Occasionally in life, a much-longed-for opportunity drops into your lap unexpectedly. This week, I had just such a chance — one of the brothers from the community at Taize spent an hour with us at VTS. We had the rare opportunity to talk with and worship with Brother Emmanuel last Tuesday.
It is funny, to have known and loved the music for many years and yet, to never have learned more about the community itself. And so I was mesmerized as Brother Emmanuel explained to the assembled participants the founding of the Taize community and the precepts of its mission. Finally understanding the mission and intent of the community, for me at least, made the music and the worship style an even more powerful expression of faith.
I knew, of course, that the Taize community was not a typical monastery community. I did not, however, understand that it was an ecumenical, international community. Currently, there are around 100 brothers in the community, both Protestant and Catholic, from some 30 nations of the world. Their mission is oh so simple and yet so difficult to accomplish: to be a living expression of reconciliation and unity in this world, and as such, to anticipate and live into the unity that is possible in the body of Christ. They seek, through prayer and music, to connect the worshiper with the presence of a loving God, their only theological belief, and through that connection, to show the worshiper (even if for only a moment) their own ability to love God and their fellow human beings.
A typical day in the life of the community is both different and the same as you might expect in a monastic environment. A primary responsibility of the brothers is worship and they are expected to do so three times each day. But unlike the requirement of a more traditional monastic setting, they are not required to worship together nor do they have a specified form for that worship. They do, as is done at many seminaries, gather together for lunch and for a common worship at lunch time. Brothers devote morning and afternoon hours to their individual work, and that work is varied. Some write music, some make crosses or other craft items for the store, some write books or do research — any work is accepted and the work of the brothers supports the community (which does not accept donations towards their living and maintenance).
Brother Emmanuel is a specialist in the field of psychology and religion. He trained both in France and here in the United States. Given his specialty, however, I was truly excited to hear his response to the questions about the purpose and origin of the music that is, for many of us, the only thing we truly know of the Taize community.
For those who do not know Taize music, the songs have certain specific qualities. First, each song represents a simple concept of faith, such as “Bless the Lord, my soul and bless God’s holy name/bless the Lord, my soul, who leads me into life,” and that concept is expressed in few words that are repeated. Second, the songs are sung in a repeated series. Third, the songs were originally composed with texts in church Latin and then translated into any language needed. Fourth, when sung, it is right and perfect for each person in the room to sing the song in the language of their own heart.
I understood all of those qualities of the music. And I understood this music as a type of communal or private prayer (depending on where and when you use it). And, of course, I have my own beliefs about the theology of music and the purpose of communal singing in worship. I, however, am not a specialist in the intersection of the fields of psychology and religion.
Brother Emmanuel offered these two observations about Taize music in worship in words that will stick with me for a long while. One of the frequent criticisms you hear about the nature of Taize is the repetitiveness of the music. I have long known that the very repetition that people complain about is the feature of the music that helps it become part of you, in those deep unreachable places that most need to be changed. And, since I have most often sung this music in mainline congregational settings, I am used to finding a 3x or 2x (three times or two times) printed next to the text in the bulletin. But no, according to Brother Emmanuel, it is part of the worship experience that we who are singing do not know when the music will end; the repetition is part of the development of mystery.
His second observation was about the action of the music itself — in his words, the repetition and the music open up a space inside of our souls, a space into which we can invite the very spirit of God. His image makes me think of water and the way it fills a depression created in the sand at the beach. The music creates the space; our participation in the music issues the invitation, and in that moment of invitation we have the mystical opportunity to stand in the presence of God.
Finally, when asked about his own call and sense of vocation, Brother Emmanuel had this simple understanding to offer us all. The mission of the Taize community, as I’ve already said, is to help all who visit to understand that the are in the presence, always, of a loving God. You know that you are called, according to Brother Emmanuel, when you find that you can reciprocate that call — that you love God as God loves you. And, that nothing else matters to you. He was quite blunt — if you do not have this kind of reciprocal relationship with God, you have no business being consecrated. He was specifically referring to those in the community of Taize, but it is a question for all of us who have ever considered any kind of service to consider. What is it that we love? And therefore, what is that we serve? And is that our true calling?
I’m short on answers this dreary Saturday afternoon, but I am full of hope after my brief time with Brother Emmanuel. And I am certainly full of questions, as always. I did, however, in that time of conversation and worship, experience the presence of a truly loving God.
I know that people of faith experience that God in so many different ways; that is the beauty of our faith and of our human experience. But I am truly grateful for the reminder of the Lord who does indeed bless my soul and the soul of any who will listen and embrace the love that is offered.