The last full week of my travels overseas was spent in prayer and communion at the ecumenical community of Taizé in the French countryside. It has been near impossible to explain what Taizé is to anyone who asks, so I’ve decided that the only way to explain this experience is to describe what a day looks like. I can confidently say that this was one of the most beautiful weeks of my life, filled with joy and worship and challenges and friends.
I try to wake up around 7 to make it to morning mass on time. This morning I discovered that the instant coffee machine operates round the clock, making pre-worship caffeine a possibility. This is earth-shattering. I make my way to the machine and sit on a wooden bench, sipping instant coffee from a small (recyclable!) plastic cup. I am alone, enjoying a rare moment of quiet before the day begins and thousands of people surround me.
I arrive two minutes late for mass, and the small chapel is packed. Each day, the mass is said in a different language. Spanish, Slovakian, Portuguese, French. The language center of my brain is thoroughly confused these days. So I mumble my responses in English, trying to stay focused on my own words and intentions rather than attempting to decipher the language of my neighbor.
After mass is over, I wait for the priests to file into the main church – a long line of them, from all over the world, old and young and short and tall alike. I follow them and sit quietly as thousands of people spill into the large, peaceful space for the morning prayer service.
There are no pews here, no chairs. Everybody sits on the floor, and the wall-to-wall carpeting makes the space seem like a school assembly hall. This is comforting. Many people take off their shoes, and I enjoy seeing bare feet in church. We all get as comfortable as we can, surrounded by five thousand of our closest friends in the French July heat. And then the singing begins.
Imagine thousands of people singing the same melody, the same verse, over and over. Maybe twenty times; I always forget to count. The collective energy is tangible, beautiful. They are often words from the bible, perhaps a Psalm. Poetry translated into over twenty languages. We sing, we listen to readings, we sing some more, sometimes using the small songbook in our hands as a reference, sometimes singing from memory, even if the words are foreign to us. (I now know the Slovenian word for God.) We share a generous stretch of silence in the middle of everything. I love this.
People begin to leave – are allowed to leave – once the brothers file out following the closing prayer. But others – myself included – stay, and sing some more. I stay through the last song, partially to enjoy more time here, partially to avoid waiting in the heat, crowded in among the masses, waiting for breakfast.
In the breakfast line I am handed a french roll, a pat of butter, and two sticks of chocolate. I decline the bowl offered to me with the option of “tea” (sugar water) or hot chocolate (chocolate water). I find a comfortable place to sit and people watch as I fashion a makeshift pain au chocolat from what I’ve been given: slice open the bread with my fingers; smear half of the butter along the fluffy white insides of the roll; place the chocolate inside. It’s delicious; I’ve come to crave it.
After breakfast, we have Bible study. We first meet in large groups, segregated by age, where a Taize brother introduces the daily reading to us. We then break into smaller groups of five to ten people for discussion. My group –“Las Palomas”, as we like to call ourselves — finds a shady spot to sit and discuss the day’s reading. More often than not, the conversation shifts quickly. Topics range from the existence of evil to our hopes and fears regarding the future to the Spanish translation of SpongeBob (“Bob Esponja”, who shares a dubbed voice with Bart Simpson). We come from Hungary, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, and the US, as well as various Christian faith backgrounds (Catholic and Protestant). Conversation is rarely boring.
At 12:30, we attend afternoon prayer. Again, I wait until the last song is over to walk into what is now sweltering heat. I am ravenous; I wait in the ‘NO MEAT’ line. The food is simple and satisfying. There is always dessert. Again I find a place to sit – sometimes alone (people watching opportunities abound), sometimes with friends. I say a quiet prayer and dig into whatever is on my tray.
After lunchtime I get some free time, which means naptime. I find my way back into the church, which is now almost empty and provides a cool respite from the outside heat. I lay on the floor, my journal serving as a pillow. There are a handful of others scattered around, sleeping or reading or writing or quietly talking. I can hear a small stream of holy water trickling from a nearby wall into a stone vessel. In the section of the church containing the altar, the choir is practicing. A partition separates us: I can hear them but they are invisible. Their multilingual lullabies lull me to sleep. I sleep like a baby here, even on the hard carpeted floor.
I wake up from my nap and readjust to consciousness. I lay around and listen to more singing and read until it’s time for my afternoon meeting with my small group. We find another shady spot. Often, we talk about the differences in our cultures and our faith backgrounds: speed limits in the Netherlands, or why Saints are important to Catholics. Over the course of a week this random group of strangers has become a little family, sharing and questioning and supporting and teaching and laughing.
At 5, we break for snack time, followed by workshops, which vary each day. And after the afternoon’s workshop comes possibly my favorite part of the day: serving dinner.
I love serving dinner so much that I wonder if I don’t have a future as a lunch lady. I stand behind a folding table and a tub of food: generally something simple and easy to serve with a ladle, like mashed potatoes or lentils or peas and carrots. It’s cramped; we have limited space in which to serve and seemingly unlimited bellies to fill. When the hungry masses are given the signal, I begin ladling. I smile brightly at each person who passes through the line, greeting them with cheer and mediocre food. At a time in my life where I’m searching for ways to serve God and serve others, it’s a treat to be able to serve in such a simple, enjoyable way.
After an hour or so of ladling, I get to eat. I have a bit of time to read or rest or socialize before the evening prayer service, which is calm and beautiful and the perfect way to wind down. People often stay in the church for hours singing. It’s amazing, seeing crowds of young people voluntarily – and enthusiastically! – spending hours of their day in church. Worshipping, praying, coming together in communion with others. The collective faith here is so strong, so pure. It inspires me in a way that I never want to forget. When I walk out of the church, song still ringing in my ears and in my heart, wispy clouds catch the changing colors of the sunset: pinks and blues across the valley. The sky here is always good. I am grateful.
Things finally get quiet at night. On the walk towards bed, the crickets chirp and a peace settles in. I go through the nightly motions: teeth brushed, contacts out. At this point in my trip I don’t even have face wash or moisturizer. Somehow the world still goes on.
I spend a few more minutes than usual talking to God before I go to bed. Being at Taize allows me more time to feel close to my faith. I probably spend five hours a day in church here. I’ll tell you a secret: it makes a difference. I’ve experienced a lot of “special” things over the past seven months of travel, and I often struggle with what to do with them. What do I do with this week? What will it mean once it is in the past? But what I do know is this: I am happy here. I pray. A lot. I smile at every stranger I see. I feel peaceful about my uncertain future. I have faith.