Raise your voice: Candlelight TaizeÌ services rely heavily on chanted hymns
Photographs by Michael Polito
Being a devout Roman Catholic, I rarely attend services outside of my own faith. It’s not out of any prejudice — I am simply firm in my own beliefs, find beauty and comfort in Mass, and have never felt the need to explore other religions. In fact, I had never even heard of TaizeÌ prayer services — despite the fact that these simple candlelight sessions, known for their meditative music, are apparently bringing lots of young Christians all around the globe back to church. I was also surprised to learn that some Catholic churches and many Protestant denominations, including several in our area, are now utilizing TaizeÌ worship.
TaizeÌ services started being held in the 1940s in a French town of the same name. They were initiated by a small group of ecumenical monastic brothers dedicated to contemplative prayer. Their founder and leader for seven decades, Brother Roger, promoted the importance of communal living and the reconciliation of all Christian faiths until his death in 2005. Today, the group includes more than 100 brothers and sisters from Protestant and Catholic backgrounds, and their prayer pattern is used throughout the world. In addition, each summer thousands of young pilgrims flock to TaizeÌ to share in the community’s way of life.
Open to all Christians, the hour-long, candlelit services are centered around short, chanted songs with a few Scripture readings interspersed between them. “By repeating these verses over and over, we can stop thinking about the words and start really praying,” says Pastor Bette Johnson Sohm of the New Paltz United Methodist Church, a 60-member congregation where TaizeÌ is held monthly. While you could be in the company of many others during TaizeÌ (attendance ranges anywhere from four to 100 at churches in our area), the focus is on your own personal, meditative prayer. It is thanks to this focus that Pastor Sohm believes TaizeÌ appeals to and is used by various faiths. There is no preaching at a TaizeÌ session — no particular set of beliefs is endorsed above others — it is simply meant to bring individuals closer to the Lord. “Denominations don’t matter,” says Pastor Sohm. “What matters is simply coming and sitting with your God.”
Churches can be flexible in how they use the TaizeÌ pattern. As long as there are elements of meditative singing during worship, it “counts.” Several Episcopal churches — like St. Mark’s in Chelsea and St. Stephen’s in Pearl River — do not hold TaizeÌ sessions per se, but rather incorporate the chant into their Sunday service. “We have a very small congregation — about 100 families — and we had very few people show up to TaizeÌ on its own,” says Reverend Susan Fortunato, St. Stephen’s rector. “It tends to be more powerful when we are a larger group at the regularly scheduled services. Then people really enjoy having a different form of meditation.”
Let us pray: Margaret Howe prepares to lead TaizeÌ at the New Paltz United Methodist Church
Holy Cross Parish in Middletown does hold exclusively TaizeÌ prayer nights, once during Advent and once in Lent. Those liturgical seasons aim to bring the faithful closer to the Lord while preparing for the holy days of Christmas and Easter, respectively, so TaizeÌ fits in beautifully. “It brings people directly to God through prayer,” says Father Michael Cedro, pastor of the 1,300-family Catholic parish. Holy Cross’s sessions follow TaizeÌ patterns by using candles — “lots of candles,” Fr. Cedro says with a laugh — and musical chant. “We use our organ and piano, but most of it is the instrument that God created,” he says, referring to the voices of the 12-person choir that usually leads the songs.
Although the Holy Cross services are only held twice yearly, each time they draw crowds of more than 100 people, including Christians of all denominations, not just Catholics. Of course, TaizeÌ services are open to worshipers of all ages, but Fr. Cedro finds it particularly attractive to the parish’s young people. “We have a very active youth ministry who attend; some even sing in the choir,” he says. “They bring such a vibrancy and energy.” Indeed, part of the French TaizeÌ community’s mission is to draw more of the young into their com- munity and use their energy to spread this form of worship.
On a recently rainy Wednesday night, my fianceÌ and I attended a TaizeÌ service held in Pastor Sohm’s church and found the calm atmosphere very conducive to prayer. The flickering candles gave the altar a serene glow; the chant — accompanied by soft piano chords — and short Scripture readings did indeed keep us focused on God. As Pastor Sohm says: “The music is so beautiful that it starts singing you.” One of the most moving moments was the 10-minute silence, which allowed for private prayer in whatever form you wished. My fianceÌ silently read some Bible passages, and I said a rosary. Other attendees closed their eyes, a few lifted their hands. Although our individual prayers differed, we were all truly praying together. And for me, that was the best part of TaizeÌ: seeing how it stressed the similarities between Christian traditions instead of the differences. While most of the chants were sung in English, their structure is reminiscent of Latin Gregorian chant, which we Catholics still sometimes use in our Mass. A few of the chants in the Methodist church were even sung in Latin — talk about accepting differences and coming together to honor God.
And that, in my opinion, is very Christian.