I had the privilege of visiting the Taizé Ecumenical Christian Community this summer. It’s a community of religious brothers and sisters who host tens of thousands of pilgrims a year, and it has an amazing history rooted in reconciliation and community-forming. It’s hard to explain just how unique and lovely it is. It’s a place where you’ll hear countless languages being spoken around you and for worship, you’ll take off your shoes and be enveloped in thousands-of-years-old Christian tradition three times a day, done in many languages with simple chanted prayer music, Scripture, and silence.
But that’s not all you’ll be in enveloped in, and that’s why I’m writing. It’s still affecting my daily life months later, and I wanted to share why and how.
1. I welcome divine interruptions more and can face them with more open arms.
Right after I left the community, what felt like a million things in my life shifted shapes so much that I couldn’t recognize or sometimes even feel like I could bear them. The mosaic of my life looked so different, and it felt less colorful. But part of what helped me to trust this interruption, this period of shifting and reimagining what I “thought” things were supposed to be like, was the amount and quality of surprise that God lavished me with during my time at Taizé. I sometimes used to think that surprise was more alarming than inviting, but I’m learning to see it as part of the mosaic of my life, for worse and for better – largely for better.
I’ll write more about what the specific surprises were below, but my hands being gently opened by the hands of God, and this softness and security has carried me long distances.
2. I’m more comfortable lamenting and praising God in the same breath, and I have a deeper understanding of what prayer means and can look like in my daily life.
I used to think that prayer only looked like sitting with my hands folded, speaking out loud to God long and beautiful(?) prayers. I used to think that in order to praise, I had to feel like praising, and that in order to lament, I had to feel sad myself. Not so. It’s a communal song.
When you hear the sounds of hundreds, even thousands, of pilgrims singing along to simple prayerful chants, you realize it’s so much more than just you. It’s the entire body of Christ, the entire stunning creation. Knowing that someone is rejoicing and someone is weeping helps me to hold the both-and of faith: It’s possible to feel so much more than just one feeling about God and faith at once, and it’s possible to hold space for that at-times overwhelming contradiction in your heart.
In watching and participating in the different prayers of people from around the world, I realized that my understanding of prayer was far from complete, and that prayer didn’t only have to look like what I had learned in evangelical Protestant circles in college. One of the wise women in the group that I went to France with said, “‘That’s bullshit!’ is a prayer, too, because it’s a call for justice and a desire for something better.”
I know more about breathing in hope and letting go of the hopeless when I exhale. I know more about praying with my feet on silent walks; letting the gorgeous sights, complex and simple alike, that I’m seeing become prayers of gratitude in themselves; praying the same praise chants even when I feel like crap, when I feel far from God, when I feel like throwing in the towel; leaving room for lament and calls for greater hope; and considering time in the very long-term rather than just the short-term in my chants – all the way from here to the end of days, when all will be made well once again and forevermore.
3. I’m less scared of, and more fond of, silence.
Basically everyone I know is surprised when I share that I cherish being in silence. I’m a talker. But just because I love silence doesn’t mean that it’s easy. I had struggled with silence during my first two years in seminary. The years were so full, and silence felt so far away. I still hadn’t figured out how to lean fully into my times of Sabbath. My mind was always running, often anxiously, and my schedule always packed. (It often still does, and it often still is, but that’s beside the point.)
But during the time that I was at Taizé, I was able to go on long walks in silence by myself because I was empowered by this knowledge: I was coming from community and would return to community. I was beloved and wanted, whether or not I was physically with others; they wouldn’t forget about me when I was gone. My silence and solitude became practically immune from loneliness and feelings of fear, and these feelings were largely replaced by contentment and hope. It sounds simple, and it really was, and is, once I began to really trust my status as beloved by God and others. (Sounds fake, but okay…)
I leaned into that love from others and it helped me to hear the love of God more, and now, hearing God’s love more helps me hear the love of others more. I take silent hikes still. I sometimes do my commute in silence. I long to be where there’s stillness, where I can take in the beauty of a sunset or a field and cry because it just blows me away. (True story[ies].)
