Reflections on Taizé Part Four

Mountaintop Experiences

I enjoyed the services at Taizé and their unhurried and meditative structure. But there was one thing I missed – sermons. Really! And liturgy. But mostly sermons. I think that’s what threw me off about Taizé worships – we weren’t always trying to answer the question of “what does this mean?” Instead, the focus was on simply being present with God and one another. I’m not so great with this. My mountaintop experiences – experiences that change the shape of your faith and split your journey into a “before” and “after” – happen when I’m in Christian community, yes, but it’s usually theological insights that leave me inspired, excited, close to God. Maybe because my relationship with God is one based on intellect rather than emotion. I don’t think that that’s necessarily a good thing. From my journal, June 5th:

“I’m often skeptical of emotion-based accounts of modern miracles or overwrought (at least what I see as overwrought) displays of emotion. Anything that involves spectacle or letting go completely and flying through the air while yelling to everyone still holding on that God will catch you and reward you for trusting (or testing?) Him provokes an automatic response within me, even physically. I draw into myself, turn away, and say This is not me. This is not my kind of faith. Maybe it works for them, but I’m too guarded. And Taizé is not about spectacle at all - the very opposite, really. But it is about emotion. So maybe I’d rather read about God than worship Him? No. Yes. Is that my purpose here? To learn how to stop my thoughts from going one hundred miles an hour and just be in the presence of God? I’ve always known that I’m a Martha, not a Mary…” 

Did I succeed? Maybe a little. On Saturday after midday prayer I felt this compulsion to stay in the chapel after everyone else had left, simply to breathe and empty my mind. It was as though I were rooted to the floor. Of course, that brief peace only lasted until a lady dropped her camera beside me. It was then that I remembered that the chapel was open for visitors to take pictures from 1 PM till 2 PM. So I got up and left.

The second moment came during the service that evening. The congregation was lighting candles to symbolize the hope of the Resurrection.  It’s one of those things – growing up in the church, I knew that we were supposed to eagerly await the coming of Easter Sunday during Holy Week, and I did. But there was always a part of me that thought, But this happens every year and we know it always will. But the service at Taizé was different. Since my group always sat at the front (very un-Lutheran), the flames took a while to reach us. Seeing the light in the church become brighter, and seeing the candle flames flickering as neighbours dipped theirs towards each other – it helped me to understand the anticipation associated with Easter and the Resurrection.

Rather anticlimactic now that I’ve written it down, but that’s what I have. I struggled a lot with this after Taizé – my journal entry on the flight home is six pages of me trying to answer the question “Why wasn’t there more?”

“The thing is, spending time with devout Christians in this sort of context, you hear a lot of amazing stories of ‘mountaintop experiences’. I’m so happy for those lucky enough to get them. But then I wonder – what’s wrong with me? Why don’t I have something to add? Or, not add. I must say, I would never brag about an experience like that- that’s not why I want to hear God. Just something to ‘ponder in my heart’ rather than scrounging around my memory for something to pull out as a meaningful moment from Taizé and feel like I’m faking something.

“And part of me says that maybe I should just try harder – like I need to run a little faster and I’ll catch God and He’ll say something. Pray more, read the Bible more, listen more. I will, not for the reward but because it’s just something I want to do. One of my favourite verses from the Bible:

‘I do believe. Help me overcome my unbelief!’ ” 

- Hannah Shirtliff       

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Reflections on Taizé Part Three


One of the unique aspects of Taizé is how the community worships together. Three times a day (at 8:15 AM, 12:20 PM, and 8:30 PM), the bells at the gate ring and everyone gathers in the Chapel of Reconciliation for prayer. As we filed into the chapel, we would pick up a songbook and a paper with the Bible readings (in at least five different languages) and an extra sheet with special morning or evening chants.

The chapel itself is enormous, but depending on how many people are in Taizé at the time, sections can be screened off. As you can see in the photo below, everyone sits on the floor (or steps on the right side). The brothers kneel on prayer stools in two columns stretching back from the aisle. Microphones are placed by certain stools for the brothers who lead the chants, and one plays a small keyboard. The altar was only used during the Eucharist on Sunday. Instead, the gospel is read by one of the brothers (in French, English, and German) from the back of the chapel. Before the speaker begins, everyone shifts to face him, emphasizing the importance of this part of the service.

The services themselves are very simple. Most of the time is taken up with chants – one or two lines repeated over and over again, accompanied by only an organ or keyboard. I felt a little disoriented during the first few services, especially when it came to keeping up with the chants in languages other than English and French. (There were chants in every major European language, and translations were listed below.) There is no liturgy. Instead, there are a few readings from the Bible (during my week, they were mostly from the Book of Wisdom and the Gospels) and prayers said out loud by the brothers in various languages. There’s also a five to six minute stretch of silence for meditation (which feels a lot longer). 

