February President’s Pen with Preston Kendall
March 2, 2023

You could have heard a pin drop.  The lights were off with only the gentle light from the north windows saturating the cafeteria.  A guitar strummed its first note and then the choir began singing:

The Lord is my light, my light and salvation:
in God I trust, in God I trust.

The Lord is my light, my light and salvation:
in God I trust, in God I trust.

Over and over and over… mantra-like… the words washing over all three-hundred-and-something students, faculty, staff, and visitors.  This was the beginning of our student-run Ash Wednesday prayer service.

Alternating songs and scripture readings, our observance followed the basic sequence of communal prayer begun in Taize, France in the 1940’s as a contemplative, calming response to the violent beginnings of WWII.  Its songs are nearly hypnotic, inviting participants to focus on God’s presence.

After the first song ended, the students shared a scripture reading and then the next song began, this time in Spanish, repeating again and again:

Nada te turbe, nada te espante (Let nothing disturb you, nothing scare you)
Solo Dios basta (God alone is enough)

We were seated in a circle around a giant cross made of two lashed tree limbs laying on the floor.  During the second song students could come to the cross, light a candle and say a silent prayer. Then, after another reading and third song, there was a period of silence.

Not a moment of silence but a long, sustained period of silence.  Nearly ten minutes of silence!  Stop what you are doing and try to sit silent and still for ten minutes.  Most people would find it difficult, if not impossible.  The pace of Taize prayer is very slow.  I’m certain the timing of this silent part of the service coming only after several entrancing songs is intentional.  We are gradually brought deeper into prayer so that when the silence comes, the community is ready for it.

It is difficult to describe just how profound this experience is.  Can you imagine sitting with over three hundred teenagers in complete silence for so long?  No fidgeting, no murmuring, just reverence.  And in that reverence, we find a shared bond: together, present to one another, aware, peaceful, content, and drenched in silence.  The world outside is speeding by.  As Wordsworth wrote, “The world is too much with us; late and soon, /Getting and spending… We have given our hearts away…”. As a species, we seem drawn toward overstimulation like moths to a flame but, in this extended silence, we find something more, something missing, something we hardly knew we needed but realize then just how hungry we were for it: an opportunity to be.  And in being, an opportunity to realize God’s presence in us and among us.

Brother Roger Schutz-Marsauche, who founded Taize, expressed it this way, “Right at the depth of the human condition, lies the longing for a presence, the silent desire for a communion. Let us never forget that this simple desire for God is already the beginning of faith… trusting in God is a very simple reality, so simple that everyone could receive it.”

Staying in that extended, shared silence, with our inner ups and downs, with our hurts and our fears, it felt like the entire room was somehow brimming with new life and new energy.  We needed something and we received it.  It’s hard to think of a better, more powerful way to begin the season of Lent.  As the final song neared its end, students slowly stood and walked to their first period classes taking that sacred silence with them.

I hope, in the coming weeks, you, too will find a moment or more when you feel the world awash in grace as I did this past Wednesday.  ¡Viva Cristo Rey!