Sharing a sense of peace, prayer in Oak Park

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, June 5, 2011

Dusk is falling on a cool night as people make their way into Ascension Parish in Oak Park.

As people filter in, they stop talking and sit quietly in the dimly lit church.

By the time the monthly Taizestyle prayer service begins, about 500 people have come to pray.

The group sings, listens to Scripture, shares the light of candles and offers prayers from the hearts of its members during a 10- minute silence. They share an exquisite sense of peace.

David Anderson, the music director at Ascension, has been organizing these ecumenical services for about 19 years. It started with about 30 people and after two years, there were about 100 people.

Now the services can draw 700 or 800 during the academic year, when students from nearby universities attend. They continue every month during the summer, although attendance seems to be lower.

French roots

The services are in the spirit of the community at Taize, France, where an ecumenical group of brothers welcomes visitors from around the globe to weeklong “meetings” that focus on community and the unity to which the Lord called his church.

“We’ve been told this is the largest regular service outside of France,” said Anderson. “I think people are kind of drawn to the ontological aspects of prayer.”

That is, they enjoy praying for prayer’s own sake, not as a means to an end.

As at Taize, the services feature simple music in which relatively few phrases are repeated over and over — a kind of musical meditation. The Scripture reading is short and not followed by a homily. Prayers of petition include the whole world.

The time of silence is intended to allow people to listen to God. It has to be about 10 minutes long, Anderson said, because it takes at least three minutes for people to settle into the quiet. “The idea of Taize is that it’s easier to pray in community,” he said.

The Taize community in France started with Brother Roger Schutz, who started taking people in during World War II. Warned that he was in danger in France, he moved to Geneva. Following the war, he returned to Taize with a community of brothers. His sister, Genevieve, also came with a community of women, and they cared for war orphans.

In 1949, Brother Roger and six others committed themselves to a life of celibacy and simplicity. The brothers are Catholic and Protestant, from dozens of countries.

Catholic, Protestant

While the group that gathers at Ascension includes members of all ages, from babies and toddlers to their grandparents, the largest segment is young adults.

Anderson said he believes the group is about half Catholic and half Protestant, a change from the early days of the program, when most people who came were Catholic.

“We did a lot of outreach to the Protestant churches in the area, sending letters and inviting people each month,” Anderson said.

Mary Beth Kunde-Anderson, a parishioner, has been attending the Taize-style services at Ascension since they started.

“It’s like an oasis,” she said. “Every month, you just kind of count on it. It’s encouraging to see so many people who come together.”

Among the regular attendees now are James and Victoria Millar, both ordained members of the Presbyterian clergy. They have moved from the Chicago area to Kenosha, but make the drive back as often as they can.

“As clergy, it’s important for us to find a place where we can be fed,” Victoria Millar said.

Dana Standridge came with her children, ages 3 and 5. Her husband stayed home with the 1- year-old, she said.

The family is Presbyterian, but Standridge said she enjoys the opportunity to worship with other Christians.

“The prayer is just so powerful,” she said.

While she had some concerns about her children’s ability to remain calm and not disrupt the service — especially during the 10-minute moment of silence — they seemed to enjoy themselves.

Beth Dougherty, a graduate student in sociology at Loyola University Chicago, is writing part of her dissertation on Taize-style prayer, and she often attends the service at Ascension.

“On a personal level, I find the music is a really good way of expressing relationship with God,” she said. “On a professional level, I think there is something to be learned from an open, ecumenical prayer service.”