Monday, June 3, 2013

From Texas to Taizé: Constant Prayer

About a year-and-a-half ago my wife was brought into the office at the Central Texas Conference to discuss an amazing opportunity - Bishop Mike Lowry would be taking a group of young people from the conference on a spiritual pilgrimage to the community of Taizé.  And not only would she be going, but I would be given the gift of this amazing trip as well.  A few days ago, upon our return from this fantastic journey, I posted a few of my favorite photos from the trip.  Just a little preview.  Over the next couple of weeks I'll be posting on many of the aspects of living in the community, from breakdowns of the individual prayer services, the worship spaces themselves, the living situation, the setting, and some interesting conversations from a few of the brothers.

As I look back over my journal from this experience I find it all a little overwhelming to try and communicate, so where do I begin?  We'll start with what the Brothers of Taizé are most famous for - their unique style of worship.

Before we get into the vibe of the worship services - which are simply knows as 'the prayers' in the community, let's outline the daily schedule, Monday through Saturday:

8:15 am - Morning prayer then breakfast
10:00 am - Meetings (small group bible studies broken up by age - more on that later)
12:20 pm - Midday prayer followed by lunch
2:00 pm - Song practice
3:15 pm - Meetings (breakout sessions from earlier small group meetings)
5:15 pm - Snack
7:00 pm - Supper
8:30 pm - Evening prayer

The whole day is oriented around the worship - the prayers.  We prayed before breakfast and lunch, and then after dinner.  I will also say that the times are pretty loose ... 

Around the time worship is scheduled to start the prelude begins - about 10 minutes of bell ringing at the bell tower in the midst of the community.  At that time, most of the pilgrims make their way to the Church of Reconciliation, the main worship space of the Taizé community.  Seating is simple, as in there is none.  For the most part people sit on the floor, or using simple wooden benches that are about 6 inches off the ground.  Their are sturdier benches and chairs against the walls, but they are forbidden in the main worshiping body as they inhibit sight lines.

 About that time the bells start ringing, the brothers stroll in, one or a few at a time, wearing simple white robes over their "business casual" street clothes.  The brothers take their seats in the center aisle of the church, the area framed in the picture with shrubbery.

As the bells die down, the singing starts.  The accompaniment was one of two things this week, the organ in the wall on the side or a short (48 key) midi-keyboard with a classical guitar effect.  Much of the time the worship was a cappella after pitches were given.

The most startling, and natural thing, about the worship was how it was led - as in, it kind of wasn't.  The brothers sat and faced forward like the congregation and simply sang and prayed.  Nobody was up front giving gestures, telling us when to sing or come in.  The miracle of this worship as that we all just followed.  The only direction given was on a few LED screens around the sanctuary that denoted what hymn was coming in the hymnal.  That was it.  A brother would cant the first line of the chant and everybody would sing.  Singing with 2,500 people from around the world - I know God was there.

As the services would carry on (morning and midday prayers were about 45 minutes, evening prayer formally ended after about an hour and 15 minutes), you really felt the breadth of the nuance of each service. Before the week's worship begins, the brothers would look at the countries to be represented during the week and would make sure that every language present would be included in worship during that week, maybe a little, maybe a lot.  There were 2,500 people from 35 countries there when we were.  Worship felt like what Pentecost must have felt like - because we were all there for the same purpose, we all knew what we were singing for.  The chants themselves were all very simple, ranging from two to sixteen bars or so.  This allows for each chant to truly become a prayer, as you can internalize the message and begin to think less about what harmony you're singing or what the next stanza is.  Simplicity is the key.

The 'hymnals' themselves also aid in understanding as they include translations of each hymn into most commonly sung languages.  With a particular chant lasting as long as ten minutes, I found it wonderful to take a break from singing in the midst of a hymn a read the translation.  It made the connections in the congregation so tangible for me.

Many of the more poignant moments during the services were the times of silence.  At some point during each service there was a 10 minute time for silent prayer.  It really felt like the centerpiece of the service (there were no sermons - ever).  And you were led into that silence, through the scripture reading and the prayers before.  People would often put their heads to the ground during this time in a position of total submission.  It took a couple of days for me to get into the rhythm of the silence, and I would have to make it a point to pray for something specific to keep my mind from wandering.

A song would bring us out of the silence and the worship would continue, often with a Prayers of the People or intercessory prayer cycle.  Prayers for current events for particular countries would be sung or spoken during a chant in the country's language.  During one amazing moment, a brother prayed for the tragedy surrounding the tornadoes in Oklahoma.  The Brothers pay attention to what's going on in the world.  My wife and I have family in Oklahoma, so that prayer hit close to home for us.

For the most part, the brothers follow the liturgical seasons.  Much of our prayer for the week was centered around the day of Pentecost, and most of our chanting was focused all calling down and welcoming the Holy Spirit into our lives.

Much as worship started, worship ended.  Worship ends when the brothers begin to walk out, usually during a chant.  But for the casual feel of each service of prayer, there was an overwhelming feeling God's hand in all of it.  From the sculpting of each service to include diversity of language, to the gathering in silence of the multitudes, we were all called there to pray with and for one another.  There was so much comfort in that.

The Brothers, for every service sought to create a space where the people could experience the Holy Spirit without obstacle - including themselves.  I can say I felt the power of the Holy Spirit in every service.  It just gets me thinking - how often does worship leadership get in the way of the Holy Spirit's work in worship?  It's going to take a while for me to feel my way through that.  Thanks be to God.