By Tom Holmes
Taize at Ascension--birds of a feather?
I was one of the about 200 people who came to Ascension Catholic Church yesterday on a 100 degree evening with no breeze to sweat through the first Friday of the month Taize service which has been going on for years.
As the people made their way to the chancel area to place their candles in large containers of sand, it struck me that they, i.e. we, were all the same. There was, to be sure, diversity in terms of race, age, denominational membership, gender and sexual orientation, but in my view we were amazingly homogeneous. What follows may be mainly projecting on my part, but I'll take a swing at it anyway, and you can tell me if I missed the ball or got it right.
We were almost all at our healthy body weight. We were people who took care of ourselves. In terms of grooming, both men and women had sensible haircuts which didn't require a lot of fuss in the morning. The women wore no make up nor clothing which called attention to itself. They didn't have to. Their healthy bodies needed no camouflage. The men came dressed in sandals, khaki walking shorts and polo shirts.
Beyond appearances, however, there was a shared sensibility or spiritual temperament, if you will. Everyone wanted to be there. Presence at Taize fulfilled no ecclesiastical obligation.
There was no "star of the show." If you sat towards the back, you wouldn't even be able to see David Anderson and the musicians who led the chanting. That's partly because Taize worship isn't about gifted musicians giving a performance. It's more like a do it yourself Messiah or what we old timers used to call a hootenanny. Sure, the musicians were gifted and provide a modicum of leadership, but the point was to provide a setting in which we the participants made the music, where we the participants prayed the prayers. At times, in fact, Anderson would signal to the musicians to stop playing and the people in the pews took advantage of the acapella opportunity to harmonize and take pleasure in the sound of 200 people singing as one voice.
Whereas many worship services are designed to pump people up, inspire and get people excited, the goal of everyone there last night was to calm down and find a peaceful center. They looked forward to the five minutes or so of silence. There was no preaching; there were no sacraments. It felt a little "Buddhist," in the sense that we were all attempting to reach down deep into our inner being, but at the same time the goal was to find Christ in that contemplative space. If there was a sacrament, i.e. a means of connecting with God, it was the gathered temporary community of thirsty people who together were seeking to be refreshed with living water and who believed that chanting and praying and being silent together is a reliable way to get what we need.
What struck me in a big way is that Taize requires a lot of adapting and conforming. There are no soloists and improvisation ruins the experience. What is required for Taize chanting to work is everyone listening to each other since there is no drummer or amplified bass thump thumping the beat.
What is also essential is that no one stick out. The congregation has to sing with one voice. This is amazing to me that, in a culture which is so into individualism and "being myself," last night there was a large group of people on a sweltering evening working hard to adapt to each other with the expectation that by so doing we would emerge more whole as individuals.
It was, I think, very much a "birds of a feather stick together" kind of time. I am a member of a Thai congregation in which I am a cultural minority and in which I often have to work hard at overcoming cultural differences. There are important reasons why I am committed to that "uncomfortable" situation. But, I have to say that it felt good to be with a group whose spiritual sensibilities were remarkably similar to mine, even if just for an hour.
So maybe we shouldn't be overly scandalized that Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week in this country. Maybe it's naïve to think that culturally conditioned sensibilities can be overcome by "just being tolerant and accepting of everyone." Especially, when it comes to something as profoundly intimate and vulnerable as prayer.