Now that I’ve thought about how long five or six minutes is, staying silent and focused for that long shouldn’t have been that hard. But it was! At first I would try to focus my thoughts through prayer. The Taizé brothers encourage the use of short and simple prayers, repeated over and over. Keeping things short has never been my strong suit. So my prayers ended up more like me rattling off a laundry list of everyone I was concerned about at home, the world, and everything I felt as though I “should” pray for. Once I ran out of things to list, distractions would start to intrude again. So after a few services, I decided to change my approach. Instead of combing my mind trying to think of things to say, I attempted to make my mind go silent (for once). It took a lot of discipline to keep my mind empty and just stay in the moment both together and separate from the 400 other people gathered in the chapel. And honestly? I could only hold back my thoughts for so long. But now I value that the brothers offered us so much time to simply be silent with God, a silence only broken with the beginning of another chant.

I was very surprised at how a simple chant in any language could completely fill my mind. In repeating the same few words over and over again, there is the potential for it just to become an automatic refrain. (Admittedly, my mind could drift away from the words at times.) But most often the words, repeated by hundreds of people, expanded and pushed out any other thoughts that were running through my head before worship and during the times of silence. The chants seemed like part of the congregation and separate, far beyond the power of our individual voices.

The departure of the brothers signals the end of the service, but we usually kept singing. And singing. And singing. It’s a bit discomforting. I’m used to a final hymn, listed in the bulletin as such, which we sing and then race out the door for coffee. I’m used to the pastor announcing, “Go in peace, serve the Lord” and the reply “Thanks be to God!” from the congregation (which, as a kid, I always took to mean “Thanks be to God that the service is finally over,” and therefore it was always my most enthusiastic response). 



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Reflections on Taizé Part Two

The advantage to blogging in a Starbucks instead of at home – for some reason it’s a lot harder to shut your laptop and walk away when you really don’t want to write or hit “Publish Post” (even with a bookstore right next door).

I hope Part One made a bit of sense. And if it didn’t, maybe it captured my mindset at the time even better. Part Two was intended to be a collection of reflections about various aspects of Taizé, but in order to keep the entries at a manageable length, I’ll be breaking up my reflections even further.

On Bible Study

This is probably an indication of how little I’d travelled outside of North America before I went to Taizé, but when the website described how the Taizé community was a draw for young people from around the world, somehow I never realized that not everyone would speak English very well or at all. I didn’t anticipate being in a small-group Bible Study where three different languages were spoken. And I really didn’t anticipate accidentally becoming the leader of this group!

As I’ve already noted, I have a lot of difficulty talking about my faith with others, especially people I’ve just met. Another problem with Bible studies comes from a combination of growing up in the church and how often I simply tell people what I feel that they want/expect to hear. With a lot of questions in Bible studies (especially when they’re very simple, as ours were), there’s a “right” answer. And by “right” I mean an answer that teenagers who don’t like to talk about their faith can quickly pick out as an uncontroversial position so that everyone else can say “Yep, I agree,” and we can move on to the next question and repeat the process. There were a lot of those questions in the Taizé Bible studies. I understand their reasons for keeping them simple. When the language the group chooses to communicate in isn’t everyone’s first language, it’s probably best not to complicate things more than necessary. 

After an awkward first two days, I decided to act like a little more of a leader. I guessed that if I was disappointed in the experience thus far, I probably wasn’t the only one. During worship on Tuesday and Wednesday morning, I prayed for the strength to be vulnerable, so that the others could do the same and we could actually have a meaningful conversation. I wanted to lead the conversation “off script” and away from the simple questions on our worksheets. And it actually succeeded! At least for the two other people in my group who spoke fluent English. The three Polish boys mostly just listened, but said that they understood everything. Thursday and Saturday were difficult again, as we were joined by a few German girls who didn’t understand a word of English (and I don’t understand a word of German), and facilitating a group conversation is difficult when everything has to be translated. There were a lot of silences where we all just shuffled our papers around.

Friday’s Bible Study was probably the most meaningful for me, and we didn’t even talk!

“Some things,” Brother Jasper declared before sending us into our small groups, “can only be understood through the silence of prayer.” He then told us to go somewhere in our small group and sit in silence together, since,

“In this way, if you are together, you can encourage each other, yes? Even if you cannot speak. For example, you may want to talk, but then you see the person beside you is still silent, and you think ‘Oh, he is a very stupid person, but if he can stay silent so can I, and I am not nearly so stupid.” 

