A spirit of joy, simplicity and reconciliation

Anna Hill has been involved in the Ecumenical Prayer Services in the spirit of Taize in Newcastle for over 30 years. She tells us how these services came to be and how you can get involved. 

Pope John Paul II many years ago now said, “One passes through Taizé as one passes close to a spring of water”.

Pope Francis more recently, ahead of the 2023 Synod on Synodality, presided over an ecumenical prayer vigil organised by the brothers of the Taize community. It was by his special request that the service took place and had been some months in the planning.

What is this all about? Why are so many drawn to it and where did it have its beginnings?

Taize is a small village in the Burgundy region of France, not far from Lyon. During WW11, a young man, Roger Shultz, became aware of the numbers of displaced persons who had nowhere to call home and no one to turn to. He established his own home as a place of refuge and welcome. It was from these early beginnings that the present-day Taize community has its roots.

The Taizé community developed into an ecumenical monastic order with a strong devotion to peace and justice through prayer and meditation. Today the 100-strong community of Roman Catholic and Protestant monks is drawn from more than 30 countries across the world.

I have been involved in the Ecumenical Prayer Services in the spirit of Taizé here in Newcastle for over 30 years now.

How did I become involved?

My introduction was through Brother Matthew, an English-speaking Brother from the Taize community when he was visiting Sydney and Newcastle on his overseas mission. He dropped in to our College in Hamilton and invited, challenged really, some of us to bring a group of students down to Sydney for a weekend pilgrimage of Taize services. I was working with senior students at the Catholic college, and we were able to meet his challenge. It was obvious how those present were affected by the experience and it left a longing to recreate this experience. I was drawn to organize and conduct services here in Newcastle and, so, with the support of my late husband, John, and members of the Redemptorist community here in Mayfield it was all in place and underway.

Shortly afterwards, there was an opportunity for both John and I to spend time in Taizé itself. We travelled there with specific intentions of living with the Taize community for a little while in retreat style. Our experiences at first seemed to overwhelm us and it took a few days to feel we were fitting in after our travel-weary, rushed and consumer-orientated world-view. By the end of our time there we were very sorry to have to leave.

What was the experience like for us?

It was late August, one of the last days before the European academic year was to begin. In that small village were at least 5,000 other worshippers – mostly young and mostly resolved to participate to the max. Three times a day the services were announced by the continuous ringing of the five bells positioned outside the church courtyard. Their peels echoed across the valley; a flood of worshippers left what they were doing and gathered.

During the services, the overriding and unexpected experience was that of the absolute silence, no chatter, no cameras; no photos; no phones – just an absorbing, all-encompassing peace and stillness enveloping the entire community of worshippers – there were hundreds stretching past and beyond the walls of the church; their singing, their harmonising, their prayer postures, their connectedness… It was a palpable synergy of trust, vulnerability and strength.

The atmosphere was heightened by candles, their light shimmering through the darkness surrounding the Christian symbol of redemption, the cross; this one styled on the San Damiano cross icon of St. Francis of Assisi.

There were noticeably people there in our own age group (not so young) but there were also many, many young people – the sort of crowd you might expect to see on a university campus anywhere in the world.

During our stay in Taizé, I had occasion to spend time with Br Roger, the founder of the community. I shared my experiences of setting up the services in Newcastle. His response was very quiet and his voice was a whisper; I needed to listen carefully. He told me he could do nothing for me in a practical way from where he lived in the Taizé monastery, but he could pray with me and he wanted to do so. He raised his arms over my head and holding open his palms he continued to pray gently, sincerely and powerfully. There was nothing hurried and I allowed this prayerful experience to wash over me like a warm embrace.

I left that encounter reassured that everything would be just fine because his prayer was for that very purpose. Well, over thirty years have passed now and that’s the way it’s been.

In the meantime, there have been changes in the venues for us from where we first started holding the services. The Redemptorist monastery closed as did some of the other churches; there were deaths of loved ones and losses; it was difficult to find the motivation to continue… 

Within the community in Taize there too were deaths and losses. Within a few years of our meeting, Br. Roger was knifed by a deranged woman at one of the services - a shocking attack. There was no harmony or peace or justice that day just total forgiveness for someone so unwell as was that woman from Bulgaria.

The community continued under the leadership of Br. Alois and now more recently Br. Matthew. The structure and liturgy remains the same and is replicated wherever the services are conducted.

Over the decades the Taizé movement has remained resolutely ecumenical and encompasses a strong devotion to peace and justice through prayer and meditation. It continues to bring together people from all denominations and cultures. 

“It is a sign of hope in a divided world…”  Brother Roger.

Prayer and silence are at the heart of the Taizé experience. As part of the service, we are encouraged to live out the Christian gospel in a spirit of joy, simplicity and reconciliation.

The cross icon, which is at the centre of the devotional service, is an adaption of the San Damiano cross of St. Francis of Assisi. It is used in ecumenical prayer services conducted in Taizé, France and anywhere where prayer services in the Spirit of Taizé are conducted, including here in Newcastle. The cross icon that is used in services in Newcastle came from Taize at the time of our visit so many years ago. It was bought as a large poster and then later enthusiastic participants through workshops for candle making and cross construction were able to paste the poster onto a cross cut-out pattern on sturdy wood to replicate what is used in Taize and, what now still remains the centre of our devotion during the services.

The singing of repeated prayer chants by candlelight are a trademark of the Taizé experience. Taizé music highlights simple phrases, usually lines from the Psalms or other pieces of scripture, repeated or sung in canon. The repetition is designed to help meditation and prayer.

The service is not led by a celebrant, but includes many symbols, ritual, silence, and a lot of stillness.  Prayers from the heart, music, readings, candlelight, and petitions combine to create a meditative, reflective atmosphere and a spiritual connectedness. 

One passes through Taizé as one passes close to a spring of water,” Pope John Paul I.

So what draws people to this kind of service? Over the years, I’ve asked this question of those who attend. This is how the question was answered:

  • I like the simplicity…there’s time for your heart and your mind to be open to the Lord…….I find it very spiritual…very peaceful.
  • The attraction for me is the linking into chants in various languages…this brings with it a connectedness…it’s non-passive…and it creates in me a quietening of the heart.
  • Shared supper allows time to adjust to going back to our regular lives.
  • Whether only a few are there…the same blessings are received…I accept with great gratitude that the services are still happening. 

Now I extend an invitation to you to experience Taizé prayer. Until then, may we, through the way we live our lives, “Da pacem cordium – Give peace to every heart”.

Services are conducted at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Tighes Hill church at 5-6pm on the first Sunday of each month followed by a shared supper. Everyone is welcome. Please come.

Follow mnnews.today on Facebook.

Other Aurora Issues