in a Disney movie. “How did you sleep?”
“I didn’t,” I groaned and reached for my journal.
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.