Below is an interview with Brother Paolo from the Taize community.
I had not intended my visit to Taize to be part of my exploration of the Emerging Church – Taize quite clearly doesn’t fit into that category (what ever that category really means!) I came for a retreat and to bring my family (I have written about that experience elsewhere on the blog). But once I was there I realised that here was a place that was connecting with the post-modern generation on a far larger scale than any of the churches and groups I had so far visited. Taize welcomes around 80,000 people a year, the vast majority between the ages of 15 and 29.
Taize is an ecumenical monastic community made up of over a hundred brothers, both Catholic and from various Protestant backgrounds and coming from around thirty nations. The community was started by Brother Roger in 1949 when he and seven other young men came together to commit themselves to a life of celibacy and great simplicity. The brothers of the community live solely by their work such as crafts , writing and publishing. They do not accept donations. In the same way, they do not accept personal inheritances for themselves: any received the community gives to the very poor. (for more information go to http://www.taize.fr)
Since the 1960s the community has been welcoming young people to share in the common prayer and community life. Despite the wide spread decline in many main stream denominations Taize numbers have held up. However, there have never been large numbers from the UK and currently those numbers have declined even further.
Young people are invited to come for a week. They are expected to participate in the Taize Prayer held three times a day, listen to a Bible introduction by one of the brothers and and join in a discussion group. They are also involved in some sort of practical task to enable the community to function. There is also a fairly significant group of ‘permanent’ volunteers who spend at least a month and sometimes years at Taize where they take more responsibility for the running of the community.
The daily Prayer is at the heart of life at Taize, and for those from a free church tradition (like many of the young people that I bring) it is initially a very alien experience. The Church is largely without chairs with, at the front, a simple unobtrusive altar and large orange coloured drapes hanging like sails from the high ceiling. The lighting is low and effective, with many candles flickering at the front and small low hanging lights throughout which give a gentle glow. Around the Church there are a number of small modern stained glass windows and icons as a focus for prayer. . In the centre there is a sectioned off area where the brothers sit and to the right at the front there is a large painted crucifix. At the back of the brothers ‘area’ there is a small lectern from which the Bible is read.
What is interesting in terms of the layout is that there is no ‘person’ to focus on during the Prayer (although you could argue that there is a community of people to focus on in terms of the Brothers). In our celebrity culture, which has crept into the Church, this is a refreshing shift from a focus on the worship band, the preacher, the priest. It is impossible to tell who is leading the prayers or the solo parts of the singing – their voices are simply amplified across the Church. The only point when the whole congregation looks in one direction is at the reading from the Bible. Everyone turns to face the lectern placed symbolically in the middle of the community – the Bible at the heart of our prayers together.
The two things most people think of in terms of Taize prayers are the chants and the silence. In all three daily Prayers, after the reading from the Bible, there is a period of silence (I think it is between 5 and 10 minutes). This silence is at the heart of Taize and enables, to a large extent, the openness that is found there. Silence does not preach at you, does not tell you what you should believe, rather silence opens space for God to speak to you, where you are. Silence also allows people to bring their own interpretation to the experience (theological, cultural etc.) and this enables a very broad range of people to feel comfortable within the Prayers.
The chants are repetitive and simple and in a range of languages that reflect the diverse nature of those who come to Taize. It seems to me that there is a connection between contemplative and charismatic worship, in the sense that both are styles of worship that take people beyond words. In Taize the chants are sung again and again in much the same way as many worship songs are sung repetitively in charismatic Churches. The chants are a way into prayer with people sometimes singing sometimes praying (although in this context, unlike a charismatic context, those prayers are silent and internal).
Following on from the formal end of the Prayer many young people stay singing and praying in the Church. This particularly happens after the evening prayer when people can still be found in the Church at midnight. The style remains the same, though, with the continual singing of the chants.
The Sisters of St. Andrew, a seventy year old international Catholic order, also help in the welcoming of the young people. They have very little visibility in terms of the daily Prayer or the giving of the general Bible introductions but are clearly visible in running the family area at Olinda and El Abiod (which is the infirmary and also the place where older adults stay). They also give the Bible introductions and support to any young women who choose to spend their time at Taize in silence.
In my conversation with Brother Paolo I raised the question of their lack of visibility and the fact that some would say Taize does not offer positive role models for women. Paolo suggested that was a question I should ask the Sisters, implying that their lack of visibility was their choice rather than the Brothers’ decision. Sadly I didn’t have that opportunity. He said that when Brother Roger was alive many women would ask him why he didn’t started a female Taize community: he simply replied that he was a man and was therefore in no position to do so.
Paolo was more concerned about the decline in the number of men who come to Taize – there are proportionally far higher numbers of women. This, of course, is the pattern throughout all the Churches and we talked about how to engage young men and the need, maybe, for programmes that had more of an ‘action’ focus. Interestingly, this year for the first time I brought a group from Keele that was predominately men (7 men, 3 women).
Taize and Young People
There are a number of key factors that are significant in Taize’s continuing ability to attract young people. It is interesting that some of these very factors appear among the things the Emerging Church is focussing on in terms of its engagement with the post-modern generation – maybe Taize was just 30 years ahead of it’s time!
