Drinking the Living Water: Pilgrimage to Taize

A convinced Friend and former Catholic, I never thought I would agree with the pope about anything . . . but God has a sense of humor! When Pope John Paul II visited the ecumenical, monastic Taizé community in France in 1986, during common prayer he said:

One passes through Taizé as one passes close to a spring of water. The traveler stops, quenches his thirst, and continues on his way. The brothers of the community, you know, do not want to keep you. They want, in prayer and silence, to enable you to drink the living water promised by Christ, to know his joy, to discern his presence, to respond to his call, then to set out again to witness to his love and to serve your brothers and sisters in your parishes, your schools, your universities, and in all your places of work.

With the help of a grant from the Elizabeth Ann Bogert Memorial Fund for the Study and Practice of Christian Mysticism, I was able to visit Taizé with my family and taste the living water.

Seeking Ancient Sources of Faith and Human Solidarity

It was Holy Week at Taizé. In the company of 10,000 other souls, I entered the story of the Passion of Jesus of Nazareth. After more than a decade of feeling separated from the gospel, praying at Taizé was a reconciling experience for me. I came to the Religious Society of Friends alienated from the Christian tradition and the story of Jesus. Later, in order to teach my children about God, I wanted to share in an ancient tradition, with accumulated wisdom of centuries to guide me. Only gradually have I come to recognize Christianity as my own tradition. In spite of the ugliness that punctuates Christian history and practice, at Taizé I discovered that I can unite with the stream of beauty and hope in the worldwide Christian Church.

Taizé’s witness bears many similarities to that of Friends: silence, simplicity, solidarity, and service are some marks of their common life, grounded in Christ’s living presence. The Taizé brothers center their work around the theme of "inner life and human solidarity." For them, solidarity means seeking reconciliation as an expression of communion with the Risen Christ. Taizé is a place where people build ties across denomination, nationality, language, and race. From its inception in 1940, Brother Roger, Taizé’s founder, chose not to affiliate the monastic community with a single tradition. Taizé is a living experiment from the early days of ecumenism; their common life was revolutionary. To this day, the brothers come from every continent and from denominations that historically have been at odds with one another: Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Reformed traditions. One brother said, "Imagine the opportunities we have to hurt one another every day." The brothers’ monastic life together is one of daily reconciliation and solidarity; they are a living witness to Jesus’ teachings about love.

Seeking Hope and Meaning in Life

Like hundreds of thousands of others who visit the tiny village on the hill in Burgundy, I went with longing for God, seeking meaning for my life. I also went with questions about how God might shape my life: How can I live with mindfulness of God’s presence and love, and with contentment or gratitude for all I have? If I experience these gifts, can I carry them forth into my work? Will they inform the way I encounter others?

These questions arose after years of struggle, locked in darkness, feeling mute before God, far away from God’s presence, love, and saving power. The world seemed hopelessly broken, and my efforts too small to change it. Silent Friends worship was intolerable then. Only the Psalms spoke to my condition, and I filled the silence by reading them during meetings for worship, turning to them day and night for months, then years. Psalm 42 became a silent refrain: "As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God." Brother Roger describes this phenomenon: "For many Christians down through the ages, a few words repeated endlessly have been a road to contemplation." In this way, the Psalms began to pray through me. Gradually I felt my soul reawaken to life and love, and I was filled with gratitude.

Seeking Guidance in Prayer

For many years I had wished to make prayer central to my life. I would begin with good intentions, only to become distracted or bored. I experimented with different kinds of prayer, and each new venture was short lived. Only in extreme need did I find myself turning to God regularly, at first only through the words of the Psalmist, then slowly with the words of my own heart. Gradually I began to encounter God once more in silent worship and daily life. Now prayer is no longer something to chase after, but a joyful necessity.

