By Kenneth J. Souza, Anchor Staff
EAST FREETOWN, Mass. — For more than a year now, parishioners at St. John Neumann Parish in East Freetown have been actively studying and hosting regular Taizé services, based on an increasingly popular form of prayer that is equal parts meditation, chanting and silently connecting with God.
According to parishioner and choir member Karen Howard, it was her pastor, Father Gregory A. Mathias, V.G., who first introduced her to Taizé.
“I didn’t really know anything about it,” Howard said. “He said it was based on meditation and chanting and he suggested maybe the choir might be interested in taking it up, so that’s how it started.”
With Father Mathias’ guidance and blessing, St. John Neumann hosted its first Taizé service on Palm Sunday as a way to kick off Holy Week last year.
“I have always thought that this Taizé form of prayer could possibly be the perfect remedy for the sorts of lives we live in this country,” Father Mathias wrote in a bulletin introduction at the time. “Faith is fed by contemplation and prayer, but modern life compels us to move too fast for either of these disciplines. The aesthetics of Taizé prayer immerse participants in a mystical-Spiritual environment that lifts the heart and mind to the mystery of God. Sort of a warm, Spiritual ‘bath,’ if you will.”
Having just celebrated its one-year anniversary with a Taizé service on the most recent Palm Sunday, St. John Neumann is now gearing up to host a member of the founding Taizé monastic community.
Brother Emmanuel, who currently resides at the monastery in the town of Taizé, will be spending an entire day at St. John Neumann Parish on April 12, participating in Sunday morning Masses, attending that afternoon’s Confirmation Liturgy, and then joining parishioners for a light supper at 6 p.m., to be followed by a talk at 7 p.m.
A native of Tours, France, Brother Emmanuel joined the Taizé community in 1991. He is the author of “Love, Imperfectly Known” (2011) and is a frequent lecturer at universities and Christian communities throughout the U.S.
He first encountered Taizé at the age of 15, during a trip to its namesake town for a high school retreat.
“What a surprise to discover a meditative prayer accessible to all and a Spirituality fully consistent with a God of love, to feel welcomed as you are, to share freely with so many young people searching for God, to meet a community composed of Brothers from various Christian denominations and nationalities who would like to anticipate an undivided Church and a reconciled humanity,” Brother Emmanuel recently told The Anchor via email. “I was very touched by this first visit and decided to return once a year.”
After graduating high school, Brother Emmanuel spent another three weeks in Taizé to “think about the direction my life was taking and to discern my path before committing to further study.”
“But something completely unexpected happened during one of the evening prayer times — I had an overwhelming Spiritual experience that turned my life around,” he said.” I was made aware of a love that seemed to me so beautiful that I felt irresistibly called to commit my entire being to this mysterious Divine Presence and to offer my human love in return as fully as I could. It’s the mystery of a call to monastic life.”
This calling led Brother Emmanuel to professing his vows to the Taizé community, which was founded in 1940 by Brother Roger Schütz, a reformed Protestant who borrowed from a variety of Christian traditions.
“His father was a Protestant pastor but he regularly prayed in a Catholic church,” Howard said. “When he went to a boarding school, his family placed him with a Catholic family, so Brother Roger had this vision of ecumenism and he kind of built on that — when Taizé began to develop, it drew people from different traditions: Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox.”
Brother Roger’s decidedly ecumenical approach — details of which are contained in “The Rule of Taizé,” first published in 1954 — would inspire the meditative prayer form that was readily embraced by Europeans yearning for peace in the aftermath of World War II.
“The attempt was to sort of reconcile the world and bring the world back together,” Howard explained. “They started using these chants just as a way of calming people down; when you chant something over and over again, it sort of lulls you into that quiet space. But because they were in Europe, they were getting people who spoke all different languages. So they began to use chants in Latin and then they would have cantors sing on top of the chants in German, or French, or Polish.”
A typical Taizé service involves sung and chanted prayers, meditation, a period of silence, Liturgical readings, and icons. There is no preaching. A lot of the environment is decorated in reds and oranges and flames and there’s usually candlelight — all evoking images of the Holy Spirit.
The style of prayer practiced at Taizé has attracted many worshipers from around the globe and from many different denominations. The prayers consist of short chants — often in Latin — that are repeated over and over again.
“Such a repetition enables us to calm down, to dispose ourselves inwardly to welcome God’s presence, to internalize the essential reality of faith contained in these few words,” Brother Emmanuel explained.
“Moreover, the fact that our brain does not need to be focused on many words, does not have to read long sentences and does not know when this repetition ends, makes it easier to be focused on God alone and to let the depths of our being express themselves,” he added. “Besides, we are not obliged to sing, since we are free to stop singing, to let ourselves be supported by the singing of others and to come back to the singing later on: it opens a space of inner freedom we usually do not have during worship where we are many times invited to do something different — sit, stand, listen, sing, answer, etc.”
Then there are the long stretches of silence, which for Howard is the best part of the Taizé experience.
“Almost everyone says their favorite part of a Taizé service is the quiet period, because that’s what puts them in touch with God,” she said. “The music leads them there, the candlelight leads them there, the Scripture readings lead them there, but that’s what people are hungry for: that quiet period with God.”
“This time of silence reminds us that our Christian faith is not a series of abstract ideas, principles or rules, but a living relationship with God, and more precisely a loving relationship with God to be experienced by each of us in a unique way,” Brother Emmanuel said. “This uniqueness during this time of opening to God’s presence does not allow me to tell you what should be the content of such a time of silence.”
Howard maintains that people in today’s culture, who are constantly “inundated with noise,” are desperately in need of a respite, which is why Taizé is gaining in popularity.
“We’ve got laptops and smartphones and everyone is plugged into this, that and the other, and people don’t have silence anymore and we’re beginning to recognize that we need it,” she said. “In fact, some school systems are putting silence into their curriculum. There’s a school in California that puts 15 minutes of silence in every day and they’re finding that test scores are going up and discipline problems are going down because students need a time to unplug — and I think the whole world is beginning to recognize that we need some downtime. We need some time to turn everything off.”
“Many young adults say ‘they feel at home’ in Taizé, a wording that reveals something deeper than it sounds,” Brother Emmanuel agreed. “It can be related to their real/ultimate identity and to a more conscious communion with God.”
While there won’t be time to offer a Taizé prayer service during his visit to St. John Neumann Parish, attendees will be treated to a short video about the Taizé community, a talk after supper, and a question-and-answer period.
“I hope they will feel entirely free to ask me any questions, whether they are about Taizé, our way of praying, our meetings in France, in Europe, in the U.S., or about any topic that really matters to them, especially if they are related to their Spiritual quest and to any obstacle that paralyzes it,” Brother Emmanuel said. “I do not claim to be able to answer all their questions, but I will be very happy to share with them the most essential inner discoveries given to me along my human and Spiritual journey as a Brother of Taizé.”
Howard, in particular, hopes to learn how and why Taizé has gained favor among young believers in Europe.
“They’re not only teaching people how to be still and meditate, but they’re also drawing the youth from all over Europe and now it’s becoming an international movement,” she said.
Brother Emmanuel will be discussing Taizé at St. John Neumann Parish, 157 Middleboro Road in East Freetown, on April 12 beginning at 6 p.m. in the parish hall. For more information or to RSVP, email firstname.lastname@example.org.