Learning the Ancient Rhythms of Prayer
The place was overcrowded and noisy, and the food was unimpressive. Meals and meetings were held outside or in tents, depending on the weather. Visitors slept (and many snored loudly) in tents and overcrowded barracks. One had to stand in long lines (often up to 30 minutes) for everything, especially food. It hardly seemed like a setting for meaningful prayer, but my visit to Taizé turned out to be one of the most spiritually meaningful weeks of my life.
And not just for me. During the hot July week when I visited, Taizé welcomed more than 4,500 pilgrims, mostly young adults, from many denominations and from 60 nations (including a thousand from Eastern Europe). Summer weeks typically see between 2,500 and 6,000 visitors, with a total of 100,000 each year—although Taizé is off the beaten path (in France's Burgundy region, midway between Lyons and Geneva).
What attracts so many to this place? When George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, brought 1,000 youth in 1992, he was struck at how evangelicals, Catholics, and charismatics all felt at home. But the primary reason people flock to Taizé is the prayer and worship. "When you ask at the end of a week what they most appreciated. … seven, eight, nine times out of ten they'll say it's prayer, that they found something there," says Taizé Brother Jean-Marie, a native New Yorker.
Yet it's a unique form of prayer that attracts; Taizé leaders call it "common prayer" and other Christian leaders call it the "the daily office," from the Latin officium meaning "duty" or "responsibility." This type of prayer brings people of all Christian traditions not only to France but also to increasingly popular prayer communities in England and Scotland, communities that structure their life together around the daily office.
I recently had the opportunity to visit such communities at Lindisfarne, Iona, Taizé, and Northumbria, and I discovered that people of all denominations and no denomination have a continuing and lively interest in a Christianity that relies on the ancient tradition of common prayer.
The term daily office refers to a variety of services of set prayers and readings that are said together through the day; in some places, this can add up to seven services a day. It is also variously called the liturgy of the hours, morning and evening prayer, or common prayer. As a practice it goes back not only to the early church but even to the Old Testament (see "The Rise and Fall of the Daily Office").
This pre-Reformation form of spirituality is now attracting attention in many quarters, including publishing houses. Note especially the unexpected success of Kathleen Norris's The Cloister Walk (Riverhead, 1996) and of the recording Chant by cloistered Benedictine monks in Spain. Intriguing literary variations on the office crowd bookstore shelves: Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy have translated Rainer Maria Rilke's poetic Book of Hours (Riverhead, 1996) and Phil Cousineau has edited a contemplative book called The Soul Aflame: A Modern Book of Hours (Raincoast Books, 2000). Bestselling author Gail Godwin's novel about an Episcopal priest not only reflects regularly on the office but also refers to it in the title, Evensong (Ballantine, 1999). Suzanne Guthrie reflects on the office in Praying the Hours (Cowley, 2000).
Even my own Mennonite tradition is republishing old prayer books in spiffy volumes: Prayer Book for Earnest Christians (Herald, 1997) and Golden Apples in Silver Bowls (Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, 1999), both edited by Leonard Gross. More than half a dozen noteworthy office books have been published within the last year alone, including Robert Benson's Venite: A Book of Daily Prayer (Tarcher/Putnam, 2000) and Robert Webber's The Prymer: The Prayer Book of the Medieval Era Adapted for Contemporary Use (Paraclete, 2000). Of all the new books, the most noteworthy is a three-volume office, The Divine Hours, edited by Phyllis Tickle (Doubleday, 2000).