Silence becomes a more potent teacher the louder our world becomes. Our physical beings were made for both stimulation and calm. Movement and rest. Engagement and retreat. Our everyday lives, however, cluttered with the background noise of a 24-hour communication, work, and entertainment cycle, offer few opportunities for real and profound stillness or silence.
Many years ago, in search of sacred spaces for sustained silence for my family, I came across a Taize prayer service offered by the nuns at Lewis and Clark College.* Every month Sister Loretta would prepare a beautiful setting for us. Hundreds of candles flickered, reflecting off of the shiny marble floor. Flutists, cellists, and other musicians played simple chants that we could join or simply take in. Pillows surrounded an ornate icon of Jesus on the cross, welcoming us to come and rest at his feet. Lots of silence filled in every space offered in these gatherings. Our kids were young. Sometimes they’d stretch out on the pews and rest, and other times they’d sketch. Many times they’d sit, transfixed, staring at the flickering flames. They were usually the only children present. We were a rag tag bunch, those of us singing and praying and sitting in silence on the first Friday of every month in Portland. We knew nothing about each other, were from all walks of life and every age and color, and, yet, found comforting community in the cloister of the candlelit hall.
The founder of the global Taizé movement would have loved this. Moving to Taizé, France, during World War II, he hoped to provide solace and comfort to pilgrims displaced by the war. He bought a small home and offered beds and simple, small meals to these individuals. Quickly, a small knot of refugees found a home there. Because the community comprised people of many faiths, Brother Roger prayed in private so as to not lead any visitor to feel alienated. After the war he enlisted his sister’s help as well as that of several friends (who later took vows to become Brothers in the Taizé community) so that they might welcome children who had lost their parents in the war. Hoping that music, prayer, and simple shared silence might be a comfort, prayers began occurring communally. Growing to a larger facility, the Taizé community in France has now grown to 100 Brothers who live simply off the work of their hands and who welcome thousands of pilgrims from around the world each year. Young people, in particular, flock to the retreat center, living a prayer rule for a week in a small group with others who rarely speak their language. When they leave they find or form Taizé services in their own countries, and services now commence around the globe on the first weekend of every month. The gathering at Newberg Friends enjoins us with this global community. From the beginning to now, Taizé has provided a place for “refugees” and “locals” to find common space to experience God personally, communally, and globally, and our sanctuary gets to be one of these spaces.
One of the things that draws me to Quaker praxis is its respect for space and silence. Taizé prayer is built upon these two tenants. In each Taizé service a space is created that allows for directing one’s heart and mind toward God. The elements used within the service are offered intentionally and designed to speak to the whole person and assembly as well as to the unique interests/needs of each participant. The sights, sounds, and even smells and tastes are intended to support the sustained focus of the heart and mind on being present to one’s self and to God. Each time we gather, we surround the cross with large soft pillows, comfortable chairs, and gentle candlelight for anyone who needs or wants to spend time gathered around an image of Grace and Love. For those who need merely to experience quiet silent communion with God within the context of a safe and kind community, there is opportunity to do so. There is no pressure to participate in the service in any way other than to simply be, breathing in and out as songs in many languages, short scripture passages, petitions of prayer, and potent silence are offered.
The small community that has evolved around our Taizé service at Newberg Friends is a beautiful one. We keep things simple, share tasks, and create and invade a 50-minute stretch of time wherein we simply “be” together. Some folks sit, close their eyes, and never open them again for the entire service. Others sing heartily and jump at the chance for time at the cross or with the elements. Just as my momma’s heart loved to see my children curled up on a hard wood church pew, enveloped in the sound of silence or beautifully played music and the flickering of candles, so my heart swelled last month at Taizé when someone lingered on a soft cushion at the cross for the majority of an hour and another person stretched and swayed while standing in the back.
Every time I leave a Taizé service I feel grounded and refreshed in a way I cannot describe. Many others who participate speak similarly. The first few visits might feel strange and stretching (many new and healthy experiences are this way), yet we who create this space each month hope you might consider stretching with us into the beautiful depth of Taizé prayer to experience God, your self, and your community in new and deepening ways.
* Click HERE to read about our early introduction to Taizé.