heather choate davis

Icon Workshop 5:45!

Ascension icon cropped Do you know anything about icons? Not the little technology-based dingbats you click on to, say, share a blog, but the kind that people of faith use for devotional purposes. They are used most often in the Greek and Eastern Orthodox traditions, but can be found in almost any spiritual practice: a time of meditation before a Buddha could also be considered a form of connection through a visual symbol.

We arrived at the workshop a few minutes late. There were nearly a hundred people seated on simple wooden benches and listening enrapt. Clustered around the room, people were translating the Brother’s comments (which, to my great relief, were in English) into German, French, Italian. A large icon was propped up on an easel at the front of the room. Like most icons, it was flat in appearance with a strong use of gold and featuring key biblical characters. The icons I was familiar with were typically of a single face, usually Christ, but sometimes Mary, or Mary holding her son. The idea of praying with icons is not unlike a woman in labor zeroing in on a focal point; by harnessing all your energy and concentration towards that one image, you can endeavor to transcend your earthly reality. For a Christian, the use of icons allows an opening in the spirit in which to commune with the Living God.

I knew all this before I came to Taize. What I didn’t know was that icons could also be depictions of whole narrative scenes with multiple characters. The one at the front of the room featured Christ in a white robe bending down as if to bid farewell as he slowly rose up above the crowd. It seemed to be a visual representation of the Ascension, an event that went unseen by human eyes.

“You see here there are twelve people surrounding Jesus,” the Brother said, and we all nodded, confident that they were the 12 disciples. Most of the apostles are not singled out in the icon tradition, he told us, but a few will have distinguishing marks. “This one here is Peter,” the disciple to whom he gave “the keys to the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16: 19) And this one here, the Brother continued, “Is Paul. He is usually easy to identify as he is the bald one with the beard and the reddish, brown robe.” Many around continued to nod and smile. I did not. A decade ago, I couldn’t have told you who Paul was, but in that moment the brakes in my brain skidded violently: Wait a minute! Paul wasn’t even on board at the time of the Ascension. He was still called Saul back then, the world’s greatest persecutor of the early followers of Christ, a man who wouldn’t see the light til years later during his fateful journey along the Road to Damascus. And although he went onto be one of the great evangelists in human history, writing letters of encouragement, guidance, discipline, teaching, and spiritual development to the early home churches— what I call the “ians” books of the Bible; Colossians, Corinthians, Thessalonians etc— he was never one of the twelve disciples. And what about Judas? And what about Matthias, the one who was chosen to replace Judas?

The Brother interrupted my internal monologue to comment on these very issues of “artistic license” and I smiled privately. Oh. Somehow, someway, by some miracle of faith, all those hours and moments and days where I had committed to reading scripture studiously, prayerfully, religiously, some of it— not just the spirit of it, but the facts of it— had actually started to stick. This, in that moment, felt like a revelation.

Toto, we’re not in Paris anymore

So here’s the deal with the rooms. My aunt, who had just turned 70, was invited to stay in the guest house where there would be a real room, with real beds— two to a room— and a real bathroom just down the hall. But I, who had not just turned 70, would not be able to stay with her there. I would have to go sleep with another group somewhere else. My aunt did not hesitate. “We want to stay together.” In that case, we had two choices. I could sense that Jean-Patrique was really going out on a limb for us here; although the brothers endeavor to greet all as Christ, they have a firm rule of no special favors. All must be treated equally. It’s the only way community works. We were given an option of a dorm that was close to the other adult quarters that we would share with a few other people, or a room that was “a bit removed” from the main area that we could have to ourselves. “We’ll take that one,” we said and delighted in the fact that, at least according to the map, we would be off in a stretch of rooms that bordered a private park with walking trails.

“Wonderful!” we chimed.

We then eyed our luggage, two rolling bags— the weeklong, not the weekend size— and two duffels filled with sleeping bag, pillow, sheets, towel. We looked around to see if, perhaps, someone might help us get the bags to the room — the room which was just a bit removed. I turned and saw Stephan smiling by the door. “We’ve got a long way to go with these bags,” I said playfully. You, know, just in case he wanted to take a hint. “Yes, but you’ve got plenty of time.” He waved and went back inside, and we were left alone in the dust.

