My brain has never been more exhausted. And my heart has never been more full.
I spent a week as part of the Taizé Community this summer. It’s an ecumenical community in southeastern France, established during World War II to promote peace and reconciliation. The community has welcomed young adults for much of its history, and currently hosts up to 5,000 young people each week. They come from all of the different European countries, and from the US and other countries across the globe. They stay in simple dormitories or tents, eat meager vegetarian meals, study the Bible together in small groups, and attend prayer services three times each day, sometimes staying in the church ’til midnight or later, singing the songs of Taizé.
The brilliance of these gatherings is that people are coming with a multitude of different languages. Many speak French or German, in addition to their native tongue, and some speak 4 or even 5 languages, because of the variety of cultures scattered throughout their home country. The brothers of Taizé lead a Bible teaching session each morning, in English. And each language group gathers together around one of their own, the person nominated to be translator for the day. For small group discussion, participants can choose a group of people who speak their own language or branch out to an English-speaking group where there might be more variety in backgrounds.
As an English-only speaker (more about that embarrassment later) I was blessed to be in a group with people from the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. I learned to speak slower so that I could be understood, and to have more patience during discussions so that others would have time to formulate their response in their head, and then translate it into English to be spoken. I learned so much: how faith has guided a new generation in the Czech Republic as they knit their country back together after two generations of communist oppression. I have a new respect for the internal conflict of someone who lives and banks in Switzerland among powerful institutions that are at the center of worldwide greed. I grew in my respect for small nations like the Netherlands and the way they care for the least of their citizens, and how they’re inspiring the next generation to lead.
In addition to this multi-lingual, multi-cultural experience at Bible study and small group time, I also experienced the brain-straining cacophony of meal times. People gathered with the friends they had traveled with, or grouped together with new friends from their home country. Conversations were happening simultaneously in French, German, Dutch, Spanish (Castellano) and Català, Italian, Czech, Swedish, Hungarian, and just a few, in English. I was amazed at the skill of most of my new friends, who could slip in and out of their native language and invite me into a conversation in English without missing a beat. And I discovered a new motivation for learning another language as I tried to get to know people whose language I didn’t speak, and who didn’t speak English. I was less self-conscious and braver about using my meager Spanish because I wanted to get to know an interesting older couple from northern Spain. Their English was about the same level as my Spanish, and we honored each other by trying out words and phrases in each of our languages (combined, of course, with ever-helpful hand gestures and facial expressions!)
The cacophony didn’t just stop at dinner time, though. The multitude of languages is at the heart of worship for Taizé. At Morning Prayer, Mid-day Prayer, and Evening Prayer, the services were filled with songs in multiple languages: French, German, Spanish, Polish, Latin, Czech, Italian, English. The short Scripture reading was done first in French, then in English, and then in a cascade of different languages at each service. The spoken prayers were always given in multiple languages, too, and as the week unfolded, I discovered that I could lose myself in the sounds of other tongues, knowing that we were all praying together.
I began to memorize the songs that formed the core of our prayer services, at first just stringing syllables together, and soon enough being able to pay attention to the English translations so I would have an understanding of the different words and their meanings. I always sat next to different people for the prayer services, and so I improved my pronunciation depending on the native language of those around me. Prayer services began to represent the beauty of the entire experience of Taizé: many people from many languages joining together to seek God’s presence. We were singing Our Songs.
But just as it was powerful to experience the multitude of languages, I saw firsthand the power of hearing your native tongue in worship. One of my roommates and fast friends that week was Marta from Barcelona, a city with a proud independent heritage apart from Spain, with its own language: Català. In the early part of the week, we had sung several songs in Spanish – Castellano, to be exact. But it wasn’t until we sang a song in Català that Marta felt at home. I wasn’t educated enough to know the difference between the languages, but my heart could feel the wave of emotion she was experiencing. Tears were trickling down her cheeks at the end of the service when she told me, “That was my song.” Although she had been wholeheartedly joining in the singing of all the songs during the prayer services, at that moment, she felt personally invited into the worship. It was her language. It was her heart. It was Her Song.
We have a continuing conversation in the US in our Anglo churches about how to reach out to the Latino community. And somehow, we are still wondering whether, as pastors and as church leaders, we really need to learn how to speak and lead worship in Spanish. But one thing Taizé taught me is this: a multitude of languages reminds us that our differences come from God, and hearing our own language reminds us that we are each made in God’s image. Worship is both Our Song and My Song. Faith is a language of the heart. Let’s give our welcome in a language of the heart, too.