Thursday, 24 September 2009

Taizé Silence

La Tuilerie Website

One of the underpinning concepts of Taizé is the use of silence. Each monastic community has a Rule, which is in fact a set of rules by which the community lives. In the Taizé Rule (which is called “The Parable of Community”) Frère Roger wrote that the brothers should "keep inner silence always”. In the world we live in today there is so much noise and distraction from without and within and he saw the use of “external” silence as the means to achieve “inner” silence and it is this inner silence that "makes possible our conversation with God."

There are special houses in Taizé for those who want to spend a whole week in silent contemplation, where no word is spoken even around the meal table. The people choosing this type of week only leave the house for the three services a day where they can sing along with the rest, but in principle not one spoken word will pass their lips while they are in Taizé. In the morning a monk or nun will give an explanation of the Bible reading for the day. This is not a discussion, it is merely to give a basis for the day’s contemplation. This type of week is not for the faint-hearted but it enables these people to come to rest, to give them a different and profound experience and to hopefully find that inner silence Frère Roger believed we should all aspire to.

For those seeking silence in smaller doses, there is the old Romanesque church in the village, around the St Etienne well and most of the time there is a room available so that you can spend your mealtimes in silence. Even if you don’t make use of these possibilities, everyone will experience silence during their time at Taizé because silence is an important part of the three daily services.

The first time I experienced the silence was a very strange feeling. There is no clue that the silence is about to start, the prayers stop, no singing starts and silence falls. If you walk around Taizé during the day, there is always chatter and laughter of the thousands of youngsters who are there, but when the silence falls in the church every one of those people is quiet. That could be up to twelve thousand on a Sunday morning and all you hear is an occasional cough but further there is just an enveloping blanket of silence. It seems to go on for ever and not wearing a watch I had no idea how long it was, but my guess was about 5 minutes. The silence is broken by a lone monk whose task it is the bring the congregation back to singing.

I have read many stories of Taizé experiences and the length of the silence seems to cause a lot of discussion. After my original estimate of five minutes, I was perfectly satisfied and never gave it any more thought. But I have been intrigued by others’ experiences and interestingly many believe that the silence is 10 minutes and I read one account where the writer stated that the silence was 20 minutes.

This summer one of our campers was a person who had lived as a volunteer in the community for two years when she was in her twenties. She was returning to show hers kids and her husband the place she had spent so much time. She was telling me of a time when she went to a “Taizé” service near her home town in The Netherlands. Along with the singing there was of course silence. One of the participants was given the responsibility of timing the silence to ensure that it was exactly 7 minutes. The organisers had been to Taizé that summer and had used a stopwatch to time the silence during a service and this information had been brought home with them to ensure that the “rules” were followed correctly. This story amused me intensely as when I took my parents to a service, having warned them that there was a long silence, my Father timed it and agreed that my 5 minute estimate was correct. But it irritated our camper and she never went back for another service at that church and I understand now that she was right, these people had missed the point entirely.

The truth of the matter is that the silence varies in length at every service, the monk responsible for breaking that silence uses his own inner clock to know when to break. Also each individual in the congregation will experience a longer or a shorter silence depending on how restless he or she is inside. Sometimes 2 minutes is too long to be silent and sometimes 20 minutes is not long enough. If you experience the silence as too long, it is because your inner noise is too loud and you are a long way from reaching “inner silence”. So it is not the length of silence that is important, it is the process of silence in itself that matters so that we can all strive to find that “small voice within” which only emerges when we have inner silence and which has, since ancient times, been one of man’s goals no matter what his religion.

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