We rolled gently down through Burgundy to Cormatin, a little village in the Saone et Loir region and just 3 miles from Taizé. There is a delightful wee campsite here, traditionally French and beautifully positioned right on the Voie Verte (cycle and walking path). We visit Taizé most years, sometimes for a week, sometimes just for an evening. I’ve been coming here for more than 30 years and since Shirley and I became partners we have come here together – it has become a place of inspiration and retreat despite the fact that organised religion no longer does it for us. I wrote about Taizé last year when we found ourselves here on the night of the Paris terrorist attacks and typically of the place, nothing much has changed a year on. Somehow it manages to be a place that attracts thousands without actually doing anything other than be itself. In fact almost nothing has changed since my first visit in the 80s. Yes the accommodation gets updated, concerns about health and safety are much more rigorous and the road surface has improved a lot but the essentials are just the same. Music, silence, a few words, hospitality, respect for all and a quiet welcome and acceptance of everyone who turns up.
On Friday night we decided to go to the evening service on our bikes. We knew it would be dark coming back so we got the bike lights ready for action, packed cushions in a soft bag and a bottle of water and set off. The ride there was lovely, until we reached the hill. The community stands on a hill that the brothers call “The little hill that is Taizé”. When you are pushing your bike up it, you realise that this hill is anything but little. Half way up we met a little group of elderly ladies, one of whom cheerfully called, “Bon courage!” as we panted past them. The cushions are essential kit for anyone over a certain age. Seating is either on basic benches or on the floor. You have to get there early to get a seat on a bench against a wall so you can rest your back. Oh dear I’m sounding old now. Getting there early isn’t a hardship if you appreciate time to just sit and ponder. Classical music is playing, candles are lit and the place feels warm and inviting.
Just before the service starts the Taizé bells begin to peel over the hillside and silence falls on the place. The brothers, all in white, stroll in – no processions here, just ordinary looking blokes in long white robes shuffling in and settling on to their portable kneelers. The brothers come from all over the world and are from all Christian denominations. This is a place that represents unity, diversity and reconciliation and this is beautifully expressed in the few words and many chants spoken and sung in different languages. There are about 100 Taizé brothers, a number of whom are working in the poorest parts of the world. This little monastery on a hill was never meant to be a place of pilgrimage, it just happened spontaneously in the 1960s and it has become increasingly popular. Of course not everything is perfect in Taizé, any more than it is anywhere else, and I had to deliberately look away from the woman in front of me who kept offering a share of her folded blanket to people coming in, presumably known to her, and each one refused. I felt sad for her – even here in this lovely place of welcome, there was one who seemed lonely.
We came out of the service to find total darkness and a sky filled with stars. It felt magical until we set off down the hill, riding our brakes into a very cold night. Back on the Voie Verte we pedalled as fast as was safe, given the relatively small puddles of light our bike lights gave us and got back to the van frozen to a snotter as they say in Scotland. We quickly agreed that for the Saturday evening service we would take the van.
The following evening, after a very fine BBQ in the early evening sunshine, we packed up loose articles, left some stuff on the pitch and drove up the hill. It’s amazing how easy it feels with a 3 litre engine. We parked up, gave the dogs a dire warning to be quiet, and went in, only to find that there were many more visitors from all over the region and our favourite seats by the wall were all taken. We decided on some carpeted steps and settled in for the lovely service of candlelight that happens every Saturday evening. Perhaps it doesn’t do us any harm to have our patience tested, maybe it’s even good for us but we were less than thrilled to realise that behind us there was a bunch of whisperers and gigglers. This is unusual on a Saturday night in Taizé. The vast majority have been there for the whole week and this is the last evening – even the youngest and most hyper types have come to love the quiet peace of evening prayers. There are young people who volunteer there for a year at a time and it’s their job to keep the silence. They are instructed to remind people to be silent in a gentle and non confrontational way – frankly this wasn’t going to cut the mustard with these girls. They were oblivious to everyone except themselves. I could feel my blood pressure rising, not falling as would normally be the case in this lovely restful place. I turned and adopted my best teacher’s frown at one point and was completely ignored. Finally, in the silence, I remembered something from my teaching days. Never, ever, let awkward teenagers get to you – if you do they have won and whilst you are thoroughly churned up they are either delighted or oblivious. So I tuned the wee hormone driven gigglers out and sent a little blessing their way.
The French Mrs Slocombe
It’s quiet here on this lovely little campsite. They are only open for five more days and most people have gone home. On our row of ten pitches there are only three occupied. Two caravans and us. We judged it perfect when we first arrived and indeed in many ways it is – except for the fact that the nearest caravan to us contains a French lady, her husband and two cats. We have named her Mrs Slocombe – she is completely obsessed with her pussies.
The two cats are on long leads – the leads are not attached to anything so we guess that the idea is that Mrs S can stand on the trailing end of the lead if one of her pussies decides to venture too far away. Our problem is that our dogs have not yet been introduced to the species called cat. They are intrigued and scared in equal measure. Every time one of the cats sets off across the path the dogs start to whimper and whine and strain to get off their tie downs to investigate.
Dogs are creatures that make connections very quickly. Ours have made the connection between Mrs Slocombe’s pussy voice with the presence of the strange creatures known as cat. Every time her calls of loving invitation to come home for some food are heard coming from her awning, Poppy sets up a mighty wailing and starts jumping up and down. If for no other reason it is therefore time for us to move on tomorrow. We’ll let you know when we’ve decided on where.