I haven't been to that many different kinds of Taizé services, but of the ones I have been to or are aware of, I have found that none of them are as satisfying for me as the one that they conduct on Wednesday nights at Trinity Episcopal in San Francisco.
I have written a few times before about some of the reflections and experiences that I have had during my attendance at these services. Among the things that I particularly like about them are the beauty of the inside of that church, the movingly wonderful singing by the cantor, the sublime melodies of the sung chants, and the contemplative peace that I derive from the ten-minute period of silence in the middle of the service.
But there is another thing that I really like about it, and this is something I haven't noticed elsewhere. I really appreciate the eclectic nature of the readings that are used. Many Taizé services in other churches include readings from the Bible, but the Taizé services at Trinity do something a little different. To begin with, while they do include a Psalm reading in each service, what they use is a non-traditional translation--either Nan Merrill's or Norman Fischer's, both of which strip out the violent imagery from what is found in many of the Psalms. In addition to the Psalm readings, however, Trinity uses a variety of diverse non-biblical spiritual texts that are read aloud. Some texts are composed specifically for the service, and others are lifted from various spiritual writings--usually from Christian sources, but not always. Since I first began attending last year, I have encountered readings in these services from Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, and once even from the Koran, just to cite a few examples. In continuing with this non-traditional approach, near the end of every service, there is a recitation of a delightful, gender-neutral and expansive version of the Lord's Prayer that comes from the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer.
This eclectic approach to spiritual literature matters a lot to me. Without that, I don't know if I would have been interested enough to want to go back. I know of another Episcopal church in San Francisco that conducts Taizé services on Thursday nights, but, from the description of the service that I have read, the readings there only come from the Bible. The same is true of a Taizé service conducted at a Presbyterian church in town. I think Trinity has set my expectations in a certain way, and I think I would find a Taizé service that only contained biblical readings to be too limiting. When I see other churches only incorporate Bible readings in theirTaizé services, I almost feel like saying, "Don't you see what Trinity does? Open up a bit! Expand your horizons!"
This is not to say that an explicitly Christian emphasis is not still a part of the services at Taizé. For one thing, many of the chants themselves are, to one degree or another, overtly Christian. And at the centerpiece of the service is the cross that lies on the floor, on which are placed several lit candles. Immediately after the ten minute period of silence late in the service, there is a period called the "Veneration of the Cross", when individuals can come up and place additional candles on the cross; many of those who do so also kneel to pray or simply to make the sign of the cross. Simultaneous with this activity, three chants are sung; in fact, the veneration is purely optional, and I for one sit in the pews and participate in the chants without getting up. The overtly Christological element of the cross veneration doesn't do anything for me, and indeed it isn't really my favorite aspect of the service; but the fact that it is optional and that it takes place during chants allows me to continue to participate in the service actively without specifically venerating the cross, although I do find myself watching those who do go up to do it. I can derive some spiritual satisfaction sometimes by observing others participate in a ritual that doesn't do anything for me personally.
I have a similar reaction when attending regular Sunday church services elsewhere when communion is offered; I usually do not partake of communion, but the fact that it does mean something to those who do participate allows me to sit there and just take in the procession of worshipers as they receive the bread and wine.
(Which reminds me of other facet of the Trinity Taizé service that, until recently, I rather liked. Taizé had been a Eucharist-free experience. I say "until recently", because there has now been a change. Now, during the veneration of the cross, the priest stands behind the cross, holding a chalice, offering communion to anyone who wants it. It doesn't break the flow of the service at all, and he stands way off in the dark front area of the church, but still, I was in a way disappointed that they felt the need to incorporate this more traditional aspect of Christian worship back into Taizé, especially since this service had been going on for many years without it. This new practice began just a week after the bishop had participated in a special version of the Taizé service; I don't know if the timing is a coincidence or not. I think part of my objection to this has to do with the fact that, as a non-Episcopalian, I don't quite grasp the central place that the Eucharist has in their conventional Sunday worship, and I felt that the lack of a Eucharist in Taizé was for me a pleasant acknowledgment that indeed you don't actually have to have a Eucharist when you worship, or at the very least this seemed like a concession to those of us who feel that way. That being said, because the sacrament is so non-obtrusively conducted, this is a minor matter in the overall scheme of things; I still really like this form of worship.)
I feel lucky in many ways that I have discovered this version of Taizé. Now that I know that not all Taizé services in other churches are like this, I try to appreciate it for its unique qualities. The service is lay-led, and at some point in the future the people currently involved in its planning and execution may move on. Nothing lasts forever, of course, and so I feel especially compelled to enjoy it while this service lasts and is available to me.
At the end of the Taizé service, I usually feel that a kind of peace has descended upon me. The service concludes usually with a closing meditation, and the finally then words are spoken by the officiant before the two last chants:
The peace of God be with you this night and evermore.Somehow those words represent for me an especially wonderful way for the officiant to close out the service. After those words are spoken, two final chants are sung. The last of these, lately, has been this one, sung in a beautiful melody:
Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and its righteousness;As I walk out into the night air after the service has ended, I sometimes find myself singing that final chant to myself on the sidewalk.
And all these things shall be added unto you. Alleluia!