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Catholic Vancouver Dec. 19, 2018

Taizé prayer ‘like spiritual open-heart surgery’  

By Alicia Ambrosio

The sung prayers, candle light, and silence of a Taizé prayer service work together to help bring people into a calm, meditative state that points to Christ. (Alicia Ambrosio photos)

It’s nearly 8 p.m. on a Wednesday night, and St. Augustine’s Church on Vancouver’s west side looks like it might be closed for the evening, but people are wandering in and not coming out.

Stepping inside, the church is in semi-darkness. Yet there are people scattered among the pews. They sit in silence, waiting.

A large wooden cross and two icons have been placed at the foot of the altar. Candles sit on the floor of the sanctuary around the cross and icons. Some people are sitting quietly on folding chairs in front of the cross or in pews further back.

Without any announcements or explanations, a pianist begins playing in the corner of the church and a lone voice starts singing “Bless the Lord my soul, and bless God’s holy name, bless the Lord my soul, who leads me into life,” set to a simple melody that repeats.

Some of the people seated in the church join in. The sanctuary is soon filled with the sound of voices coming together. When the song ends there is silence.

This is Taizé prayer. It is unique, using short, simple songs punctuated by periods of silence, with short Scripture passages, psalms, or intentions.

It’s a style of prayer that was developed by the Taizé community, a Christian monastic community in Taizé, France. It was intended to be a meditative, quieting prayer that all Christians can take part in.

Originally aimed at young people, Catholics of all ages around the world have taken to Taizé prayer and incorporate it into their spiritual lives. Like many of those Catholics, Nancy Thome says Taizé prayer allows “my brain to stop chattering and be totally present for Jesus.”

Thome was introduced to Taizé prayer when she became Catholic in 2017. Though she is a relatively new parishioner at St. Augustine’s, she was frequenting the Kitsilano church long before that. She said she was searching for answers and felt that somehow St. Augustine’s was the right place to search. “I’d sneak in and out” to pray and sit in silence, she said. Eventually Thome felt the Holy Spirit urging her to “just keep saying yes.”

She went through RCIA, received the sacraments of initiation, and became a parishioner. The very last RCIA session Thome attended after receiving her sacraments was a Taizé prayer evening.

Agnes Tao, the parish RCIA coordinator, said she decided to end the RCIA journey with Taizé prayer because she wanted to give the new Catholics a chance to experience first-hand everything they had been taught in their classes.

After learning about Jesus and the Catholic faith for months, that last session was an eye opener for Thome. She remembers feeling, “it’s like Jesus is right (here) … it touches your heart.”

“There are no questions in this, just presence,” Thome said.

Joanne Rowland, a fellow parishioner at St. Augustine’s, is also a new Catholic who learned of Taizé prayer in her RCIA class. She took to the prayer immediately and started coming regularly once the parish made Taizé prayer a monthly event.

“If God’s trying to speak to you, that’s where he can, because the mind is quiet,” Rowland said.

That was exactly what Tao was hoping for when she introduced Taizé prayer to the RCIA students at the parish. “I wanted to give candidates an experience of ways to pray other than set prayer … to experience different ways to connect with Christ,” she said.

Tao first encountered Taizé prayer at a congress for catechists and was “totally inspired” by it. That encounter with Taizé prayer “left a deep impression.”

Back at St. Augustine’s, Tao approached the pastor, Father Andrew Stendzina, OMI, about incorporating Taizé prayer into the RCIA program. Father Stendzina knew of Taizé prayer from his formation in Europe and supported Tao’s idea to introduce it to the RCIA class.

The response was positive. When Tao wanted to use Taizé prayer again at the end of the next year’s RCIA program, Father Stendzina encouraged her to open it up to the whole parish. In May 2018 Tao and her team of volunteers held the first Taizé prayer evening open to the whole parish. 

“The response was phenomenal,” said Tao. Throughout the summer she noticed people attending regularly who she had never seen at the parish before.

The sung prayers, the candle light, and silence work together to help bring people into a calm, meditative state that points to Christ and “puts people in touch with Jesus and the Holy Spirit,” said Tao.

For her part Thome says taking part in Taizé’ prayer is like “spiritual open-heart surgery,” and its impact is real. “I know I’m much happier doing this,” she said.

Taizé prayer services are held on the second Wednesday of each month from 7:45 p.m. to 9 p.m.