My husband and I went to Taize in France, in the hope that we could spend a week in a spiritually aligned community. In particular, we were drawn to the devotional singing that Taize is known for.
To our great disappointment, we soon discovered it was far from what we thought it might be. By chance we ended up going in Holy Week, as our second Covid vaccine needed to be had before we could enter France. As it turned out, no one at the airports checked vaccine records or covid recovery certificates (but that is another story).
When we arrived we were funnelled through a process of being assigned accommodation, meal tickets and being asked for cash up front for the week. The whole thing was run by young volunteers. We were classified as adults and were asked to pay 300 to 400 euros between us. We soon learned that they were expecting 1000 people during the week and 1500 over the Easter weekend.
We had arrived just before the evening meal, so we ended up in a queue with hundreds of young people with our suitcases in tow, to be served a portion of couscous and some baguette on a plastic plate and a spoon to eat with. We had travelled all day and the salad at Gatwick airport now seemed like a fine meal indeed.
After dinner, we found our accommodation, the two of us separated, into male and female bunk rooms. We showered and made our way to the ‘church’ which was a long barn, very dark inside and the front lit by numerous candles. The prayer service consisted of readings from a passage in the Bible in a number of languages, interspersed with songs from the Taize song book. People sat on the floor around the monks, who were dressed in their hooded cloaks and who held centre stage. The singing was of a slow tempo and flat in energy, not like the official Taize YouTube clips.
The daily program involved meals (served in plastic containers and lacking in any sort of food value), chores, such as cleaning showers and toilets, three prayer services, being read to by a religious man and group discussions on basic guidelines to good living.
The average cost of a meal would be far less than a euro per person. Anyone suffering from a metabolic disorder or with dietary needs would be well advised to avoid eating the food. A bar exists on site where one can buy sweets, crepes, alcohol and hot drinks from a vending machine.
People are advised not to leave the site for the duration of their stay, but we were obliged to make trips to the supermarket just to keep our energy levels up. As the week wore on, the young people, who are the majority of the visitors, could be seen lying down during the prayer services, no doubt languishing with low energy.
Our first chore we were asked to do was to clean the toilets and showers. No one from the establishment supervised these activities. They were managed by volunteers and people like us visiting. Despite the colour coded buckets, sponges and cloths for cleaning the basins, toilet bowls and shower recesses, the various tools were all jumbled up in the same cupboard and cleaning products were used interchangeably for the different purposes. My husband ended up with an eye infection, trying to clean the wet broom caked in dirty water and hair from the bathroom floors.
More often than not, we were treated with a level of passive aggression, unkindness and or contempt. We asked for hot water as I was unwell and in pain and the volunteer manning the desk complained that if she had to give hot water to a thousand people, she would not be able to get anything done.
A fellow visitor saw us supplementing our breakfast bread roll with fruit and yogurt and remarked wryly that we wouldn’t starve.
In my dorm of 5 people, I was on a bottom bunk and did not sleep most nights we were at Taize. Young teenagers could be heard running around and shouting until very late in the evenings.
The Taize experience is clearly targeted at young people (under the age of 35). It was like a summer camp for middle class teenagers and school leavers. Those of us who were older were in the minority. In terms of anything spiritual, we could not find anything – no teachings or dialogue on the nature of Truth, love or Reality. No real warm reception, charity or kindness.
We did our best to participate in the Taize program for 4 days, but eventually decided to cut our losses and leave.
As far as we could gather, what was on offer here in this so called ‘spiritual’ community was an opportunity to experience what Taize explains as ‘simple living’ on their website and basic Christian doctrine in exchange for good money. The monks sure had a good racket going. To top it all off, they had a beautiful shop selling pottery, publications and various merchandise at very good prices.
To all those who might consider going to Taize, think twice before you do. We checked TripAdvisor reviews and could only find positive reviews. The Taize website provides limited information on what one can expect. Facebook groups spoke of Taize highly.
Had we known there were going to be 1500 people, fed in queues like refugees, sleeping on shelves, in questionable hygienic environments, we would not have gone. Prior to going, we knew we would have to pay for food and lodging but we certainly had not expected this very poor standard.
We met some nice people in Taize and some not so, but they all seemed to think Taize was ‘heaven on earth’. Having walked the Camino twice, travelled widely and communed with diverse people and places, I can only say that there is a collective delusion in place here.