The Taizé community has developed an accessible style of worship centered on contemplating the mystery of God. At the heart of the Taizé brothers’ worship—indeed their entire life together—is silence. They often give visitors a first taste of silent prayer, framed by singing and Scripture. All of their liturgy is meditative—brief, repetitive songs flowing out of a long tradition of Christian contemplative prayer, such as the Jesus prayer ("Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner") and the style recommended by Thomas Kelly and Douglas Steere, who was a friend of Brother Roger. Like Friends, the Taizé brothers understand that this silent worship is not empty; it is filled with expectant listening for God.

I hoped to learn more about prayer at Taizé—developing a relationship with the living God—and how to share it with others, especially my family. It has been difficult to find guidance for teaching my children about prayer and silent worship, and I found few resources for nurturing faith and spirituality among families in the home. So I was pleased to discover that just as the music appeals to youth who visit Taizé, so it speaks to my small children; at Taizé we met many other families who pray with the songs at home. During Holy Week my husband and I talked and prayed with a few of the two hundred families visiting Taizé from across Europe and from many Christian traditions. In small discussion groups each morning, parents grouped by language reflected on the day’s Bible passage and shared their struggles at work and home, telling how God and prayer play a part in their families’ lives. Early each evening there were family prayers for children too small to go to common prayer; they were invited to bring flowers and help with reading Scripture and leading songs. Our family continues to pray together with the music of Taizé, more appealing to the children than pure silence; lyrics capture the spirit of the Psalms or the drama of Jesus’ passion and encourage a life of faith, while melodies gently lead us to silent contemplation.

Preparing to Return: The Pilgrimage Continues

The brothers encourage visitors to spend time at Taizé preparing to return home. Look for signs of the Resurrection in the world, and be "bearers of trust," they urge. This is the challenge Taizé poses to its visitors, indeed to all Christians. In search of my own response, I looked to them for guidance. The Taizé brothers make an unwavering witness for hope, trust, and forgiveness. They are extraordinarily gifted listeners and extend hospitality to all.

Brother Roger has always welcomed visitors. First, he welcomed Jews and other refugees; later, under his mother’s care, a group of boys who were rejected or orphaned after World War II called Taizé home. In 1970 Brother Roger launched "a pilgrimage of trust on Earth," which continues today, not to organize young people into a movement centered on Taizé, but rather, to encourage them to be of service, carrying forth the hope of the gospel as "a leaven of reconciliation" in the world. Today the Taizé brothers number 100, offering hospitality to all who visit their home, in cooperation with the Sisters of Saint Andrew, who tirelessly attend to the practical needs of guests and share in the ministry of listening. A few brothers live among the world’s poorest, in India, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Ethiopia, and Hell’s Kitchen in New York City. They go not seeking solutions, but to share the condition of poverty, to find Christ and signs of hope in remote places where situations may seem hopeless. The unconditional hospitality of Taizé is grasped by people who encounter them, and many return home prepared to offer the same openness and welcome.

We returned home with no firm plans of action, save one: to invite others to join us for midweek Friends worship in our home, with a simple meal and time for sharing or singing. That decision has strengthened us immeasurably, and over the past year we have seen the unfolding of new ways God is working in us. One way is quite simple: listen. Listen to God, in prayer. Listen to others earnestly, taking the time to really hear what is on another’s heart. Our culture enjoys togetherness, but not necessarily listening. The Taizé brothers’ attentive listening is grounded in God’s love and the discipline of listening for Christ in the silence of worship. We have been learning to listen better to one another in our family, a small advance for the cause of peace. We also have helped gather a small spiritual formation and discernment group that meets twice a month to share joys and concerns, discern how God is working in our lives, and pray together.

Brother Roger often expresses his trust and confidence in the young. Upon our return home, my husband and I both wished to listen and learn more from children and teens. Patrick asked to "teach" the high school class at meeting; as hoped, he listens and learns as much as they. I joined the advisory committee for the Young Friends programs shared by three local meetings, taking time each month to support the youth leaders by listening to them reflect on their work. In addition, to address children’s spiritual needs, our meeting formed an ad hoc Family and Children’s Worship Committee on which I serve. We organize special children’s worship, and we work to make our regular worship more accessible and meaningful to children. Dramatic portrayals of Bible stories and an overnight retreat for the very young (ages 2-11) have led to powerful worship sharing out of silence. The children’s vocal ministry is stunning and humbling. If only we give them space and listen, we learn what lies hidden in their hearts and hear their message of hope: "God is powerful. God will never leave me." Indeed we hear God speak through them.

