Connecting through spirituality


Jen Cardone


It is so quiet that any slight movement, or even a cough, could easily interrupt worshipers as they meditate. A woman adjusts her scarf when it comes undone and her shuffling movement interrupts the silence like a clap of thunder. A man slightly twists his back and the wooden bench supporting him makes a loud crack that echoes throughout the chapel.

East Liberty Presbyterian Church has a one-hour Taizé prayer service every Wednesday at 7 p.m. The Taizé worship invites people of any denomination to gather in a close-knit community to develop spiritually through meditative prayer and sacred silence.

Taize3-CardoneThe atmosphere is quaint and introspective. The front of the chapel is decorated in six reddish amber curtains that form a point at the top and drape out and down to brush the floor. Two lone chairs sit off on the side, waiting for anointers. An icon of Jesus on the cross stands at the center with other religious icons surrounding it in picture frames. Candles dot the sanctuary and illuminate the front of the worship space.

In Taizé practice, icons represent the beauty of worship. They represent windows to see the Kingdom of God and symbolize the incarnation and coming of Christ to the world.

Rachel Luckenbill, who has attended the service for three years on-and-off, says she is overcome with peace when she sees the worship space.

“It facilitates visualizing God and creates immediacy,” Luckenbill says. “I feel like I’m in the presence of Christ when I walk in and see the amber fabrics at the front, candles and iconography.”
Since last year, the Rev. Mary Lynn Callahan has led the prayer service, which has been a part of the church for more than 20 years.

Callahan was a minister in small churches, but over time, she felt a desire to work with spiritual growth in the ministry. When she was asked to head Taizé after the previous minister retired, she was ecstatic.

“I was thrilled. It’s something that I feel very strongly about,” Callahan says. “I think it opens people up in a way that traditional worship really doesn’t.”

Taizé, as a community, was founded in the 1940s in the French village of Taizé as a men’s organization and ministry. Brother Roger Schütz developed the style of worship, which includes melodic scripture readings or prayer that are chanted or sung repeatedly.

Schütz, a Swiss native, worked to unify different religions by forming prayer circles during World War II to seek peace.

Prior to his death, Schütz asked Brother Alois Löser to take his position as his health deteriorated. Löser still serves today and leads the community of brothers and worshippers around the world.

Video by Adam Kelly

Today, in East Liberty, gospel hymns and chants fill the side chapel, echoing all the way from the cathedral peaks down to the marble floor. The songs fill the space after long silent pauses, which are used as opportunities to reflect.

Taizé music director Jennifer Gorske, who attends weekly, says she believes Taizé meshes with her spirituality and passion for music.

“What drew me in was it is music and spirituality mixed together,” Gorske says. “I thought it was perfect to practice music therapy.”

Callahan says no two Taizé services are identical. Each has about eight different songs and readings spoken in different languages. Although songs are repeated, repetition is intentional because it develops the worship mantra.

“[The songs] become part of how you breathe,” Callahan says. “When you’ve sung them enough times it becomes almost a part of the fiber of who you are and the words just kind of mingle in with the thoughts that are in your head.”

Callahan, who recently returned from a trip to Taizé, says East Liberty puts its own stamp on the tradition.

“Ours is different because of the racially mixed congregation of East Liberty,” Callahan says. “We often sing songs at the end that are good old-fashioned gospel songs.”

Other than singing, some people choose to light candles or kneel on the carpet in front of the icons.

Attendees can ask for a blessing or prayer and to be anointed.

Kay Shissler, 53, anoints Taizé worshippers. Her education taught her how to walk beside people during tough times.

“People come up with serious problems and they don’t know what to do,” Shissler says. “We don’t try to solve the problems because we can’t do it in five minutes. We try to give them some spiritual strength and make them know that God is with them and they can depend on God to help them through this time of crisis.”

Even though some attend the service consistently, Callahan says it is more common to see young people come on-and-off for several months.

“It is designed to be open to everyone,” Callahan says. “No one will ask you why you weren’t here.”
Luckenbill is one of these occasional attendees. She also works with congregants at Upper Room Presbyterian Church in Squirrel Hill.

“It enriches the experience I have with my own church, and I will use some of the music we sing at Taizé [there]. It helps to create cross-cultural core values,” Luckenbill says.

The Taizé service ends as a woman sways in a meditative dance at the front of the chapel. Her arms are spread apart and above her head, allowing the spirit to come to her in her dance. After being anointed, she hums and dances to the melody of “The Lord Is My Light.”