Nuneaton train station is not the place you would think to begin a pilgrimage but on the 28thof July, eight pilgrims and fellow travellers, climbed aboard a coach bound for Taizé, a monastic community in France that welcomes young people from all over the world every summer.
We were a mixed group of first timers and seasoned Taizérs, so it was with great excitement that we set off.
After 19 hours of travelling – we got held up at Dover – the weary travellers were welcomed to Taizé by Brother Paulo, the brother who links up with anyone from England. He had arranged breakfast for us: hot chocolate in a red bowl with a hunk of bread with jam or chocolate, our first taste of what would become our daily breakfast pattern.
A Building Filled with Song
After we had breakfasted we set about making camp, in the summer heat – 38 degrees, so we chose the cool of the shade to pitch up and then set off to explore.
Taize has a daily rhythm of prayer, food and community, so one of the first places we wanted to find was the church. This building has had to grow and expand, as over the years more and more pilgrims are drawn to come and experience the singing and the silence of a Taize service.
The church is simple but beautiful, with no chairs, everyone sits on the floor, unless you buy yourself a Taize stool to help with the ‘numb bum’ problem. You are handed a song book as you enter which is full of all the chants that Taize are famous for, written by the brothers themselves.
You sing these in different languages, some of which I have never sung in before, such as Polish or Russian, so you begin the week by listening until you can finally join in, but the listening is just as powerful to hear thousands of voices singing together in harmony.
There is another place where people go for silence and reflection, ‘The Source’, a beautiful place with lakes and trees and even a stork trying to catch an unlucky fish. People come here to be alone or to be in silence with friends as you are asked to be quiet when down at The Source and it’s become a very special place to stop and listen to God.
Our Taize Experiences
But what did the Taize experience mean for those of us that went? Here are some of the thoughts of the group that went:
What Taizé meant for me: Felix Smith
Taizé is a very special place for me for two reasons. First, Taizé is a peaceful place where I have the time to take a step back and reflect, both on my immediate life and circumstances and also on my journey in faith. The quiet, reflective prayer brings a deep sense of calm and allows space to explore whatever challenges you may be facing, or simply to be still in the presence of God and the community of thousands of young people.
Second, it is somewhere to meet the most wonderful people. The communal worship and focus on simplicity creates an atmosphere of caring and respect that continues into all aspects of life in Taizé. I would often find myself sharing a laugh or engaged in deep conversation with someone I had met in the lunch queue only ten minutes earlier. There is a real honesty and openness to Taizé that I have experienced in few other places.
Whether someone has experienced Taizé music in their own church or if they've never even heard of Taizé, I would absolutely recommend going to anyone who's thinking about it!
Lessons of Taizé: Emma Sargeant
The thing that really struck me about Taize was how its rhythm and structure encouraged you to take responsibility for your own journey and connection with God. At other festivals I’ve been to, you are lead in worship and lead through a talk and ministry time. This was different.
Sure, we had a choir leading the singing and numbers on a screen letting know where to find the next chant in our books, but nothing was ‘lead’ from the front. It all just happened; the bible reading and prayers, then the 10 minutes silence unfolded as the service moved and because you knew that it would happen whether or not you were there, you felt you were being allowed to join in with a sacred and holy act but one you were invited into and your presence was treasured.
The astonishing thing for me, as a youth worker, was that the adults were always being told to step back and give way to the young people, to allow them to ask the questions in the bible studies or seminars, to give way to them on the Friday night when young people in their thousands, waited patiently for hours to have their turn, kneeling round the cross having their own private space with Jesus.
This was such a power sight for me and so humbling to watch these young people seek out God and spend time in His presence. The brothers set the tone that the founder, Brother Roger, held in his heart. Taizé is a place for young people to come and seek and find God. It is a privilege us adults are allowed to share but not to take over or steal from the young. What would our communities look like if we did more of this at home?
Taizé Reflections: Celia Gould
Having finished my degree a matter of days before going to Taizé, I was looking forward to some time for self-reflection and spiritual renewal. I had experienced Taizé chants in Anglican churches in the UK, but on arriving in the community, I quickly realised that the Taizé way of life was so much more than just the chants and style of prayer.
The way of being in Taizé focuses on peace and service to God, through service to the community. Partly due to the heat, nobody rushed around and everyone took their time with whatever they were doing. A sense of peace and calm radiated from the community and environment, which was cleansing in today’s fast-paced world. The community work, such as cleaning and washing up, played an integral role in placing service to others at the heart of the community.
Friends had told me about the routine of Taizé: three prayers a day, community work and Bible study. Although these activities framed the day, I was surprised at how much time I had each day to read, pray and meet new people. People in Taizé talk of “Taizé time”; time just doesn’t seem to pass in the same way as the rest of the world.
I loved how we were woken up by the bells ringing and time for prayer was indicated by bell-ringing; there wasn’t the need to check the time constantly and there was something wonderful at placing your trust in the monastic routine of time indicated by bells.
It was incredibly empowering to be in an environment where young Christians were in the majority; I had a number of conversations with young people from other countries about our faith and personal experiences. Denomination and tradition didn’t matter; we were all united by our faith in Christ.
Overall, the experience of Taizé gave me a renewed grounding in my faith, a renewed hope for the future and plenty to reflect on! I can’t wait to return.
Emma Sergeant: So, what did Taize mean for us a group this year? Spiritual connection and refreshment, meeting and making new friends, creating a new community and a sense that this is just the beginning of a new Taize story for us. We want to go again next year and to welcome new pilgrims to join us. So drop me a line if you want to chat about it further or if you want to come along to any of the monthly Taize services that happen across Birmingham.
Our prayer is that the lessons we learnt on the Taize mountain will not be forgotten as we live out the rest of the year down in the valley, where God is still close, and life is lived.