Taizé is an ecumenical (read: non-denominational) Christian community in Burgundy, France. It was founded after World War II by Brother Roger, who established a community of brothers who wanted to seek God through silence and solitude. They did just that for about 20 years, until the youth of Europe discovered it and started coming en masse. Now, they run weekly Christian camps/retreats for up to 6,000 young (and not-so-young) people! I found out about Taizé because my church sometimes does Taizé-style services for special events (Ash Wednesday, Advent, etc.). The service is built around simple, chant-like songs, and the idea is that you sing yourself into prayer. Then, where there would be a sermon in a typical church service, there are 7-12 minutes of silence meant to help you hear the voice of God. I always liked the service style, so when Kate Shaner, one of the ministers, mentioned that you could actually go to the community in France, I decided I would. I went for the first time two years ago, and I did 4 days of the program and 2 days in silence. It was amazing, so I decided to come back to do one full week of the program and one full week of silence. While all ages are welcome at Taizé, they ask people over 30 to just stay one week so that they can welcome as many young people as possible. With my 30th birthday coming up in September, I decided this had to be the year for me to return to Taizé!
I began with one week in the main area of Taizé, participating in the program for 17-29 year olds. I stayed in a dorm, sharing a room with three Germans, a Polish-Canadian, and a Russian. The daily schedule is structured around the 3 daily prayer services: before breakfast, before lunch, and after dinner. For meals, you line up to be served mess-hall style in what is essentially a field with some big tents set up. After breakfast, I had my work duty, which was cleaning bathrooms (might sound gross, but I was well prepared by my days at Camp Akita, and anyways, it only took like 30 minutes). After lunch, I had my sharing group, where I met with 7 other 26-29 year olds (they divided us up by age) to discuss a Bible passage that a Brother had introduced, or really to discuss anything that came to mind. And in the later evening, people gather at Oyak, a snack bar type area, to chat, have a drink, and play music. It might sound a little lame-o, but what made it amazing was all the people around. People come to Taizé from all over the world, and the kind of people who come to a place like this typically have had some other cool experiences, so there is always someone interesting to talk to and learn from. Knowing that I was going to spend the entire second week in silence, I really threw myself into spending time with other people and tried to be present to the relationships I was making. It was a blast – but exhausting by the end of the week. By the time Sunday came, and I said good-bye to all the friends I had made (most of whom were only staying that one week), I was ready to shut up!
So it was a huge relief to go into silence. It might seem that it would be a burden to not be able to talk, but it was actually very freeing. I didn’t have to fill the silence with idle chatter or polite conversation – I could just focus on myself and my relationship with God. I moved to a house in a nearby village, and shared it with 10 other women who were also in silence. We still went to the main area for the group prayers, but everything else (our meals, Bible introduction, and work assignments) happened at the house, a beautiful old house with an amazing garden and orchard to hang out in. The garden looked like how Heaven is portrayed in the movies – golden sunshine, blue skies, wildflowers, butterflies bouncing about. A Sister came to the house to lead our Bible introduction, counsel us on being in silence, and listen to us if we needed to talk to her. She made it clear the first day that, even in silence, it is okay to talk if you need to communicate – so, if we needed someone to pass the salt, the least disruptive thing to do would be to say “please pass the salt.” The purpose of being in silence for a week wasn’t to fulfill some personal challenge or to voluntarily paralyze our vocal cords – it was to save our conversations for God. I was just glad to have alone time for the first few days. Then, on Wednesday, I had a profound experience related to a certain relationship in my life, and that really shook me up for a couple of days and brought up a lot of emotion to deal with. By the end of the week, I felt a strong sense of peace and joy. I was ready to talk again, but I really enjoyed all 7 days of silence. It was a really special experience to be able to quiet my mind and listen to my own heart and the voice of God. And to realize that, often, they are the same thing.