I asked Brother Paolo why he thought young people continued to come to Taize. He did not answer the question directly but started with the nature of the monastic commitment which lies at the heart of Taize.
He said: “The monastic commitment is to three things: to celibacy – to say as a life commitment that you are not going to have any one person in your life to whom you belong or who belongs to you. To simplicity – not having bank accounts, not always looking to acquire more things. To obedience – accepting the decisions made in community, not looking out for your own career, not living together for convenience: trying to take part in the same creation together, the same work, ministry, whatever you want to call it.
Those three things, which are questions of sex, money and power, are the very things which human beings want to be able to control. And the thing is, that, if you live it well, and wholeheartedly, it quite often leads you into times when you feel very, very empty, lonely, at a loss. And you wait there, in the Prayer, in the silence, in the singing of the psalms, in these songs that go round and round, and you wait and you discover that it is actually there, when it is very empty, that the roots of your life arise again.
And the thing is that I actually think that this resonates with the experience of young people It is young people’s experience that life is empty and they want it to be filled, and they wonder where that fulfillment is going to come from, where they are going to discover the direction for their lives, and so I think there is something here in our life at Taize that resonates for them.”
Brother Paolo feels Taize’s enduring attraction for the young is that there is authenticity at the heart. It is a meeting of the vulnerability of the young and their search for meaning with a community that is also ultimately vulnerable at its core having let go of all worldly security (intimate relationships, worldly possessions, individual autonomy).
Taize invites young people to an experience of faith without any expectation of an intellectual faith commitment. It is belonging before believing in a big way. When I suggested that to Brother Paolo he simply shrugged his shoulders as if it were unimportant and said “Yes, but isn’t that the gospel? Jesus simply begins by saying ‘follow me’, it is much later that Jesus asks ‘who do you say I am?’”. This is a generation that values ‘experience’ over much else and Taize offers an ‘experience’ of faith without any immediate expectation that you sign up to a belief system. It says: come and try, come and see, how you formulate your ‘beliefs’ is secondary.
This openness is at the heart of the Taize community. Anyone can come to Taize, can come and join the daily Prayers, can meet and discuss. Taize emphasises the need for young people to find their own answers rather than giving them prepared answers and there is a trust that the experience of studying the Bible and of prayer will enable God to speak to them. However, you are expected to fully participate in the religious life of the community.
What, of course, grounds the openness of Taize is, in effect, the closed and committed core, the community of Brothers. They commit themselves to a clear belief system (just look at their community rule!). When people ‘come and see’ what they see is a community of men who have made big life long commitments of faith formulated in a traditional and orthodox fashion, not a post-modern smorgasbord of belief systems.
I also think that a very astute decision was taken early on in the life of the Taize community to separate the young people (15 to 29 year olds) from the ‘adults’. As an ‘adult’ you can only come once a year and there are limited spaces. You participate in your own Bible introduction and discussion group. Paolo suggested that the separation of the ‘adult’ group was helpful because older people are often keen to give younger people ‘the answers’ and that in fact it is crucial that young people make their own journey to their own answers. He did recognise, though, that the presence of more mature Christians helped give depth to the young peoples experience.
It struck me that if this decision had not been made the Taize Church might well now be filled with chairs (there is only so long you can sit on the floor when you are no longer young!) and would be dominated by the ageing population that currently dominates the Church. Taize would have grown old with those who loved to come and continued coming (like myself!) and that would have inevitably shifted the culture of Taize away from the young. It is structured to remain culturally young and that in itself is a crucial part of its attraction.
An initial, and obvious, challenge for many mainstream Churches is the fact that they are dominated by the over 50s and culturally reflect that. Relationships are key to beginning to connect with people, and if the culture of the Church does not connect with your own experience then that is a huge hurdle in terms of establishing those initial relationships. While at one level Taize is culturally alien to young people (a monastery) because the vast majority of those visiting are young that first connection is easy to make – that sense of ‘here are people like me!’ In the Church do we need to structurally create appropriate cultural space to connect with the younger generation? Taize have an ‘adults’ area’: do we need to create an adults’ area in the Church (rather than a young people’s area – notice the shift of focus)?
The ecumenical nature of Taize also, I believe, has contributed to their continuing connection with the young. There is wide spread disillusion amongst the young with institutions, both political and religious. Among the young Christian students I work with there is little or no denominational affiliation. Taize could, in a sense, be seen as post-denominational. It holds together a community of Brothers from a wide range of traditions. The Catholic influence is strong, particularly in the daily distribution of the consecrated bread and wine, but there is also no ‘denominational’ push. This,I believe, is very attractive to a generation who remain interested in the person of Jesus but distrustful of religious institutions.
Taize seems to have been largely forgotten by the UK Churches and yet it offers a real resource for those trying to engage with the younger generation. It is not a new model of Church: rather it provides a opportunity for people to be changed and moved by the experience. There are some interesting lessons to be learnt from their continuing connection with the young; a place where people belong before they believe, where belief is not prescribed but there is space and openness to explore their own faith journey, a post-denominational community focused on Christ, a place culturally focused on the young simply by limiting ‘adult’ involvement. The worship style will not reach every one – we are not all contemplatives as we are not all charismatics – but it will connect with far more young people than currently have discovered this treasure of a place.