This past week I visited my friend, Melissa Earley, at her home in the suburbs of Chicago for a writing retreat. We spent most of our time sitting at her dining room table, laptops and notebooks open, books strewn about, favorite pens in hand, while we offered each other writing prompts and read each other our work.
On Thursday evening I tagged along with Melissa to the Methodist Church she serves as pastor. They were having a Taizé service, which, Melissa explained in an apologetic tone, she expected only about six people to attend. “You don’t have to come,” she offered. And it was a bitter cold night. But we’d been sipping glasses of whiskey before a dinner of fresh mushroom ravioli. I was warm and happy and in the mood for community. “No, I want to go!” I told her.
Taizé services have grown in popularity in both Catholic and Protestant churches. This unique, meditative style of worship originated in the 1940’s in Taizé, France where Brother Roger felt called to form a monastic community. Today the community is made up of over 100 brothers, Catholics and Protestants, from around thirty nations. The ecumenism, worship and hospitality they offer to pilgrims who arrive at their doorstep from all over the world, reflects their mission: To be a “parable of community” that wants its life to be a sign of reconciliation between divided Christians and between separate peoples. You can read more about this beautiful monastic community at their website here.
I have incorporated Taizé style worship into my ministry at the college where I serve as Chaplain. Those who are new to it are oftentimes puzzled by its simplicity and use of repetition. People catch on quickly, though, as my college students have, and appreciate the way Taizé worship is designed to move you deeper and deeper inwards, to a place where you can connect more easily to God and Spirit. You can listen to a common Taize song by clicking the Youtube link below.
At Melissa’s church, seven of us gathered in a semi-circle of chairs placed on the sanctuary’s chancel. We sang some Taizé songs that were familiar to me and some that were new. The verses repeated over and over. A soloist sang it the first time through, then the rest of us joined in. Later, a violin was added, and the more musical among our group started to harmonize. By the time we had sung through the verse four or five times, I knew the words well enough to close my eyes, focus on the liturgy of praise and prayer I was singing as well as the blending of voices and instruments around me. It was a pure musical meditation.
On the Taizé website I read: “Nothing can replace the beauty of human voices united in song. This beauty can give us a glimpse of ‘heaven’s joy on earth’ as Eastern Christians put it. And an inner life begins to blossom within us.” This sentiment was abundantly clear to me as I sang with Melissa’s small band of six. Afterwards, my friend wondered out loud about whether or not her church should continue to offer this service. So few come, she lamented. I couldn’t answer that question for her or her church. All I could tell her was that it was worth going out into a dark, brutally cold, Chicago winter night for me.
Oftentimes, in the academic community I serve, I am asked why I am so committed to the church. Sometimes I ask myself the same question. Especially the morning of church, when I ask my children to get themselves ready, put on a clean pair of pants, and, at the very least, wipe the frosting from our Sunday morning Pillsbury rolls off their face. When they don’t respond, or they do, with whines and complaints, about our Sunday morning routine, I lose my cool quickly. I start to shout, and keep shouting, until they do what I ask, and my daughter starts to cry, and my son goes sullen, his eyes flashing angry, and we all arrive at church in this mood. Why do I do this, I ask myself?
A sign of welcome posted by the door of Melissa’s church.
My answer, though, always rises up and out and beyond me—because my commitment to the church really isn’t about me. It’s bigger than me. What I receive, though, is the reminder that, through the church, I am connected to that which is bigger. When I stop into a friend’s Methodist church where I am welcomed warmly and I know the scripture story and I know some of the songs, I am reminded that I am connected to something bigger than the small, rural, Presbyterian church my family attends. When I realize that I can go pretty much anywhere in the world and find these same Christian connections, traditions, songs and story, I am reminded that I am connected to something bigger. And when I am carried away from the smallness of this world, the pettiness and the pain that we humans often promote, by music composed by French monks working for peace, I am connected to something bigger, something Divine, and Good, and God. And that makes it all worth it.