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May 7, 2001

Taizé ceremony offers new worship option

By Stephanie Sonnenfeld


At 5 p.m. on Monday afternoons, the Emory campus is anything but calm, meditative or quiet.

Clifton, Briarcliff and North Decatur Roads are chock-full of cars, bikers and buses, pausing only because the lights say so. Students walk/run across the Quad, and assorted faculty and staff rush to meetings or their cars, ready to head off to the next stop in their daily lives.

This frantic pace stops at Cannon Chapel.

Inside, the chapel is silent, except for the shuffle of footsteps across the floor. Chairs are set up in a right-angled, U-shaped pattern in the middle of the room.

Late afternoon light drips through skylights, highlighting a rough wooden cross that lies in the middle of the chairs, surrounded by a dim cluster of votives.

Twig-thin candles stand in a bowl of sand on a console table that is decorated with icons of Martin Luther King Jr. and Julian of Norwich.

The last of a group of 16 or so take their seats and notes from a grand piano ring out. A deep baritone begins singing a Latin chant. Within two notes, the rest of the room begins to sing.

Emory’s weekly Taizé ceremony has begun.

Word of God and silent reflection
The French-originated Taizé ceremony (pronounced “tah-ZAY”)
is the latest worship ceremony offered to the Emory community. The Christian prayer service—held Mondays at 5 p.m. in Cannon Chapel during the school year—was introduced last fall.

While most of Emory’s Christian services remain faithful to their traditional ceremonial roots, with a clergyperson leading the ceremonies, the Taizé ceremony strays a bit—it is entirely self-guided. The service has no sermon or homily, communion or formal choir. It focuses entirely on prayer, specifically meditative prayer.

Taizé’s roots come from the town of the same name in the Burgundy region of France. In the 1940s, Swiss-born Roger Schutz founded a monastery at Taizé dedicated to a life of worship, God, the community of goods and celibacy. Its first members were French and Swiss Reformed Christians churches and were later joined by Lutherans. Some of the brothers were ordained, while others were laymen who had adopted the Taizé philosophy of life.

As the community grew, it became largely known for its style of worship, which concentrates on praying in a manner that has neither a beginning nor an end. At first glance, it’s a vague concept and one that is hard to conceptualize, ultimately something that has to be experienced.

While the Taizé ceremony lacks formal guidance, it does follow a recipe of sorts. For example, Emory’s Taizé service begins with a selection of “gathering songs,” followed by a brief welcoming and explanation of the ceremony.

Incense is lit during another song, and a Psalm pertaining to the liturgical Christian season is read. Another song is sung to introduce a period of silent reflection, followed by meditation at the cross that’s laid on the floor in the middle of the chairs. At this time, participants are invited to say the name of who they are praying for and to come forth and light a candle for him or her.

The service ends with a series of prayers (including the traditional Lord’s Prayer) and a closing song. Participants end their prayers with hugs or handshakes as a sign of peace.

The entire service lasts for a mere half-hour at most.

Prayers of the faithful
While the Taizé service is markedly different from other Christian services offered at Cannon Chapel, it’s the differences that make it a nice addition to the Emory community, said Lauren Cogswell, an assistant chaplain at Cannon.

Bringing Taizé to Emory was a joint effort by Cogswell, Matthew Berryman, a Candler graduate student, and Dean of the Chapel and Religious Life Susan Henry-Crowe.

“We wanted to add another worship service to attract more students and different groups in the community,” Cogswell said. “Having the Taizé ceremony is a good reflection upon Emory because it shows that Emory has a diverse community—religious and non-religious.”

Certainly Taizé’s brevity and its time slot make it a convenient religious option, but it’s the service’s uniqueness that has really made it something to look forward to, Henry-Crowe said.

“I find it very comforting. It’s a time that doesn’t require a lot of planning, and it’s very communal,” she said. “The service is a kind of reflection, and there is a poetic quality to it, both musically and lyrically.”

Berryman agrees with these sentiments, strongly emphasizing the communal role in the service. “The service is not about the beauty of presentation; it’s about the beauty of a shared experience of singing and prayer,” he said.

The human voice is the only necessary musical element required for the Taizé service, but Berryman is especially proud of how many of Emory’s musicians have participated in weekly Taizé ceremonies.

Some services have a piano player for accompaniment, while others have had mini-ensembles of guitars and various woodwinds. Musicians don’t have to attend formal Taizé practices since the music is very simple, Berryman said.

Musicians need only to show up Mondays at 5 p.m. Music is provided to them and other participants at the start of the ceremony.

“It’s ‘come as you are, play what you want,’” Berryman said. “It’s almost better that way.”

Going forth
Just as Taizé’s differences are its pluses, can those same differences be intimidating?

There is a noticeable awkwardness among first-timers at the ceremony, which draws a crowd of 15-to-30 each Monday, Henry-Crowe said.

“Part of this is due to the very different way of a service where there aren’t any expectations about doing anything. It’s very hard to just come and sit and ‘be,’” she said. “But if you get over that, which didn’t take so long for me, the pattern of the practice becomes very comforting.”

It’s perhaps Taizé’s “pattern of practice” that has sustained its popularity in Europe, where annual conferences draw up-wards of 100,000 and have prompted Taizé practices to be translated into 60 languages.

Maybe it’s the ceremony’s bonding of Old World music with modern simplicity that has expanded its presence to a ring of metro area churches. Or it could be the Zen-like mantras that flow through the ceremony from start to finish that makes it an appealing break from the norm that makes it appealing.

Whatever it is that makes a Taizé ceremony an attractive worship option at Emory and worldwide, it is something that should be personally experienced.

Editor’s note: The Taizé ceremony will continue through the summer, though the time may change. Call 404-727-7449 for more details.


Back to Emory Report May 7, 2001