I was first introduced to Taize chants – and it was this one, in fact – in a fairly unusual setting. In 1988 I attended a weekend conference on ‘The Early Church’ run by the London Mennonite Centre and held at their lovely place in Highgate. The directors of the centre, Alan and Eleanor Kreider led the teaching (in the most collaborative manner I’d ever seen, incidentally) and also led the worship – which was low-key in some ways, but consisted of a few songs unfamiliar to me, most of which were apparently based on first or second century hymns, of course. Eleanor Kreider has actually written a couple of books about worship, and how to ‘put it together’; she is keen to see us drawing on diverse traditions so that we compile rich, colourful worship experiences. And anyway, they included this Taize chant in the mix.
I’d never heard of Taize. I knew nothing. But this was something different for me: the novelty, perhaps, of singing in Latin, but the ‘release’ of it, too – singing a simple encouragement/truth/ affirmation/acclamation (Trust in the Lord who is good – Alleluia) repetitiously, quietly, insistently without histrionics. Even then I’d read enough Merton and Nouwen to be familiar with the idea of prayer ‘descending from the mouth to the heart’ and I felt that this kind of chant was another way to help this happen.
I was well aware, too, I think, that some of my fellow believers would roll their eyes at this kind of thing and consider that it was just a way for Christians to do a bit of suspect mind-emptying, a bit of transcendental ‘om’ing, for the sheer brainless trendiness of it. But oh no no no, it felt far more substantial a form of worship-vehicle than that. So I persisted and explored.
I was very excited to get my first Taize cassette tape (containing this song, in fact) from the Catholic bookshop in Cardiff. My developmentally challenged friend Dean Anthony Paul Lloyd was with me, and, looking back – I feel sorry for him having to listen to repetitious Latin chants all the way home in the car. In fact, while we’re at it, I really need to issue a broader apology – to Sue, to the kids, to anyone who shared a car with me in the heady days of that new enthusiasm. What for me was a moving worship experience might well have seemed an interminably monotonous piece of pseudo-religiosity to them, and in no sense appropriate driving music! OK now and sadly only now, I’m aware of how insensitive and selfish I was – sorry guys, and tell your psychoanalysts I’m sorry too.
One revelation, for me, of the recordings on the cassette, was the way that a short chant like this could live and breathe and sustain itself for (eg) ten minutes or more, through a series of ‘constructed progressions’. It was not formulaic, and differed from song to song, but it could go something like this – first few times unaccompanied four part harmonies (this sustained throughout), next couple with a bit of quiet organ, a couple with other instruments quietly bringing in a counter-melody; next time with stronger voice; then with a solo violin over the top; the next with an added flute highlighting the counter melody; then softer voices; then back to whispered unaccompanied…and suddenly you’ve sung it sixteen or seventeen times. You get the picture – there’s a certain conscious choreography effecting a cumulative intensity and – perhaps surprisingly to us Wesleyan hymnsingers – a depth of appreciation and awareness, that makes each chant more than mere ‘vain repetition’.
These days, Taize songs have ‘taken their rightful place’ in the canon of modern worship resources. Many churches have monthly ‘Taize services’ (and since we’re on the subject I’ll say a thank you to Rebecca HC who led some while they were with us) – in acknowledgement, perhaps, of the need to worship, sometimes, without the encumbrance of too much wordiness… Thank you Lord for Jacques Berthier, and for Taize and its witness and ministry. And, o my poor little song-obsessed soul ‘Trust in the Lord – who is good’. This is such a lovely song to sing…join me now..Confitemini Domino, quoniam bonus… Alleluia!