It is 7 p.m. on a Thursday evening as the bells chime from the tower of Cave Hill Cemetery. The traffic pouring from East Broadway onto Baxter has slowed since rush hour, but picks up as the dining and entertainment population of the Highlands begins its ramp up for the weekend.
The gongs ripple through the haze of exhaust fumes and rise over the din of motorcycles, sirens and chatty sidewalks. Across the street, a dozen or so people climb the steps of the Episcopal Church of the Advent, past its bright red doors and into the cool, quiet embrace of the sanctuary.
The small crowd prepares to abandon their technology, stress and deadlines, and move through the sights and sounds of contemplative prayer known as Taizé.
TaizÉ (Tah-ZAY) Meditation is an elegantly simple service that offers the opportunity for quiet, personal meditation in the context of song and word. It is a time for reflection, for centering and for prayer. Though it originated at an ecumenical monastery, its format has been adapted in diverse ways for use by Christian and non-Christian communities.
This intimate experience has found its way into church programs throughout the nation, attracting people of varying ages from all walks of life, particularly young adults who are midway on their spiritual journey. Taizé services are not only offered at Church of the Advent, but also at Anamchara Faith Community in Crescent Hill, St. Paul United Methodist Church in the Highlands, and Church of the Epiphany in Anchorage, among others.
Visually speaking, to say that the Church of the Advent’s service is lovely would be an understatement. The details of art and architecture resonate in simple opulence throughout the historic church, built in 1870.
A few minutes into the service, perhaps during the recitation of Prayers of the People, my gaze drifts from the program, high up, past the dark wooden rafters, toward the winged figure in a window watching with stained glass eyes. Is he urging me to focus?
I rejoin the spoken word, and while it seems my soul was flying loose throughout this 19th century sanctuary for several unconscious moments, I haven’t missed a beat.
“Listening to the whisper of the Spirit on our hearts, we turn our thoughts into prayers for our loved ones and for our world. Let us pray.”
The cadence of the priest’s voice is gentle and the liturgy compelling. The piano follows reverently. As if lifted from a film script, an orange shaft of sunlight spills in through the northwest window. The contrast of this solar blessing in a room lit only by candles draws the gathering closer in what the Irish recognize as close of day. We are in the gloaming.
“Kyrie, kyrie eleison. Lord have mercy.”
The chants are sacred, stripped bare and accompanied by Tim Wahl, whose crystal notes on the keyboard are led by his vocals that rise and find their place in the heart.
Prayers are written and led by the priest. Needs and issues – from feeding the poor to bringing an end to the diversions and inequalities that scar God’s creation – cover as much ground on earth as it does heaven.
“Kyrie, kyrie eleison ... ” repeats in flowing chorus, each word sinking a little more deeply than the moment before.
The passages range from Thomas Merton and Walt Whitman to The Common Book of Prayer and the Book of Psalms. Several men and women take turns as cantor and pianist throughout the year, lending an archaic beauty of song to the stillness.
I feel drawn to the organic solitude of the Taizé service, though it’s difficult for me to be still. Even if my body is settled and behaving well in a quiet room, my brain is running ‘round in circles like a toddler full of chocolate.
A tap on what looks, to me, like a chakra bowl summons us to a 10-minute meditation.
The woes, demands and chaos of the week are hushed. Breathing finds a slow rhythm. Me? It takes a few minutes, but I disappear. Only those in the ground at the nearby cemetery are more at peace.
My introduction to the Episcopal Church of the Advent was through a friend in the late winter months of this year. The Thursday evening Taizé seemed like a bonus to being welcomed by the culturally diverse, warm and comfortable Advent family.
“A Village Church in the Heart of it All.” That statement essentially covers the mission of Church of the Advent. What the National Register of Historic Places lists as “the architectural and historical cornerstone of the district” is a stone building at the point of Cherokee Road and Baxter Avenue. The church is situated in a green and flowering landscape with benches and brick walkways that add to the reflective nature of the grounds.
What I know to be true is that it has also become my touchstone.
In the mode of shepherd, philosopher and community organizer, the Rev. Dr. Tim Mitchell leads and learns alongside his parishioners. A solid, tall and handsome man, whose intelligence is matched only by his humble and open nature, Mitchell is a classic example of the far-traveled Louisville native who always returns home.
Installed in April 2008, Mitchell became the 12th rector of the Episcopal Church of the Advent in Louisville.
Father Tim, as he is affectionately known, whether donned in his vestment robes for Eucharist on Sunday morning or khakis and blazer for Taizé, is always cloaked in light.
And he wears it well.
A graduate of St. Xavier High School, he received a bachelor of arts degree from Notre Dame University in 1981 and earned a doctorate of ministry from the Pacific School of Religion at Berkeley in 2005.
With a global sensibility and a passion for advocacy in an urban parish, Mitchell took a particular interest in connecting the village of Taizé with the village of Louisville’s Highlands.
He was exposed to Taizé through Trinity Episcopal Church while living in San Francisco as a clergy associate.
“I found it to be a midweek spiritual oasis, and wanted to create something similar here in Louisville,” he says. “What helps it to be a community treasure is the weekly commitment. We have it year-round, except for a summer break in August.”
Mitchell’s journey to the magnetic destination of Taizé, nestled in the Burgundy region of France, continued to impact his goals as a priest long after his return.
“I went to Taizé in France over ten years ago, and was drawn by the manifold sharing of experience of what an amazing spiritual place it was,” he says.
To create such a destination in Louisville, Mitchell blended the elements of liturgy, music, prayer and metaphor, which is visited each week.
Just as Taizé is a community in France, so is Advent in the community of the Highlands.
Maria Accardi is steadfast in her desire for the personal communion that Taizé offers. Her visit before the altar – at the foot of a large wooden cross illuminated by rows of dancing votive flames – is calm.
“For me, Taizé is a place for rest and peace, a sacred space that I look forward to each week,” she says. “I came to Taizé for the first time two years ago, not really looking for church or religion, but a place to help me feel whole and connected to mystery and wonder. And I found that there, and I was hooked.”
It took Michael Seewer a while to settle into the contemplative flow. His first Taizé service was in 2009.
“At first, I was amazed and bewildered at how different the service is. Honestly, I found the service to be difficult to sit through. I’m quite the fidgety person, and the 10 minutes of silent meditation was just excruciatingly difficult,” he says. “I continued going, and I grew to appreciate the Taizé chants we sing and the variety of prayers that come from all different kinds of sources, not just sources of the Christian tradition.”
I look forward to my silent dialogue with God set to music and light. With every Thursday evening that I attend, I can’t imagine going more than seven days without this new ritual.
During my first Taizé at Advent, tears warmed and trickled down as thoughts made their way across my mind – memories or fears that had been put on hold all week, maybe even years. Perhaps it’s an emotional moment one week, and the next week it’s a challenge that I’m about to take on. Either way, the Taizé service warms my heart, cools my temper and loosens the salt in my eyes. And holds me ... still.