First Person: Experiencing Taize

By Dorothy Snodgrass
Tuesday May 31, 2011 - 06:13:00 PM

One often sees reference to Taizé services held in a few East Bay churches, both Catholic and Protestant. "What exactly is a Taizé service and what does the name mean?" is a question frequently asked. Therein lies a fascinating story. 


The Taizé Community was founded by Brother Roger Frére in 1940, when he purchased a small house in a desolate village just north of Cluny, the birthplace of western monasticism. Only miles south of the separation line that divided a war-torn country in half, Brother Roger's home became a sanctuary to countless war refugees seeking shelter. In his words, "The defeat of France awoke powerful sympathy. If a house could be found there, of the kind I dreamed of, it would offer a possible way of assisting some of those most discouraged, those deprived of a livelihood, and it could become a place of silence and work." 


Throughout the year, meetings for young adults between 17 and 30 years now take place in Taizé, The number of visitors reaches more than 5000 during the summer and on Easter. The community, though Western European in origin, has sought to include people and traditions worldwide. They have sought to demonstrate this in music and prayers where songs are sung in many languages, and have included chants and icons from Psalms or other pieces of Scripture, repeated and sometimes sung in canon, now referred to as the Taizé chants. 


In the 1960's young people began to visit the Taizé community. The village church of Taizé, which had been used for the community's prayers, became too small to accommodate the pilgrims -- as many as 1400 participants from 30 countries. A new church, The Church of Reconciliation, was built in the early 1960's with the help of volunteers and has expanded several times in subsequent decades. In 1970, in response to student protests taking place all over Europe and the world, as well as the Vatican Council, Brother Roger announced a "Council of Youth", whose main meeting took place in1974. It became known as a "Pilgrimage of Trust on Earth", focusing on youth 


Tragically, on August 16, 2005, Brother Roger was fatally stabbed by a mentally ill woman during an evening service at Taizé. 


My first experience with a Taizé service occurred several years ago when I attended a three-day retreat at the San Damiano Retreat Center. Nestled in the hills of San Ramon Valley, guided by Franciscan tradition, San Damiano offers modern, challenging retreat programs (not all of a religious nature), providing a peaceful environment of natural beauty where people of all faiths may seek spiritual renewal and growth. The grounds are absolutely beautiful, with several gardens, a labyrinth and a large courtyard. My private room looked out on the gardens. My retreat was a Contemplation one, where no one spoke until the last day. (Me not speak -- now that was a sacrifice!) 


The most memorable and inspiring event of this retreat was an evening service in the Chapel, where in candlelight, I heard for the first time the haunting strains of the Taizé chants. I doubt very much that I'll ever experience the same sense of tranquility and serenity that I felt that evening. I'm happy to say, however, that Newman Hall's Holy Spirit Church at College Avenue and Dwight Way offers its own weekly Taizé service, as do other churches in the bay area. 


So, if you're in need of a respite from the stress and anxiety of today's troubled world, I would urge you to register for a retreat at the San Damiano Retreat Center in Danville. They're located at 70 Highland Drive; telephone (925) 837-9141.