BRIDGE TO MINISTRY: A WEEK OF SILENCE AND SERVICE IN THE TAIZÉ COMMUNITY
BY KELLEN A. SMITH
If I were a scriptwriter, I could not have written a more meaningful close to my seminary story. My Princeton Seminary formation concluded with a weeklong travel course to the Taizé community in France. I was particularly drawn to this opportunity because of my involvement in leading services in the style of Taizé in Miller Chapel during my time at Princeton. Having first been introduced to Taizé, an ecumenical monastic community in the Burgundy region of France, by a pastor in my home congregation in Delray Beach, Florida, I had awaited the chance to experience this community firsthand.
Professor Bo Karen Lee, our faculty mentor for this study trip, led our group of six seminary “pilgrims.” Preparation for the trip included spending several days with Jason Santos, a PTS doctoral candidate who wrote an excellent overview of Taizé.
Taizé has become a pilgrimage site for tens of thousands of people each year, especially young people. A Swiss pastor, Brother Roger, started the community in the 1940s and was its leader until his death in 2005. The Brothers of Taizé also venture beyond France to organize gatherings for young people around the world.
A day at Taizé is ordered by three prayer services—morning, midday and evening—in the Church of Reconciliation. During these services, pilgrims join the Brothers of Taizé in meditative singing from the Taizé prayer books. These inspired songs are what Taizé has become most beloved for around the globe.
While at Taizé, I felt called by God to choose the unique experience of spending the week in silence. This meant that I would join a small group of other pilgrims staying in the quiet and quaint village of Taizé in a house near the main grounds. The accommodations were simple and comfortable, providing a private room to be fully immersed in the gift of silence.
Spending a week in silence may not immediately sound like the kind of experience to put at the top of your bucket list. Yet this experience was so formational, I would not hesitate to do it again. It was initially challenging to allow my mind to become quiet and my spirit to settle, but after the first few days, my rhythm became one of great joy in silence. I would spend the morning reading scripture and in the afternoon, I would take time for personal prayer, enjoy a holy nap, and walk through the beautiful French countryside. While the days themselves seemed to pass slowly, the week went by very quickly.
Besides the inspiring prayer services, a poignant part of my week was sitting at the table and sharing meals with my fellow pilgrims. We gathered for meals in a beautiful common room that overlooked the hills of Burgundy. As each meal began, the aroma of freshly peeled tangerines filled the room. The only spoken words that broke the silent fellowship were the Taizé prayers we sang before eating. Each face around the table was of a different nationality—French, German, American, and others. As we served each other in the sacred silence, the real blessing was that we spoke the common language of service to one another. In these moments at mealtime, it was as if I were joining Jesus and the disciples at the table of servanthood.
During the afternoon, I regularly took a walk to a pond beside a wooded area where pilgrims spend time in silent reflection. The sounds of a gently flowing waterfall and migrating waterfowl provided a natural soundtrack. I often walked across a bridge at the far end of the pond. I saw this bridge as a metaphor for the point in life at which I found myself. Having served in ministry before seminary, my time at Taizé helped me to reflect on both where I had been and where I was going in ordained ministry. Shortly after returning from Taizé, I began my call as associate pastor for youth, their families, and college ministries at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church in suburban Philadelphia. My bridge to ministry was built upon three years of rich theological education and the blessing of a prayerful week at Taizé.
As I have reflected on my time in silence at Taizé and my ministry with students and parents, I am reminded of the value of listening. At Taizé I deeply realized that I have as much to learn from listening as I have to share when speaking. As a pastor, I now seek to further practice a gospel of listening in my ministry. This means being in relationships with others that allow space for them to speak about what is on their hearts and minds. In that space for listening, the good news of God’s abundant love is invited and shared.
Love, devotion, and generosity ultimately made this experience possible for our PTS group. This pilgrimage to Taizé was supported by a generous grant from the FISH Foundation. We returned with full hearts and gratitude for all those in the PTS community who helped to arrange this wonderful opportunity. The journey to Taizé reveals a glimpse into the kingdom of God on earth. Taizé is truly a sacred place where the love of God is known and shared. The spirit of Brother Roger lives on, and his words echo in the Church of Reconciliation, when he wrote for all time that, “God is love, and love alone.”
Kellen Smith graduated from Princeton Seminary in May 2011 and serves as associate pastor at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.