Introduction and Brief History of Taize
Half of this summer’s sermon series is on “forms of world prayer.” This morning, we will acquaint ourselves with a relatively new form of Christian prayer. In recent years, the practice of Taize prayer service has become very meaningful to a large and diverse range of people. Today, our intention is to not so much talk about Taize practice as it is to share in an experience of it. While our Unitarian Universalist version will not be a pure version of it, purity, in Taize, is not the essence. Rather, Taize grew out of one man’s desire to reinvigorate the faithful with a passion for prayer and the Church.
Roger Louis Schutz-Marsauche, the founder of Taize, which is the name of the town in the Burgundy region of France where he founded a monastery of brothers, was born to parents for whom many of us might have deep appreciation. Of his father, Brother Roger said, “I am sure that my father was a mystic at heart. Very early in the morning he would go to pray alone in the Church. Once when I was about twelve, I even saw him go into a Catholic Church to pray." Of his mother Amelie, he wrote, "She demanded authenticity and truthfulness of us in our lives." ( historical info from “The Spirituality of Taize,” by Patrick Burke, Spirituality Today, Autumn 1990, Vol.42 No.3, pp. 233-245)
Brother Roger’s father was a Protestant minister, a Lutheran, and Brother Roger grew up very conscious of the difference between Catholic and Protestant traditions. However, his family worked consciously to avoid privileging one group over the other in their own lives. His mother and father chose to board him with a Catholic family while he was attending a middle school (it is customary for children to board away from home during this formative time), as the Catholic family needed money. In addition, his grandmother, though Protestant, often attended Catholic mass and even received Holy Communion in the Catholic Church.
As he grew, Brother Roger experienced a crisis of faith while a teenager, as many do. Then he fell ill with tuberculosis, and during the long recovery, he spent time in meditation and study, and found his way back to faith. Thereafter, even through the horrors of World War II, he believed that a passionate prayer life and appreciation for the beauty and power of the Psalms and holy reading was essential to a living faith.
His dream was that God would send him brothers who believed as he did, in the deep power of prayer and of intentional community, and that they would be both Protestant and Catholic. In 1949, the first brother joined him in community – a Protestant. It took twenty more years before a Catholic brother joined the community, but by 1970, there were Protestant and Catholic brothers both – with full approval from their bishops.
The Taize community in France has a simle dedication: to prayer and community. The forms of prayer practice are also centered to a significant extent on simple, sung prayers, with strong chant-like throughlines, so that the entire community, whatever their gifts in singing or prayer, may join in. Young people and old from all around the world continue to go to Taize for week-long community prayer gatherings, and many more are held in major cities around the world. Brother Roger remained the head of the community until he was stabbed to death by a mentally ill woman in 2005.
This is a simple introduction and overview of Taize, and in no way does it justice. In another time of reflection, I will share more, and consider the ways in which the vision of Brother Roger and Taize connect well with our UU spirituality. But for now, let us proceed more in a path of practice, rather than intellectual discussion.
Part II – Taize and UUism
“The call of the Brothers of Taize is to accompany each other on the journey toward interiority and service of God. Roger instructs the brothers to "Bear the burdens of others, accept whatever hurts each day brings, so that you are concretely in communion with the sufferings of Christ: there lies our main discipline. Never stand still, advance with your brothers, race towards the goal in the steps of Christ. Be a sign for others of joy and brotherly love." While the style of life is monastic, there is a strong emphasis on being present to the age in which they live and to adapting themselves to the conditions of the present. [Roger frequently quoted]: "Father I pray you, not to take them out of the world, but to keep them from evil." The brothers are to be men of the present, aware of the social political and cultural realities around them. Their vocation is to respond to these realities by the way they live their lives, by the prayer of "fervent intercession" and praise, and by offering welcome to all, regardless of their "religious or ideological point of view." (ibid)
Welcome regardless of religious or ideological point of view. In this, Taize and Unitarian Universalism share a significant worldview. For the brothers of Taize, this was a practical problem in the late fifties and sixties, when more and more people flocked to them. At that time, their services and prayers were largely in French, their native language. It was at this time that the music became a central entry point for Taize practice. Jacques Berthier, a “friend of Taize,” helped the brothers develop songs. …“different methods were tried out, and a solution was found in the use of repetitive structures, namely, short musical phrases with singable melodic units that could be readily memorized by everybody... The use of some very simple words in basic Latin (a language without allegiance to any particular culture or tradition), to support the music and the theme of prayer was also dictated by pastoral reasons." (ibid)
This practice is nothing new under the sun. In almost every religion, from Goddess-centered and indigenous people’s worship, to Hindu, Christian, Buddhist and Muslim, simple, repetitive chants and music have been powerful as they allow the singer or chanter to settle into a state beyond the ordinary. Modern-day megachurches rely on this, and our new UU hymnal supplement offers a new array of more simple, short-phrased, easily sung hymns.
Brother Roger believed deeply in the need for interiority – the quiet searching of the heart for the authentic self and small, still voice of God. He often explained that to experience that profound inner witness, one had to create space in one’s life for silence, for quiet reflection. He also wanted his spiritual life and that which he shared with others to be, at its core, about hope and joy. "In every person,” he said, “lies a zone of solitude that no human intimacy can fill: and there God encounters us. There, in that depth, is set the intimate festival of the risen Christ.” He added, "be filled with the Spirit of the Beatitudes: joy, simplicity and mercy."
Its spirituality of open-heartedness, its basis in music, passion, and prayer, Taize draws enormous numbers of people into a deep experience of joy and meaning. As Unitarian Universalists, infinitely interested in the rich pageant and variety of opportunities of a life of faith, this practice offers us a chance to explore a beautiful and peace-filled practice. May we appreciate the time together.
© 2006 D. Audette Fulbright, Roanoke VA.
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