It involves a monthly prayer-centered event in my town. It is one of the many Taizé based services that have popped up in every corner of the world now. In Georgetown, Texas, we call it the Ecumenical Service of Wholeness. And, the title says what this is: it’s a few people who get together every 4th Sunday to pray and chant for an hour, in Christ-centered meditation.
It’s not much on the surface. I mean, it’s a quaint, cramped little sanctuary in a 100 year old church, where the ministers sometimes have to sit with the congregation, and the musicians have to sit on top of each other just to catch cues. I was recruited as a flutist back in 2009, or I would have never known about it. I walked in to fill a musician’s chair. I did not expect to be captured so completely.
My first evening there, I expected to play as a featured soloist. Instead, I was handed a set of instrumental lines, and then asked to play them quietly, while other people sang a monastic chant over me. As an artist, I was snobbishly unimpressed, but something about the service tugged at me. I returned month after month, and soon I found that I could not go without it. Was it the darkness? Was it the silence? I couldn’t place it but every time I left that room, I felt as if I had just passed by a cool spring of water. It was as if God met me there and sat for an hour, just listening.
I discovered later on that the prayers and songs all come from a special place in France called Taizé. Since 2009, I have learned a great deal about the open doors and humanitarian efforts of the monks that live there. I now know enough about their prayer practices to direct the music in our services, but even with all of my experience I am delighted by something new every month.
There are some moving stories that I can tell you about the Ecumenical Service of Wholeness, but I will choose only one. It is not about the ethereal tones of the chancel musicians or the clarity of meditations from the pulpit. It is about one staff person who, until recently, I only noticed in passing. A woman named Judy always shows up to the service early. She brings two bowls to the front of the chapel and fills each with a few inches of sand. On either side, she places small, fresh candles. On a nearby stand, she lights one larger candle, and then she takes a seat. Then, after singing a few Taizé chants, worshipers are invited to light candles symbolizing their private prayers. This is Judy’s moment. Smiling, she rises to meet the procession.
It sounds simple, and for a long time, Judy was somewhat invisible to me as I performed my own duties. She was another service worker, as permanent as the pews and the pulpit. However, I watched her just yesterday, her pleasant face glowing at person after person. Her head of blonde hair bobbed up and down as her hands guided little candles to safety. Walking out with her that night, I asked her, “What goes through your mind when all of those people come to you?”
Judy said, “I just love to watch their faces. I try to imagine what might be on their minds. I think about how I can pray for them.”
See, Judy takes every candle from the two bowls with her. For the next month, in her own home, she burns the candles down, praying for the people who left them there. She never knows their names or their stories, she just prays as each candle burns to nothing.
Now I can really look at, and “see” Judy. As a music director, I interact with the human contingent of the congregation only in the abstract. Judy quietly tends to the physical symbols of our prayers, and then speaks to God about each of them personally. As I think on her, I imagine that God must love her intensely: both for her devotion, and for her love of the people. On the evenings of these services, I feel close to God. In the days afterward, I always feel as if someone kind is thinking of me. Now I know that someone is.
Every candle in Judy’s bowl is a sacred trust. She does not know their secrets, but God does. Whatever lies in them, Judy brings to God, spoken into her own prayers. This is a true lover: a woman who takes the pain of her neighbors, and burns it down.
I asked Judy one more thing last night. I said, “Judy, do you ever think you have the best job of the evening?”
“Yes!” She said, “Every time.”