I’m into the third week of my program here at San Francisco Theological Seminary and I am thinking about many things…but most of all, trees and Taize. Just indulge me, for a moment.
As a traveler, I always do the best I can to experience the place I am visiting, so of course I have devoted any spare moment to exploration. I spent hours in the beautiful Sonoma Valley and the Russian River Valley and last weekend I visited the Sonoma coast; but what touches my imagination and my spirit most is, well, the trees.
Redwoods, that is. The big trees. I first visited Muir Woods 15 years ago and those trees have lived on in my memory as magnificent creations of God and guardians of a history that individual human beings simply cannot span. So I visited Muir Woods again on this trip, on our mid-program Sabbath afternoon. This last weekend, however, while touring the wine country’s outer reaches, I stopped at the Armstrong Woods Reserve Park.
The two experiences were polar opposites. Muir Woods, beautiful, with beautiful easy paths and boardwalks, a cafe and a gift shop, was also full of tourists from all over the world — tourists who failed to read the sign requesting “quiet” as you enter the forest. It is, for me, impossible to experience these redwood giants without a sense of reverence, even in the midst of French tourists jumping over the boundary line clearly marked with a “Stay on the Path” sign so that they could stand next to the tree for a better picture, so the experience was still a wonderful one.
Armstrong Woods, however, that much further from San Francisco and therefore not subjected to Grey Line tours advertising “Muir Woods and Sausalito,” provided a true experience of mystery. In an early morning fog and mist, I approached the entrance to the park. It was deserted — only two cars in the parking lot, no one at the ranger station. After studying the trail map, I decided that it was okay to continue into the park and began my walk along the Pioneer Trail. And as I wandered deeper and deeper into the mist and the trees and the lichen-covered logs that form the forest floor, from deep inside me something began to take shape.
A song. A song from chapel during these past weeks. A song in the style of Taize; a song quoting from the wonderful text of Psalm 1:
Water our lives with ever-flowing streams of your grace
Bear in our lives, creating God, the living fruits of your love
(Text: Andrew Dreitcer, from Psalm 1:3, music Stephen Iverson)
And as I wandered the paths of the reserve, stopping to stand before trees that had lived in that place for more than 1400 years, trees that had lived with the indigenous people and watched the change of power to those coming from European cultures, trees once threatened and now adored, trees that had stood almost as long as the church that is the institution of our faith on this earth, the song grew inside me and raised in me that feeling of the mystery of all things that is, for me, the experience of the presence of my God.
That, my friends, I now know is the living power of the worship style known as Taize. I have long known some of the music of Taize; I have read about the place and the ideas behind the worship. I have never had the opportunity to worship in this method, twice daily, for an extended period of time. And now I know that, just as I suspected, Taize uses the power of music as I have always believed it existed:
Singing is one of the most essential elements of worship. Short songs, repeated again and again, give it a meditative character. Using just a few words they express a basic reality of faith, quickly grasped by the mind. As the words are sung over many times, this reality gradually penetrates the whole being. Meditative singing thus becomes a way of listening to God. It allows everyone to take part in a time of prayer together and to remain together in attentive waiting on God, without having to fix the length of time too exactly.
To open the gates of trust in God, nothing can replace the beauty of human voices united in song. This beauty can give us a glimpse of “heaven’s joy on earth,” as Eastern Christians put it. And an inner life begins to blossom within us.
These songs also sustain personal prayer. Through them, little by little, our being finds an inner unity in God. They can continue in the silence of our hearts when we are at work, speaking with others or resting. In this way prayer and daily life are united. They allow us to keep on praying even when we are unaware of it, in the silence of our hearts (Taize Community).
Most of all, worship in the style of Taize provides me with something that I have been crying out for: it allows (and requires) my participation; it protects and demands my agency as a member of the community. Lately, much worship has seemed dogmatic to me, a series of so-called professionals “telling” me how to worship, what to worship, what to do — what I have come to call the “God through the eye-dropper” affect. I have become increasing unable to tolerate such worship; it is not an experience of God for me. It is certainly not the “work of the people,” that to-the-point translation of the word liturgy from the language of its origins.
Taize is indeed the work of the people; without the people it does not exist. And that morning, among the tall trees, the song became a prayer and became part of me and the forest and all that was. I was changed at a fundamental level by the act of singing, not there, but in chapel. The song had, for me, become not a song but a practice, an experience of God.
Robert Wuthnow, in his book about religion in the United States from 1950 to the present (After Heaven), gives me clear language for this change that I have been going through, the change that came to life and became my own in the redwood forest. He defines three models for American spirituality: the spirituality of dwelling, which is all about habitation and is placed-dependent and leads to the idea that the community is all-important and provides the answer to all questions of faith, serving up to its members a curated experience of God; the spirituality of seeking, which led to the expansion of the evangelical and Pentecostal movements as well as any other movement that encourages the individual to seek their own way to God without the aid of others; and finally, the spirituality of practice, which combines many of the ways to God experienced by those who are seeking but combines it with a greater sense of discipline AND eliminates the idea that alone, in our room, without others, is the best way to encounter God. In a spirituality of practice, the agency of the individual is retained; the importance of the individual experience of God is emphasized; and the simple fact that, as suggested in Matthew 18:20, we cannot experience any of this without the presence of others, is fundamental.
Taize is just such a practice. Spiritual direction is just such a practice. For me, music is such a practice. Study is such a practice. Walking among the trees became such a practice on this trip. I think, that in my life, it might be time to change that old musician’s joke about Carnegie Hall. How about:
Q: How does one experience the presence of God?
A: Practice, practice, practice.
Sorry, I couldn’t resist. Practice requires participation and at the same time it acknowledges that the answers are within and that those answers are best revealed in the presence of others. That sounds like worship to me. That, and a long walk among the worlds tallest trees.