I used to regularly visit the Taizé community and once took the opportunity to write about it for a local church newsletter (I forget which one). It is not a story, but it felt worth sharing. I wrote it in 2oo9. Accompanying it is a picture I took whilst there several years ago, it is one of my personal favourites, taken at the grave of Brother Roger, the founder of the community, who was brutally murdered during a church service. It is one of those pictures which, for me at least, tells a story of its own.
Going on a ‘pilgrimage of trust’ to an ecumenical community of dedicated brothers can sound very daunting to a young Christian and trying to explain how amazing it is to visit is often fraught with difficulty. It truly is a place you need to visit to understand as it is often quite paradoxical. When people ask questions they tend to somehow instinctively hit on the negatives, which for someone who has been are bizarrely not negative at all. “What is the food like?” “Very basic” “Can you drink?” “One weak beer per day” “Are there showers?” “Yes, but very unpredictable” “Where do you sleep?” “In a tent, often on rough ground” (I got a beautifully placed stone this year, right in the middle of my back and pointing upwards). One friend quipped that it sounded like a concentration camp, which is surprisingly similar to Brother Paolo’s remarks that it is like an upper class refugee camp. These seem like insurmountable obstacles to fun and enjoyment, yet every year thousands upon thousands of young people of all walks of life make this pilgrimage and find it worthwhile, often wanting to come again. I’ve now been six times and fully recommend it, so what is there to it?
Part of what I have already described is part of the fun, as odd as that sounds, they are only ostensibly negative. Taizé takes us back to basics in many ways, whilst there we appreciate the beauty in life from the perspective of a simpler mode de vie. We spend so much time tied to our material lives: constantly texting; obsessively checking Facebook; watching too much television; yet in Taizé we find we have everything we need without these incessant distractions. It is refreshing not needing beer for a good time, something many often need to realise – myself included. Living for a week without a proper bed or shower helps us appreciate it more when we return to it; Taizé can help us discover that these things truly are luxuries we do not need. This is often an unnoticeable part of the Taizé experience which lasts for longer than the week there. Could you imagine eating every meal with just a spoon and considering it normal?
The biggest parts of the Taizé experience are, in my mind, relationship and discovery. In Taizé you can really discover yourself, whether through silent reflection or through communing with others. Taizé’s most beautiful paradox is that on the one hand it is a place where you can go and be at complete peace if you wish; if you want it you can find it, in church, down by the source or by going into silence (if you dare). On the other hand it is a place where you can socialise with thousands of young people from all over the planet, singing, dancing, chatting, laughing and much more. Taizé is one of the few places in the world where young people from warring countries have been known to get along and laugh together. The opportunities for making friends in Taizé are endless and from every continent too, though Antarctica may have to be missed out; I thought I saw a penguin once but it was just a visiting nun. The coach journey, discussion groups and visiting Oyak are all great places to make new friends and learn about diverse cultures.
In Taizé the days have structure and everything flows well. There are three church services per day (optional but recommended) and they allow for deep reflection. The chants are beautiful and simple, and I would be surprised if someone came away without a favourite (unless like me they have several favourites which they can’t choose between). There are no sermons to endure, just short Bible verses and psalms. Silence is at the heart of the service and is the perfect time to reflect or to simply open yourself up. Whilst there you can also opt to do a job, ranging from washing the pots to washing toilets; keeping people quiet in church to keeping people quiet late at night; there is something for everyone. Work is usually seen as something to grumble at, I know I’m guilty of a lot of grumbling, but in Taizé it just does not seem like a bad thing at all, quite the opposite in fact. Mundane jobs become fun and feeling part of something bigger needs to be felt by everyone from time to time. Taizé works so well because everyone contributes and gets into the community spirit.
Through forging new relationships and through self discovery Taizé can be an incredible experience. It also allows for us to discover more of God too. Church gives us the time to reflect and open ourselves to Him if we wish, but nobody is pushing. The Taizé community allows you to go along at your own pace, never pushing or dragging, but offering a guiding hand where it is wanted. Discussion groups can vary from dealing with tough questions about faith, to simply having fun and playing games with people of differing backgrounds. It is a place where you can feel safe even if the Bible intimidates you as you will not have it thrown at you or forced down your throat; if you do want to plumb its depths then Taizé can be the perfect place to do so.
I always come back from Taizé feeling refreshed both emotionally and spiritually, and want to share it with everyone I meet. This year I found myself in the odd position where so many amazing things had occurred whilst there that I struggled to say anything about it to my friends and family! It was beyond words and I get something new from it every year; burdens are lifted and my mind is often more clear and focussed. Taizé is a deeply personal experience which unusually can be shared with others; they will find it to be an amazing place too, even if their reasons are different. This has been a description of my own views on Taizé, something I like to try to put into words and often struggle to do. I can only recommend visiting, if you haven’t already, as I guarantee you will benefit. Hopefully my words can at the very least get people wondering.