For a year after starting A Time of Prayer in the Spirit of Taize in October of 1992, David Anderson, music director at Ascension Catholic Church, saw attendance at the first Friday of the month service average 30-40 people.
Lately, 600-700 people have turned out every month for Taize prayers at Ascension; Euclid Methodist added a Taize service on the third Friday of every month in January of 2008. In October of last year, Unity Temple started one on fourth Fridays. Chants from the ecumenical community in Taize, France have now found their way into the hymnals of almost every Christian denomination.
First time visitors at Ascension’s Taize service might be struck by how simple the prayers are. Upon entering the nave, they would notice icons placed around the altar, the silence before prayer and then the pre-service music played on oboe, flute, bass,
violin, classical guitar and piano. During the service itself, four or five chants from the Taize community, often only two lines long and sung in a variety of languages, are repeated 10, 15, even 20 times.
Take, O take me as I am; summon out what I shall be;
Set your seal upon my heart and live in me.
Midway into the service, the candles handed to everyone as they entered the church are lit by the children present. Attendees process to the altar and place the tapers in sand where 600 candles provide a glow that lasts for the rest of the service. One simple lesson is read, no sermon is given, no communion is received, at least five minutes of silence are kept for meditation, prayers are offered for peace and healing, and prayer ends with people joining hands and reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
Why has a very simple prayer form become so popular among people across all denominations? Phyllis Tickle in her book, The Great Emergence, provides some answers as to why so many resonate to Taize prayer’s way of putting allows them in touch with God’s presence. Tickle argues that part of how Western culture is shifting from Modern to whatever Post-Modern will turn out to be is a change in the way many people are approaching their relationship with God.
She says the church many of us grew up in emphasized believing in rational, objective, doctrinal truth which came from either the Bible or ecclesiastical authorities. We were children of the Enlightenment who bought into the idea that rational, educated people could understand who God is and what God wants us to do.
Then around a hundred years ago, according to Tickle, cultural cracks began to appear in the Enlightenment world view. Freud inspired us to look for subjective insight in addition to objective truth. Joseph Campbell made many question whether the Christian “myth” carried any more validity than all those other religions. Einstein came up with the Theory of Relativity and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle implied there is no absolute truth, only truth relative to the perceiver.
“The problem for thousands of American Christians,” writes Tickle, “… was that the Christianity they had been born into had given them little or no religion-based vocabulary and few or no religion-based practices or canons by which to articulate, assess, utilize, or interpret this burgeoning world of subjective experience.” (p. 95)
The Immigration Act of 1965 allowed the influx of a great number of Asian Buddhists into the country who brought with them a whole vocabulary and technology, if you will, for dealing with internal conflicts-a new way of behaving spiritually that westerners could use to make them feel better no matter what they believed about God.
And finally, Alcoholics Anonymous showed us that we could gain freedom from the demons holding us in bondage by being “spiritual” but not necessarily “religious.”
Into this cultural and spiritual flux came prayer in the Spirit of Taize, a way of relating to God that makes sense to many post-moderns.
Anderson confirms that people seem to be looking for new, less rational ways of relating to God. “People are hungry for simpler forms of prayer,” he said. “They are hungry for silence. Hopefully the repetition of the simple Taize chants become like a mantra which moves from your head to your heart.”
He noted that more young people-who feel disenfranchised from and disillusioned with the Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox churches-have been coming to Ascension’s first Friday of the month service. They say they are spiritual but not religious and at the same time can buy into parts of institutional religion through prayer in the Spirit of Taize.
The Rev. Cossy Ksander experienced Taize prayer for the first time at a retreat for Presbyterian clergy in 1995, which was led by David Anderson. “I was immediately hooked by the meditative quality, the multiple languages, and the attention to Scripture,” she recalled. “It feels so good, and it makes your soul happy.”
So when she was asked to take over the leadership of Taize Prayer at Euclid on the third Friday of each month, she immediately agreed. At Euclid, the service never draws more than a few dozen, but that doesn’t bother Ksander.
“There’s a special intimacy to a small group that is not possible with hundreds,” she said. “Every participant is deeply involved in the singing and prayer because there are no crowds to hide behind.”
Anderson has been to Taize, France, six times to live with the brothers in the ecumenical community there, founded by Br. Roger in the 1940s to promote peace and foster unity among Christians. On his first visit in the 1980s, Anderson, like Ksander, was taken with the Christ-centered, ecumenical way of living together and praying among the 100 brothers who live there and the thousands of mainly young people who come to live, work and pray in community with the brothers for a week at a time.
Anderson was inspired to return home and not only introduce the chants from the Taize community to Ascension’s members but also to provide a chance to pray in the spirit of what he had experienced in that small village in France.
Michael Leuchtenberger, intern minister at Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation, has, like Anderson, been to Taize several times. He recalled his first visit to the community in the early 1980s:
“I was 15 years old, and I arrived with 40 other German teenagers and young adults. A week later, I was hooked. I was hooked by the simple lifestyle of sleeping in tents, sharing meals with random people from around the world, playing group games and helping out with the chores of cleaning and maintenance. But more so, I was hooked by a community of fellow seekers who opened their hearts, minds and voices to each other. Twice a day we met in small groups to reflect on the fundamental questions of life. Who is God? Does God even exist? Why is there suffering? And then there was the music. The simple harmonies and repetitive lyrics transcended the potential barriers of language, culture, and theology.”
What Leuchtenberger was attracted to at Taize was the medium more than the message, the questions more than the answers.
Unlike David Anderson, who is a devout, orthodox Roman Catholic, Leuchtenberger is preparing for ministry in the Unitarian Universalist (UU) denomination. “Most Unitarian Universalists do not identify their theological orientation as Christian,” he said, “and many do not even use God language to express their beliefs.”
To accommodate the theological diversity at Unity Temple, Leuchtenberger has changed the lyrics to the Taize chants by eliminating references to Christ and even God and substitutes lyrics which he says “appeal at a more fundamental level of human experience.”
For example, he took the original Taize chant,
O Lord, hear my prayer, O Lord, hear my prayer; when I pray, answer me.
O Lord, hear my prayer, O Lord, hear my prayer; come and listen to me.
and changed the words to
O world hear our prayers, O world hear our prayers. When we pray, we pray for love.
O world hear our prayers, O world hear our prayers. We pray for compassion and love.
He likewise replaced the Orthodox Christian icons with images projected onto a screen and uses the chalice, a UU symbol, in place of the cross.
Marty Swisher, music director at Unity Temple, said the Taize chants seemed to be in perfect sync with how UUs worship.
“There is a great need for quiet, reflection and musical solace,” she noted. “Sitting in Frank Lloyd Wright’s beautiful, intimate space is a spiritual blessing in and of itself. Friday is my favorite night of the week and, for many, a perfect time to become quiet and relax in the warmth of candlelight and contemplation.”
In contrast, Anderson said the brothers in the Taize community would contend that, in their case, the medium is not the message but rather the vehicle to carry the content of the gospel.
“It’s not meant to be an interfaith prayer form,” said Ascension’s music director. “It’s very Christocentric, very focused on the risen Christ. The whole purpose of the Taize community is to bring Christians together.”
That is indeed what has happened at Ascension. On any given first Friday of the month, Methodists from Oak Park and Lutherans from Forest Park might be sitting in the same pew with visiting nuns from Poland.
What happens at Unity Temple on the fourth Friday of the month argues that this form of Taize prayer appeals to a larger audience than just the Christian community.