Contemplative Peace


Wednesday, 7:25 PM. On the sidewalk, I waited for the light to change, about a block from the entrance to the Episcopal Church. A woman walking in the same general direction as I was stood there at the intersection next to me, holding a conversation with no one in particular, at least no one who was visible to the naked eye. In the city, you get used to people who do that.

When I entered the church, the evening light shone through the stained glass from outside, and when I picked up the program, I considered not taking a candle with me to my seat. It seemed pointless, since, this time of year, when the days are long, I could read the service program perfectly well without the aid of one; but after some hesitation, I took one anyway. I somehow felt that doing so was a way of honoring the process, or at least a way of committing myself to it. I started sniffing and realized I wanted to blow my nose, but when I took out the tissue and started to do so, the noise echoed in the cavernous chapel. The pianist way up at the front was playing a prelude that filled the building, but still, I was sure that everyone inside could hear the noise I was making. I didn't want to draw attention to myself, so I stepped outside for a moment. Then I went in and sat down.

I still had a few minutes to kill, so I picked up a copy of the Book of Common Prayer from the back of the pew in front of me, and flipped through its pages. I read through the catechism, and read about baptism and the Eucharist and what the difference was between a sacrament and a sacramental rite. Most of what I read didn't particularly resonate with me. My train of thought was interrupted as I heard the speaker begin to read the opening words from the program. I put the book away and began to listen.

One of the first chants, sung magnificently, was in Latin. A woman sitting almost directly behind me made a comment about the chant. I realized that this was the same woman I had seen on the street. I then got up and moved to a pew across the aisle.

I felt like I had done something bad in a way, but I didn't want my contemplative experience interrupted by someone making inappropriate comments in the middle of my own reverie. I worried briefly that I would still be able to hear her speaking from my new seat, but if she spoke again, I never heard her. In my new location, a young couple was sitting in front of me. The woman of the couple sang audibly and clearly along with the chants. Usually, you don't hear the rest of the congregation singing very audibly; people generally sing the chants quietly, if for no other reason than because the cantor sings so magnificently you really want to hear her instead of the congregation. But the woman in front of me also had a nice voice. I sang along with the chants, too, but quietly; I was embarrassed that anyone would notice what a terrible singer I was.

Because this is an Episcopalian church, the Taize service naturally has to have a climactic element. However, instead of the Eucharist, as in ordinary Episcopalian services, the climax instead is the "veneration of the cross". This consists of a period of three sung chants, during which time people who want to can come up and light a candle and place it on a cross that lies on the floor. Many people do that, and then kneel there and pray for a while. However, this is a purely optional activity, and many others stay seated and simply participate in the chants from the pews. I myself am one of those who always stays seated.

Although normally, the veneration of the cross is supposed to happen after the 10 minute period of silence, on this night, for some reason, some individuals started going up during the silence. One of the people who did so was the woman who had been sitting behind me. As I watched her and considered the sincerity and the meaning that this activity gave her, I felt ashamed of myself for having moved away from her.

But this was a time for communion with a forgiving God, and the shame passed. I felt God's peace settling in.

It is hard to know exactly when this feeling of calm arrives. It is a gradual process during the early part of the service. However, there is no question that the ten minutes of silence accelerate the process that had already begun. What precedes the silence is a kind of preparatory exercise, I think. For me, then, the climax of the Taize experience is not the veneration of the cross, which the most explicitly Christian part of what is frequently a somewhat eclectic service, but rather the silent meditation. By the time the meditation ends, I feel much more at peace with the world.

I sometimes recite mantras to myself during the meditation, but this night I didn't feel like it. Maybe all the little acts of disorder was responsible for that: a woman speaking to no one, or various people going up to the cross at an unexpectedly early point in time. Even sitting behind that couple and hearing the woman sing so clearly was a kind of disruption of the usual Taize experience for me. So instead of mantras, I just sat there and took in the beauty of the church. The Quaker in my should despise ostentatious church buildings, but in fact I don't. Just the opposite. I looked around and took in the scene in a way that I couldn't do during the winter months when it was dark. In my contemplative state, I felt attuned to the depths of the church. Colors seemed more colorful, and depths seemed deeper. I pondered God as the Ultimate depth that underlay everything.

By the time we recited the version of the Lord's prayer that is used in the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer (a wonderfully inclusive version), I felt slightly more ready to face the world than I did when the service started. After the final chants, no one seemed to want to get out of their pews. They just sat there for a while.

As I walked out the door, the man who leads the service gave me a friendly greeting. He probably recognizes me by now, although we've never spoken other than exchanging greetings. The service is lay-led, and the rector is usually not present, but on this evening he came by at the end and was also standing near the door. He said hello to me as well. And then I walked out into the San Francisco dusk.


Stushie said...

I think you were touched by the Holy Spirit...nice when that happens, isn't it?