When I can’t, I feel a little restless, and I’m still figuring out how to bring that stillness and quiet where and when I can’t directly enter it. But it’s a beautiful part of my life, and one that I refuse to remove from my calendar, even when there are papers due and phone calls to make. It’s not the only thing I refuse to remove from my calendar now – I make more space for playfulness and time with others, times without interruptions (to the best of my ability). And it’s a gift straight from the grace of God.
4. I learned more about what it means to live in the love and freedom of a 3 mile-per-hour God.
My heart rate was 15 beats per minute less when I was in the community. That isn’t an exaggeration. I was reminded of this, and it really sunk into my bones this time: It is all grace. All of this life, all of it, is a gift. It wasn’t just stillness I re-learned to appreciate, but slowness. I went off the grid by turning my phone on airplane mode and silencing my reminders. I barely remembered what time it was. I took naps when I needed to. I took advantage of the many quiet times of day to either walk into the arms, company, and joy of community or walk alone for a while.
I still remember and act on the fluidity of time now, even when my calendar and reminders frequently ping on my wrist or in my pocket. I go on hikes or walks along the canal when I want to, even on school days. I put my phone away whenever I can when I’m with people – or just by myself. I take time to do what it takes to keep the light within me burning and the Spirit of God speaking in a way that I can hear. That looks different each day, but somehow, it happens, even when it feels microscopic or insufficient. It’s there somehow, and it’s grace and grace alone that reminds me of that love and freedom in which I live.
5. I trust and value others more.
“‘Whoever cannot be alone should beware of community… each taken by itself has profound pitfalls and perils. Those who want community without solitude plunge into the void of words and feelings, and those who seek solitude without community perish in the bottomless pit of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair… the face that may have been strange and intolerable to me is transformed [in intercessory prayer and community] into the face of one for whom Christ died, the face of a pardoned sinner.’ The person can tell whether the experience of community and solitude was good if [they] emerge from it with courage, free and strengthened for the day’s work.”
– Christiane Tietz, quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Works in English (DBWE) 5:82-90.
This was by far my favorite surprise and divine interruption.
I’m an introvert, which surprises a lot of people, but it’s true. I came expecting that I’d mainly experience personal revelations, and meeting pilgrims would be an added bonus (or even a bit of a hassle because I’d be conversing with people who I’d very likely never see again, and I had trouble seeing the point of that before I went). Small talk kills my energy. It’s a good thing there was very little small talk – there instead was a whole lot of real talk about life, the best and worst parts of it.
Taizé is known for being a place where people, especially young people, gather, and many of them have come tens of times. To my amazement, I became one of those gatherers. I met a group of people who gelled instantly. It wasn’t a clique; the boundaries were fluid, and we were constantly having new faces among us. It was amazing. Instead of being a burden or an annoyance, my interactions with others became the crux of my time there. When I said that I was more comfortable going on walks alone because I was coming from and returning to community, I wasn’t kidding. It was community, and that can be a hard word for me to buy into or trust because I’ve had traumatic experiences with groups.
These folks became family, the kind of family that noticed when I was gone and was happy when I was there. I was seen, valued, and loved. We laughed together. We broke bread together. We talked about life and all of its complications and hopes. We laughed some more. We went on little adventures. We still message each other.
I love them more than I can say – and that experience of loving and being loved in just under a week, and to this day, was the best interruption I could have asked for. They didn’t get in my way; they were part of my way. And that intentional living space didn’t exhaust me; it enlivened me. This actually affected me so much that wherever I go next year for my hospital chaplaincy residency year, I hope to find an intentional community to live in.
People became a sign of hope and growth, and I became part of theirs. I couldn’t ask for much more beautiful signs of God’s love and grace than that.
I have been changed for good. I pray that someday, you have a similarly transformative experience. If you have, write in the comments about it – I want to hear your story!