Traveling to Taizé
by Chelsea Jaeger
In the tiny French village of Ameugny, simple stucco houses nestle in rolling green pastures. Mild sunshine and a gentle breeze create the perfect conditions for an aimless amble through the countryside. Flowers are everywhere. Private gardens here have beautiful, formal layouts, carefully manicured by attentive homeowners. Outside the hundreds-of-years old stone borders there is a wilder beauty, with poppies dotting expansive wheat fields, ivy climbing recklessly, and tiny wildflowers blooming to form carpets of pink and purple along a narrow road.
While on a weeklong pilgrimage to Taizé last spring, I was struck by the complementary nature of these versions of beauty: the tame and the wild. Just when I thought one was more lovely, I’d gain new appreciation for the other. Life at the nearby community of Taizé reflected this same analogy. Our routine was a balance of a strict, contemplative monastic lifestyle and the freedom of summer camp. Each provided me with space to find both stillness and silence.
Songs, deep listening
After just a few days, the schedule at Taizé became routine. Majestic bells sounded morning, noon and night, calling everyone to the Church of Reconciliation. The 100 brothers who make up the ecumenical monastic community would process into the church in long, white robes to sit in the middle of an enormous sanctuary. Visitors sat on the ground or on tiny prayer stools, soaking in the experience from a position of humility.
Inside the church, we sang simple songs in a half-dozen languages, listened to a brief Bible passage and spent 10 minutes in silent prayer or sitting meditation. While the Church of Reconciliation can accommodate up to 3,000 pilgrims at one time, only the first third of the sanctuary was open for our week—an anomaly, with only 300 pilgrims.
Every day we had three sessions of prayer time, small group discussions, simple (and sometimes balanced) meals, and an assigned chore each person had to complete to keep the community clean and functioning. The rest of our time was to be used as an individual retreat, in whatever form each of us felt was most needed. I spent hours in meditation, walking without purpose through the French countryside, writing as a means of prayer and reflection, and engaging in a practice of deep listening when I conversed with young people from all over Europe.
While these practices seemed normal during my week in Taizé, friends from back home had given me strange looks when I told them that my primary purpose for traveling to France would be a spiritual retreat in a tiny, unheard-of town in the middle of nowhere. It seemed to be the equivalent of a first-time tourist to the United States choosing to visit a cornfield in the middle of Kansas.Chelsea Jaeger grew up attending Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Menomonee Falls, Wis. She earned a B.S. in Public Health from Saint Louis (Mo.) University, and spent a year working as an HIV health promoter and practicing a ministry of accompaniment in Guayaquil, Ecuador. She now works with people in recovery from substance abuse in St. Louis.
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