Brother Roger says, "the purpose of Taizé is enabling people to meet God. For that to happen, there must be space to listen to [God] and space to talk with [God]. Silence has no particular virtue in itself: it is a means to an end. It is to enable God to break the silence in us." To this end, we also have delighted in sharing the music of Taizé in our meeting’s programmed worship and with students at Earlham College and School of Religion, where my husband teaches.

Rooted in Prayer

Jesus’ friends and followers withdrew after Easter, in expectant waiting to know what was next: "All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer." (Acts 1:14) Events in Scripture have meaning when we experience them inwardly and personally. Early Quakers, like the Taizé brothers and the early Christians, knew this and prayed with vigor. They were on fire with faith. They had the personal experience of God leading them out of darkness and death into light and life.

It seems contemporary Friends are wandering in a spiritual wilderness, as did the Hebrew people with Moses: sometimes losing our way, often quarreling and divided, perhaps at times altogether forgetting God’s saving deeds of liberation and redemption, wondering what God has in store for us. Without celebrating and sharing the ways God has worked in us or through us personally, we rest too heavily on our spiritual ancestors’ history. Quakers have long understood the mystical aspect of the Holy Spirit: it was given at Pentecost, yet we must continue to receive the Holy Spirit, every day and everywhere. And the principal way we open ourselves to God’s gift of the Holy Spirit, God’s revelation within us, is by rooting our lives in prayer, the way Jesus’ followers did at Pentecost.

Of visitors to Taizé, Brother Roger says: "Can they be made aware of the gift of God that is in them? Can they realize that every human being is inhabited, even if they are unaware that the Spirit of God dwells within them? I often think that what we are living with them is like a birth process: a bringing to birth in them of the living word of God." If we are to be faithful and not cozily mediocre, Friends today need ongoing renewal. If we are not to become irrelevant or obsolete, we need to find ways to bring to birth in others the living word of God. For this we need divine assistance.

Jesus’ ministry grew out of a life of prayer, of communion with his "heavenly Father," as did the ministry of early Friends and the Taizé community. Brother Roger writes, "Prayer is a serene force at work within human beings, stirring them up, changing their hearts, never allowing them to close their eyes in the face of evil, of wars, of all that threatens the innocent of this world. From it we draw the energy to wage other struggles, to transform the human condition, and to make Earth a place fit to live in." At Taizé they understand what the Christian mystics Bernard of Clairvaux and Teresa of Avila taught: love of neighbor is an expression of love of God. Brother Roger says, "All who walk in the footsteps of Christ, while holding themselves in the presence of God, remain alongside other people as well. They do not separate prayer and solidarity with others."

How might we deepen our prayer into intimacy with God, rendering us vulnerable, ready for transformation and commitment? How might we strengthen our ties to one another, creating intimate, authentic community? What if Friends could be gathered up and reconciled, as Brother Roger imagined Christians might be reconciled at Taizé? How might we act corporately, as one body, in daring faithfulness to God? Brother Roger prays, "Holy Spirit, mystery of a presence, you penetrate the depths of our being and there you discern our longing. You know what our intention is: to communicate your love and compassion through an infinite goodness of heart." My prayer for the Religious Society of Friends is that within each meeting the living water might spring up, refreshing all, sending us forth to do the new things God wishes for us.

Mary K. Rehard

Mary Kay Rehard, a member of 57th Street Meeting in Chicago, Ill., lives in Richmond, Indiana, where she attends West Richmond Meeting and teaches her children at home. She and her husband, Patrick Nugent, director of the Institute for Quaker Studies at Earlham, will take students to Taizé's European meeting in Budapest this winter.