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.
There are no keys to the rooms in Taize which spreads out over 250 acres of the Burgundy hills with a public road running straight through the center. Visitors are told not to bring things of value, but still there are passports and cameras and credit cards. We are strongly advised at check-in to turn our valuables over to the security desk at La Morada. The counter is open twice a day. For fifteen minutes. I didn’t wear a watch and I hadn’t brought my phone so the notion of trying to catch a 15-minute window of time — when our room was as far from the welcome area as geographically possible —was daunting. “Give me your valuables,” I said to my aunt after dinner. “I’m going to run down there and try to get this out of the way before worship.” She handed me her entire wallet and her passport case and I high-tailed it across the property. The day was beginning to catch up with both of us. Hard to imagine I had awakened on a down pillow with a glass bottle of Evian on my nightstand; now my head was spinning with languages and logistics and fatigue.
There was one person ahead of me at the valuables desk. Most of the 400 people present that day at Taize had checked in on Sunday; by the weekend there would be at least ten times that many. How this 15-minute system would work when they were at capacity was beyond me. I mulled over the irony of having to check one’s valuables while staying in a community whose mission statement was “A pilgrimage of trust on earth.” When at last it was my turn I smiled at the fresh-faced young girl in charge, handed her my aunt’s things, plus my own passport, driver’s license, and credit card. “Here you go,” I said. “Do I need to sign something?”
“First, of all,” she informed me, “You must take everything out of the wallet.” She pointed to a sign on the wall behind her with that very message and I suddenly found it easy to picture her at 40, wagging her finger at her children. “Seriously?” I protested, slowly complying. She handed me a sheet of paper which I promptly put my name on and turned toward the door. “No,” she said, gesturing towards the paper. “You must write down each item. Here. On this list.” Mulishly, I crossed off the boxes that read passport, cell phone (my aunt’s), credit cards, cash, and handed her back the sheet. “I can’t imagine you can get many people through this whole process in 15 minutes,” I commented pointedly. Whatever glow I’d arrived with was quickly fading. She offered a tight smile and corrected me again. “No. Here. You need to write down the names of each of the credit cards individually. And you must give an exact count on the Euros.” Responses came to mind but they were not appropriate for a community of peace seekers. I took a deep breath and began to go through my aunt’s stack: gas cards, airline cards, department store cards— she’d brought her entire wallet with her. The girl who I’d decided was not fresh-faced at all but exceedingly rigid now began to prepare the sealed envelope for the safe. “We ask that you do not try to claim anything until you’re ready to leave.”
“But what if we have to?” We in the free world like to keep our options open.
“We ask that you do your best not to make that necessary,” she advised. Realizing I’d likely want to go to the ceramics store again before the crowds arrived, I retrieved my one credit card. “I’ll just hold onto this, then,” I said, smiling, trying to get some sort of brownie points for supporting the system. “So what happens if we miss the window on Sunday morning before we have to leave?”
“Then we’ll have a problem.” Clearly she were not trained in the customer-was-always-right school of hospitality.
“What do you mean we’ll have a problem?” I suddenly imagined throngs of visitors blocking the valuables door and our not being able to get our passports out before she flipped the closed sign, pulled the blinds.
“We have many other things to do here in the community. We can’t stand at this desk all day,” she said. “Do try to be here on time.”
And with that I made my way towards the doors to the Church of Reconciliation.
No sooner had the Icon workshop ended than we found ourselves queuing up outside the giant white circus tent that would be our home for the next week. I saw a woman carrying a crate of trays up from the kitchen and offered to help; just like that I had a job. Her name was Kathryn and she was from South Korea and I would discover, as we worked, that she had taken a year off to travel the world. She had multiple graduate degrees from Harvard, and had worked in public policy and the non-profit realm in DC before returning home to try to use her gifts in her native land. The men there would have none of it. And so now she travelled and prayed and served, and waited for her next cue. “Do you think you’ll go back to Korea?” I asked as we set out crates of the one and only utensil provided in Taize: a large spoon. “No,” she said, wistfully. “I can’t contribute there.”
Two young female leaders— permanents, like Stephan; likely no more than 20— stood up on a bench outside the tent. “We still need three volunteers for clean-up tonight. Three volunteers.” Well, as anyone could see, I was already busy! “Whoever cleans up gets to go first through the line!” This small incentive coaxed a few people forward and we were onto the next order of business, which seemed to be voting on the grace. Voices shouted out, “Frieden, Frieden…,” “Glucklich sind…,” “Que j’exulte et jubile…,” “Meine Hoffnung….” I didn’t hear a single suggestion in English: what were these songs? Were these local folk songs? The words sounded primarily German. There was a consensus: “Behute mich, Gott.” Everyone started to sing. I couldn’t even hum along— was just starting to catch hold of the tune when it ended and the porcelain-skinned brunette leader cried out,”Bon Appetit!”
I shuffled into the tent somewhat confused and with the slight sting of feeling on the outside. “Where do those blessings come from?” I asked the taller of the two leaders, Anna, a young German girl with cornrows and tribal headbands. “They are all the Taize chants,” she replied. “Have you never heard the music?”
“I’ve heard lots of the music, but in English,” I said as if that should have been my passport to the great songbook of the world.
“Well, you’ll learn,” she smiled and checked off my meal card. I was handed a tray, then a single shallow bowl that doubled as a plate which a man scooped a hearty serving of pasta into. Moving down the line, each server smiled and bid some sort of good wishes for my meal in accent-laden English. There were slices of bread and foil-wrapped pats of butter and little packets of cookies and a lovely peach. I took them all, realizing suddenly that my lunch had been a bag of chips at the bus depot. I began to worry that I would be hungry later. I began to worry that every single song we’d sing all week would be in another language. I began to worry that I didn’t really know anything about this place, or this music, or why God had called me here. I looked over at my aunt who was already deeply engaged in conversation with a English couple close to her age. I turned the other way, put on a friendly face and introduced myself to the man across from me. His accent seemed Germanic. “Did you know that blessing song?” I asked. Sensing my discomfort he patted my hand and smiled. “In English it means: Keep me, O God, for I trust in you. You show me the path of life. With you there is fullness of joy.”