Have you ever tried to roll two bags up an unpaved slope of dirt and rock? How ’bout down one? “Are you doing alright?” I asked my aunt periodically as we stopped to rest on the way to our room. I was stopping more often than she was as my duffel bag shifted and flopped and toppled my flow every 20 yards or so of the near-milelong trek. All the way down the hill, we talked breathlessly about how blessed we were to get this special room in this special location all to ourselves. My suitcase hit a crater and toppled. My aunt kept going, fearing the loss of momentum. “I’ll meet you there,” I said, muttering in a way that might be considered profane.

And when, at long last, we found it, tucked away at the end of a string of rooms, two rows deep, ours on the inside —not the forest side —with a lovely view just outside our front door of a retaining wall, a curious slope of mud and grass and the back end of someone else’s barracks, there was not another soul in sight. Three bunks and a metal luggage rack and small window to crack for air. And no neighbors.

Our own little slice of heaven in Taize.

(Photo: my aunt Anne in our new digs)

Anne in room

Welcome to Taize!

We'll be open soon REV

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.

Welcome sign

And we’re off…..

The Paris Gare de Lyon station was bustling on a Tuesday morning. We were told it was because of the holiday. “Ascension Day,” the ticket clerk said. Huh. According to the liturgical calendar recognized by most of the free world, Ascension Day was on a Thursday, six days earlier. (I know stuff like this now). “And you better get your return ticket today, because all the returns next weekend are selling out, too.” I stared blankly. “Pentecost,” she explained. I tried to imagine going into any workplace in America — a nation where there are more than twice as many churchgoers as there are in France — and saying you’d be taking a six-day weekend to celebrate the Ascension and, if the Spirit moved you, might just be gone straight through til Pentecost.

“And there are only a few seats left on Monday, as well,” the ticket clerk warned. I leaned forward in an effort to comprehend. “Whit Monday,” she said.

“Naturellement,” I smiled.

The train was packed with young families, students, older couples. A young father helped us load in our suitcases, redeeming the entire male population of France. We settled into our assigned seats, a grouping of four. There was only one person opposite us, a large, scowling, gypsy of a woman, who grunted and buried her head in a paperback as we settled in. The club car was right behind us and we could hear the merry voices of the young vacationers. I pulled out my travel Bible. I had promised my aunt I would give her some guidance as to how to navigate the sometimes daunting book before we got to Taize. Although she’d been baptized and confirmed, run a pre-school program at an Episcopal Church, and maintained a childlike faith her whole life, she had never read The Bible or done any sort of Bible study. This was not uncommon for women of her generation, who were merely asked to make sure the family was dressed nicely for church and didn’t do anything scandalous.

“Ok,” I said, “Lesson one.” I proceeded to measure out 3/4 of the pages between my thumb and index finger like a fat steak. “This is all the Old Testament.” My aunt went wide eyed. The woman across from us harrumphed. “Jesus doesn’t even come onto the scene til the very end.” I adjusted my grip to pinch the final sliver of pages like found treasure. “This, here, is the Gospel of the Lord.”

Suddenly the woman across from us lurched forward and glared at me. “Can’t you just stop talking and read a book!”

I suppose I was meant to be intimidated, to feel guilty that we, in our quiet chat, had somehow been more intrusive than the rowdy partyers spilling into the aisle “drunk with new wine.” (Acts 2:13). I was not.

“We’re going to be talking for a little while longer,” I informed her calmly. Returning my attention to the subject at hand, I split the pages right down the center and continued. “Now, right smack dab in the middle of the Bible, you’ll find the Psalms, the bridge to the Judeo-Christian tradition…..”

Here’s what I knew about Taize before I went…

It was in France. The music I loved came from there. It was sort of a monastery, but not exactly. It was ecumenical, which means that it did not belong to any denomination but welcomed brothers and sojourners from all Protestant and Catholic churches (and no doubt some thirsty seekers of other backgrounds, as well). This was unheard of in the monastic world, or even the church world, and the reason that they called their sanctuary The Church of Reconciliation. Taize was like a mecca for young people: in fact, their doors were primarily open to visitors 16-29. Those of us over 30 were welcome only during certain weeks and seasons, only for a short time, and never in groups larger than five. The living conditions were very simple. We would sleep in sleeping bags in bunks in shared rooms. There would be chores. My aunt and I prayed in advance that we wouldn’t have to clean toilets. I laughed at the ridiculousness of my decision to take my one golden ticket all the way to France where I would be asked to do the one chore I wouldn’t even do at home. God’s sense of the ironic is humbling.

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