Taize has been part of my faith journey; I came here first when I was 20 at the end of my first year at university. I came for a week and stayed for two and felt as if I had discovered prayer for the first time. The rhythm of monastic life, the bells ringing, thousands singing and praying in silence. Taize had all the things I longed for and didn’t find in my own tradition – beauty, mystery and young people!
I came back on and off during my twenties – looking back I am surprised I never came for an extended stay – I was waylaid by a crush on a Scandinavian man and ended up in a retreat centre in Sweden! I now have a useless grasp of Swedish and can’t understand a word of French, such are the twists and turns that life takes.
Before my husband and family burst into my life Taize was always a place of retreat and silence for me. Many young people come enjoying the international community as much as the life of prayer, but after by first visit to Taize I always came and spent the week in silence.
Returning with my family was therefore a challenge and the first time I came, 7 years ago, with just the two boys I found the week almost unbearable. The contrast between my memories of Taize and the reality of being here with two autistic boys aged 4 and 5 was too harsh. I also had, foolishly, come on the week when there was no family welcome so I was managing the boys on my own.
But even in the midst of that difficult transition I remember being moved by the way the boys responded to the beauty and the peace of the prayers. They were children who never stayed still yet I sat with them through the silences as they lay, hidden under a large scarf I had brought, peacefully calm.
Two years later, with the addition of Hannah, aged 15 months, we decided to bring another group from Keele but this time try the family week at Olinda – and so began my new Taize days. We discovered a place where we could worship as a family, where the children engaged with the theme and the activities in a way they never did any where else. Where Dave and I could have a retreat together and share with people from across the world what it means to live out the Christian life as a familiy today.
My boys, like most autistic children, struggle with language based teaching. For many, many years we would always back up anything we were telling them with visual aids, with images and pictures. Reformed worship with it’s language based liturgy is probably the worst style of worship for them and traditional ‘Sunday school’ is no better. Here at Taize the children’s work, and particularly the afternoon ‘show’ that follows the story of the theme, has to be visual and not language based because you have children from so many countries – it is perfect for my children. The regular monastic life with the rhythm of the bells gives them a sense of structure and security and the worship is experiential not verbal.
So Taize now is part of our family life, and this year was our 5th time in Olinda. Taize no longer means a time of solitude for me but a time as a family when we reconnect, when we some how are grounded again in what it means for us to be a family together. But at the same time space within that for quiet and prayer. This year I sensed the beginning of a new transition as Thomas turns into a moody autistic teenager engaging little with others. When I asked him to rate the week between 1 and 10 he said 1! When I told Brother Paolo he laughed, whereas my response was tears!
I have stayed on for a week in silence, a return to what Taize had always meant to me in the past and strangely the first day was a difficult shift. Everywhere I walked I saw places where we were together as a family. Motherhood wounds you, it opens you to deep attachments that mean solitude has a different texture. There is a connectedness that changes the shape of who you are and therefore the way you spend time in silence with God. Taking a retreat here at Taize had, in my mind, been about returning to the youthful me who had so loved the silence at Taize. But instead I realise that Taize is full of my family, like shadows round every corner, and those shadows do not need to be banished but embraced.