He wanted us to stay silent for fifty minutes and meditate on the Bible passage Matthew 26:36-46 (Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane). My group sat in the tiny dark Orthodox Chapel and I set a timer on my phone for fifty minutes. The worksheet said to “make a list of situations (past or present) when you were faced with a big decision and you could not manage it alone.” I made my list in my journal. As I looked it over, I realized that for most of those decisions, I couldn’t recall asking God for help. The next prompt on the worksheet was to write a simple prayer. 

Help me now. Open my heart and let me put my life in Your hands. You know all the secrets of my soul, all my abilities and shortcomings. I ask others for help but only You know the path that is laid out for me. Set me on this path so that I may do what You want, not what I want.


Quotes from Brother Jasper (Bible Study Leader)

“Taizé is like IKEA – you need to put in work to get what you want. It is not like going up a high mountain and meeting with gurus who tell you what to do with your life.”

“Say I see Brother John walk out of my room, and I go in and find that – what do I have in my room that someone would want to take? Well, I have a very nice plant. Brother John does not have nearly as nice of a plant. So… no, never mind, that doesn’t work. Forget that.” 

On relationships and faith: 

“If you say ‘Oh yes, I trust this person because I know everything about them and nothing that they do will ever surprise me,’ then you are reducing that person to an object, like this bench, where you say ‘Oh, I will sit on this bench and it will support me,’ although this is Taizé quality so maybe not… Anyway, faith is like this too. Mary did not know God completely, she did not understand everything, but she trusted Him just a little bit, yes? And when we choose to become Christians, we do not look at a list and go ‘Okay, I believe this and this and this and then I have faith.’ Some people think that Christians are stupid, that we shut off our brains and only believe what we are taught. This is not true. We are always questioning and trying to know God better, trying to understand the workings of the Holy Spirit.”

- Hannah Shirtliff

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Reflection on Taizé Part One

I have a hard time writing about my faith, so bear with me. This post will take a long time to write.

Our group arrived in Taizé on Sunday, June 2nd, just before supper and evening prayer. Despite enjoying my time in Geneva, when I arrived in Taizé I was beside myself. The trip was running smoothly, but I’d already been away from home for a week and a half. There were ample distractions from the people I missed, but those distractions also kept me from taking the time to send them emails or Facebook messages. There’s was this feeling of “I have to really be with the people I’m with and I can’t take any time away from enjoying this beautiful country, and I’ll be home soon enough.” But the day before I left for Taizé I received a message from a friend going through a hard time. And here I was in Europe, over four thousand miles away, and I couldn’t do anything. I didn’t even know the full details of what had happened. And I doubted that I would find out for another week, since internet access in Taizé was not guaranteed. My mood alternated between anger (wouldn’t anyone tell me what was going on?) and stress that made me feel like I was cut off from everything around me.

On Monday (our first full day in Taizé) I wrote in my journal,

“…I’m tensing up and folding in on myself. This is supposed to be a community and I need to trust and step off the cliff and focus on the people I’m with, not the people I miss and can’t talk to.”

Identifying the problem is the first step to solving it, right? And this is the part where I’m supposed to say that I prayed about it (and for other friends that I was worried about) and found peace in Taizé and everything turned out okay. In my (limited) experience, this is what’s supposed to happen at these faith retreats. This is why I’ve put off writing about Taizé for so long. Was it a worthwhile experience? Yes, and I’ll get to that in my next reflection(s). It’s just that spending a lot of time with very religious people in that kind of environment – don’t get me wrong, I love it. I just compare myself to them, and I know I shouldn’t, but I do. And I come up against my inability to just take a deep breath and put my problems in God’s hands or lean on others the way I should. Other people have a much easier time talking about their faith. I have faith, but I kind of just drift along without knowing what to do with it. Maybe I expected a lot more answers. Or maybe just one.

So maybe I can’t meet everyone’s expectations when I write about Taizé. But I can be honest. I can say that I didn’t have any “mountaintop experiences” (and hope that the amazing people who sponsored me don’t feel like they wasted their money). When I arrived in Taizé I was scared and stressed out and lonely. And maybe I still am.

- Hannah Shirtliff

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A Reflection on the WCC and LWF

I’ve decided to divide my reflection on The Plunge into two parts, the first dealing with our time spent in Geneva with the World Council of Churches and the Lutheran World Federation, and the second dealing with our time in Taizé. 

Just before I left for Geneva, I declared Global Development Studies (a.k.a. DEVS) as my university major. I never really knew what to say when people asked me the question that every Arts student dreads: “So what are you going to do after school?” My choice of a major didn’t come with a clear career path. I worried that it may not come with any kind of career path. I chose to major in Global Development Studies because of a desire to “help people” and a strong belief in social justice. So when anyone asked, I listed off a few organizations that I would like to work for: Oxfam, Half the Sky, Word Made Flesh. No ideal job, really just anywhere I could get in. I’d give a half-hopeful shrug, hoping that they weren’t immediately dismissing my “plans” (for lack of a better word) and imagining me unemployed after graduation instead.   

