Three times each day, everything stops on the hill of Taizé: the work, the Bible studies, the small-group discussions. The bells call everyone to the church for prayer. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of young adults from many different countries across the world pray and sing with the brothers of the community. Short songs sung over and over again that, in a few words, express a basic reality, quickly grasped by the mind. Then the Bible is read in several languages. At the center of every prayer service, a long moment of silence offers an irreplaceable opportunity to encounter God.
We brothers are often impressed by the ability of the young people to remain in our church, sometimes for hours on end, in silence or supported by meditative singing. They themselves are sometimes astonished to discover how much they have prayed in Taizé. When we ask the groups we meet at the end of their stay what has struck them the most, the reply comes quickly, without hesitation: “the prayer!” And yet how many of those who speak so enthusiastically about their experience of prayer seem at first sight hardly to be “experts”! That is all the more touching.
We ourselves, once again, remain surprised by this. What enables the young people to become truly open to an inner dialogue in prayer? How to we manage to let them discover that, even without knowing how to pray, even without knowing what to ask for or what to expect, God has already placed in us the longing for a communion?
Without really being able to reply to these questions, I can nonetheless mention three dimensions of prayer in Taizé which seem to me to echo the searching of the young: an accessible prayer, a meditative prayer, a prayer of the heart.
An accessible prayer
The community’s prayer has changed quite a bit over the years; it has become constantly simpler. Brother Roger was always concerned that nothing in the prayer should appear inaccessible. For him, to read a text that was too long or too complicated could keep people from perceiving that relationship of love that the presence of the Holy Spirit offers in prayer.
This concern to make the inner experience of prayer accessible to a large number is the reason why the community developed a way of praying with simple and meditative songs. Not that everything was adapted for young people. In one sense, the Taizé chants are not in themselves songs written in the style of the music of the young. I believe that our songs are deeply rooted in the monastic tradition. By their vocabulary, which is that of the psalms, the long tradition of sung prayer that began in the earliest assemblies of Israel. By their meditative, and even repetitive, character. Basically, the community began by singing the psalms and it still does so today. But rather than singing the whole psalm, we focus on a single verse, meditating on it together, letting it echo and find in us the experiences that it will bring to light.
What touches the young people in Taizé is perhaps the sense that we strive to make the expression of faith as simple as possible, without at the same time watering it down. They feel instinctively that the prayer proposed to them is not so much the translation into their own language of a reality that is foreign to them, but rather an invitation to a search that draws them onwards beyond themselves, that, by placing on their lips words from another age, gently forces them to de-center themselves, to empty themselves. Young people are very good at sensing this. They can distinguish discourses filled with themselves from those which create space by clearing out certainties. Perhaps they sense that, by adapting our prayer to their presence, we wanted as a community to widen our road, to extend to all the intimacy that we wish to live in God. In this sense, it is very important that the singing be done continually by all and not just by soloists or singers who would only leave the refrain to be sung by the assembly.
A meditative prayer
Prayer with the songs of Taizé is also meditation on the Bible. I am so surprised on All Saints’ Day, when our church is packed with French high-school students, to discover how naturally 2,500 young people sing words like “May I exult and rejoice in your love!” from one of the most recent songs written in French. I have the feeling that, by repeating one or two verses, the song opens for them a direct access to the Word of God and enables them to interiorize, to incorporate the beauty and even the “roughness” of the biblical words. And then, when words already known by heart are rediscovered by reading them, some texts are illuminated with an unexpected light.
I sometimes wonder if our way of singing is not a kind of introduction to lectio divina, that way of reading the Word attentively that opens a space to let the text reverberate in all its dimensions. The Jews speak of “masticating” the Torah. One of the rabbis quoted in a collection of Jewish texts from the first centuries after Christ said, “Turn the Torah around and around in all directions, for everything is found there; it alone will give you true knowledge. Grow old in this study and never abandon it; there is nothing better you can do” (Mishna Aboth 5, 25). In Taizé, the repetition of the songs echoes this mastication, this respiration of the Word.
A prayer of the heart
Another aspect that often touches me when I listen to young people speaking about the prayer in Taizé is the capacity that the time of silence in the middle of the liturgy has to give them the opportunity to focus on what is within them. They know how to describe what that silence makes possible: “to take stock,” “to listen to your heart,” “to think about your problems,” “to empty your mind,” “to take a break,” “to do some soul-searching,” “to drop your masks”… When they are together, they are not afraid of the silence. On the contrary, many say that at first the ten minutes seem long, but afterwards, they fill up by themselves.
I wonder whether what they are trying to put into words does not correspond to what Eastern Christians call the “prayer of the heart” and also “keeping watch over the heart.” “Keep watch over your heart vigilantly,” says the Book of Proverbs, “for from it flow the springs of life.”
The heart is the center of human beings in the Bible, a focal point where all the energies converge. For the monks of the Eastern tradition, praying by repeating a short phrase coordinated with the rhythm of breathing is first and foremost a prayer of the heart, in other words an effort to unify all the energies to allow them to pass through the fire of the heart in the crucible of love. By unifying the feelings, the energies, the heart is the place from which good intentions can arise like purified water. Prayer as vigilance, awakening and listening enables us to concentrate, to re-center our own desires and to synchronize them with love. Prayer is that preparation of the heart to be attentive to the vigilance that love requires in different situations.
Through singing and silence, young people discover that they are able to have new hearts, simple hearts in the original meaning of the term, a heart without a fold, an unfolded heart. The first Christians spoke of prayer as a way of melting the “spiritual fat” that weighs down our thoughts and desires. The image of folds is equally suggestive: an unfolded heart is a heart stripped to the essentials, a heart that remains close to its desires, and in this way discovers more clearly how God calls it to be creative. “Every desire within us that calls to God already constitutes a prayer. Your desire is already your prayer. There is an inward prayer that never stops: your desire. If you want to pray, then never stop desiring.” (Saint Augustine, Commentary on Psalm 37.)
Unhindered, open to a certain transparence, the heart also learns how to bring decisions and intuitions to maturity, to trace out the lines of a way of life. To discern as well the delicate situations and the dead-ends. In this sense I hope that young people can understand that “Prayer does not make us less involved in the world. On the contrary, nothing is more responsible than to pray. The more we make our own a prayer which is simple and humble, the more we are led to love and to express it with our life. Brother Roger, “Letter 2005, A Future of Peace”.
By these three dimensions of prayer that we try to share with the young: “de-centering” oneself, “mastication” of Scripture and “vigilant listening” of the heart, our deepest desire is to make them aware of the conviction that Brother Roger left us in his last unfinished letter:
“God remains alongside us even in the fathomless depths of our loneliness. God says to each person, ‘You are precious in my sight, I treasure you and I love you.’ Yes, all God can do is give his love; that sums up the whole of the Gospel.”