A few weeks ago, I went with my friends Scott Erdenberg and Tina Erikson to a worship service in the spirit of Taizé. It was my first time to such a service. Taizé is an ecumenical monastic community in France. Brother Roger Schütz started the community in 1940 as a quest for a different expression of the Christian life. During World War II, the Taizé community took in countless war refugees. It has grown from a small house to a large community of over a hundred brothers. Taizé is an important place of Christian pilgrimage; over 5000 people visit it every year in the summer and at Easter. Taizé services hold special value for contemplation, silence, and communal action. Churches all around the world hold services in the spirit of Taizé.
We arrived to a church building filled with hundreds of people. We each picked up a candle in baskets at the entrance. The songs are very simple, sometimes only two lines long, repeated almost as a mantra, accompanied by a small orchestra. There was no sermon. Many people sat in the pews, but my friends and I sat on a floor near the front. There were icons, depictions of Jesus and the saints, facing us.
The two most striking aspects of the service were the candles and the silence. After the first few songs, one person came forward with a lit candle. He shared the flame with a few others’ candles. The light started to pass from person to person, filling the whole sanctuary. After a time of prayer and Scripture, we sang another song, during which each person came forth and planted the candle in bowls of sand in front of the icons. The bowls became filled with candles, and it was powerful to reflect on how each candle symbolized an individual person who came as part of this gathering.
Midway through the service was an extended time of silence, about 10 minutes. It is rare to be able to sink deeply into a time of silence, to clear through the frenetic thoughts and center into how God is speaking. I didn’t want the silence to end.
The song that stayed with me the most was the Magnificat. As someone who grew up in a Korean Presbyterian tradition, I’m not familiar with Latin. I have heard prayers and songs offered in English, Korean, Spanish, Mandarin, and Mongolian, but never Latin. The reality is that Latin and Greek are foundational languages of the church, used in worship by communities throughout the centuries. Singing these words from the Gospel of Luke, I felt as if I was connected, somehow, to the generations that have said these same words throughout time.
Magnificat, magnificat, magnificat anima mea Dominum.
My soul magnifies the Lord.