Because of my interest in social justice and global development work, our time with the staff of the World Council of Churches and the Lutheran World Federation was my favourite part of The Plunge. Between that and our visit to the UN, I was in DEVS heaven. I valued having the chance to meet and talk with people who actually work in the development field. Not only people who work in the development field, people whose motivation for doing so is grounded in their Christian faith. Because mine is too, and that’s sometimes hard to explain to fellow DEVS students in the face of the long history of faith-based organizations exploiting vulnerable people and making problems worse under the guise of “Christian charity.” Meeting with employees of the LWF who have learned (and continue to learn) from the mistakes of the past, instead of using them as an excuse to stop trying or hide their faith, gave me hope that in my future career I’ll be able to do the same thing. 

Speaking of my future career, I actually found my dream job in Geneva with the LWF. Ms. Caroline Richter introduced Plunge participants to the work of the Lutheran World Federation youth branch on the first day, and she also explained what she does with the Lutheran World Federation. Her work, and the work of the LWF in general, fit my interests perfectly. The emphasis on youth participation; inter-faith and inter-religious dialogue and partnerships; the faith-based motivation that leads the organization to help whomever is in need, regardless of their beliefs; and the call to “uphold the rights of the poor and oppressed”.

The DMD Secretary for the LWF Youth is hired for a six-year term, and the person hired must be under thirty at the time. The position opens up again in 2018 – the year I’ll (hopefully) have finished grad school. It’s a long shot – there are probably a lot of people, much more qualified than me, who want this position. A lot can (and will) change in the next five years. But visiting the LWF and WCC gave me something to strive for, a concrete idea of the kind of work that I want to do. 

- Hannah Shirtliff

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June 2nd: Worship and an Introduction to Taizé

Evangelical Lutheran Church in Geneva
On Sunday, June 2nd, Plunge participants worshipped at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Geneva before setting off on the journey to Taizé.
Thank you to the church members for welcoming us! Everyone enjoyed the enthusiastic singing and wonderful preaching from Pastor Larson! (The cookies and coffee after the service were much-appreciated as well.)

The bus ride from Geneva to Taizé was 2.5 hours – enough time for some participants to nap after a late night on Saturday! I planned to catch up on my journal-writing, but spent the entire ride taking in the beautiful French countryside.
I had no idea what to expect from Taizé. Actually, neither did anyone else! When we arrived around 5 PM, we were given responsibilities for the week (every visitor is assigned a task to help keep Taizé running smoothly – I worked at the canteen, Oyak, with Bridget), assigned to a dormitory, and given some leaflets to read.
According to the schedule we were given, a typical day at Taizé looked like this:
8:15 am morning prayer followed by breakfast
10 am Bible Study for 15-16 and 17-19 year-olds
12:20 pm midday prayer followed by lunch
2 pm song practice (optional)
3:15 pm Bible Study for 20-29 year-olds
5:15 pm snack
5:45 pm workshops (led by Taizé brothers)
7 pm supper
8:30 pm evening prayer

We also learned that our group would be separated into the under-30s and over-30s (the “adults” or the “old people,” depending on who you asked), with separate living areas and Bible study times. It’s understandable – different age groups have different needs and preferences – but disappointing. Most of the participants had only known each other for four days at this point, so we ended up becoming a lot closer with people in our own age group. However, we still saw each other at free times and sat together during worship all week.

Food area in Taizé

Food area in Taizé

- Hannah Shirtliff

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The World Council of Churches Assembly

During our visit to the WCC, we learned that the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches will take place from October 30th to November 8th, 2013, in Busan, South Korea. An assembly is held every seven to eight years as a chance for the governing body to meet with all of the member churches. 825 delegates and up to several thousand volunteers and observers will come to the assembly to set the path of the WCC for the next seven years.
“The assembly has the mandate to set the future agenda of the council, to elect governance officials and to speak with a public voice on behalf of the churches. It is also a unique moment for the whole fellowship of member churches to come together in prayer and celebration.”
The theme this year is “God of life, lead us to justice and peace.”
A unique aspect of this assembly, and why I wanted to highlight it in this blog, is that all decisions at the assembly are made by consensus. This will be the second assembly to operate on this principle, after members of smaller churches and denominations proposed it. It was adopted because members realized that getting “fifty percent plus one” agreement on a decision was not a great model for Christian decision-making. According to Ms. Klakach, using consensus has changed how people talk and listen to each other. While there are a lot of challenges associated with consensus-based decision-making, the WCC has been able to make it work for the past seven years.

Discussion Time: Does your church or workplace make decisions by consensus? Why or why not? Could it work?

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