Taize is an ecumenical monastic community in the heart of France. It was established by the much-loved Swiss Christian Brother Roger in 1940. The community started to attract international attention towards the end of this great man’s life, and now thousands of young people flock to this small village every week to partake in life there – and last week I was one of them!
I took the Eurostar from St Pancras International early on Sunday morning and arrived in Paris with mounting anticipation. It was raining torrentially throughout the whole day and by the time I had made it to Taize I was wet through, but the rain had done nothing to dampen my spirits. I received a very warm welcome from Brother Paolo (one of the English brothers in the community) and after registering I was shown to my dormitory. There were already several girls inside unpacking their things and laughing and chatting amongst themselves. I was quickly swept up in the conversation and discovered that my room-mates for the week were four Germans, a Spanish girl and a girl from Lithuania. They were all very friendly and cheerful. Some were regulars to Taize and had been coming for three or four years because they enjoy it so much, whilst others (like me) were visiting for the first time. After much talk we all settled down and it wasn’t long before I was fast asleep.
The next day we all made our way down to the church for Morning Prayer. There were thousands of young people within the church and the service was said in all different languages. We celebrated Mass together and I had my first experience of Taize prayer. It was beautiful. It took me a couple of days to work out what was going on; how to find the songs in the prayer books and what prayers were being read, etc. but I soon cottoned on and got into the rhythm of it.
Prayer was followed by breakfast and then we were split into different age groups for talks given by the brothers.
One of my favourite parts of the day was splitting into small groups and having discussions about different texts from the Bible. The conversations were held in English and there was much laughter and patience involved as everyone tried their best to express themselves in a language which, for most people, wasn’t their mother tongue. I was intrigued to find myself, for the first time in my life, having in-depth discussions about God within a group of people of all different nationalities and faiths, as well as no faith at all. Everyone was very respectful of each other’s opinions and asked questions with genuine openness. I was impressed by each person’s sincere search for truth and their desire to understand biblical teachings.
Another aspect of Taize that I really enjoyed was the work. Yes the work! Each pilgrim is assigned a job; some people were responsible for cleaning the toilets, others for tidying the church and some for emptying bins. The jobs might sound grim but they were actually really good fun! Teams of young people went out together and embarked on their jobs with much laughter and chattering. The work was a great way to meet new people and often the tasks would finish with some ridiculous game or other. I was given the job of serving food – no easy feat with a crowd of 4,000 strong to feed! Volunteers lined up together and we dished out the food amidst songs and chatter. A group of Irish lads kept us all thoroughly entertained with their singing and their hidden talents for playing the spoons and improvised saucepan drums! The whole place is kept in order by the pilgrims and everyone’s little bit really does make a difference and ensures everything runs smoothly.
Between talks, work, prayer and food, people would gather together to play various games; there was football and Frisbee in the fields, people playing music and dancing, and others sat drawing and playing games I had never seen before. People would also gather around the ‘Oyak’ (a little shop/cafe that opens several times a day) and would stand around chatting and drinking coffee. This was a particularly popular haunt in the evenings and there was often a lot of fun to be had there.
Every night there was a prayer service. This last prayer of the day is very popular because it is so calm and peaceful. Some people stay for just 20 minutes or so, whilst others stay for hours. The church is very enchanting and relaxing during the late hours and I would often find myself swept up in the atmosphere. The brothers sit around talking to young people and there is a real sense of solidarity.
I made friends with a group of German girls who were incredibly friendly and had been coming to Taize for years. We’d sit together at meal times and on Easter Sunday we had a picnic at sunrise in one of the nearby fields. A fantastic start to such a special day!
Celebrating Easter at Taize was incredibly special. We all gathered outside to light the Paschal candle and then filed into the church. Teenagers and young adults set up the altar and prepared the church together, and young children lit the small candles held by the monks who then passed on the flame to everyone else. I was really struck by how young, ecumenical and united the church was in this moment.
The Mass that day was one I will never forget. I spent the rest of Easter Sunday with many of my newly-made friends; eating chocolate together, helping them to pack away their tents and going for walks in the beautiful surrounding countryside.
It was very sad saying goodbye to everyone as I got on the bus for my journey back home. My week in Taize had been an extraordinary one. I can’t deny that I had struggled and missed my home comforts, but I had also made some great new friends, had fantastic conversations and grown in my faith within just a few short days.
So many young people just keep coming back because it is such a unique and amazing place, and I am already very excited to be going back again in August with people from the Diocese of Westminster.
I sincerely hope you will be able to join me! No doubt you will have a fantastic, unforgettable week!