When our little party arrived in Calais, it was all I could do to keep from laughing. The group of Brits traveling with me had often sneered at tourists in London for their exuberant giddiness but the minute they were on foreign soil, they transformed into a bunch of hooligans no different than those they so despised in their own city. We were on our way to spend Easter in Taizé, an international destination we had been told was possessed of a radiant spiritual energy. The year was 1972 and the quest for spiritual energy might take a young person anywhere, even to a monastery in the heart of France.
I had just turned 20 and was the only American in the van of rowdies. I had never set foot on the Continent before, but my heart was prepared for what lay ahead, for unlike my compatriots, I took this journey seriously. I felt quite alone, but surrounded by people, in my pursuit of the Holy Spirit.
Through the week that unfolded, I was brought to my knees by the beauty of the pastoral countryside. But there was more to come – two peak experiences that would change my life forever.
First was the morning I literally took the plunge into a stream that flowed alongside our campsite. Spring was just rousing itself from winter, and on that late March morning, the water looked dark and silvery, fast-moving and mysterious. Was it safe to jump in? Would I be swept away? Would I sink like a stone? I could not answer to any of these questions, but I was young and did not care. My inner life was moving as swiftly as the water. With a great war cry, I jumped in.
I will never forget the shock of the cold as it enveloped me. I felt needles of pain all over my body as I broke through the surface, desperately gasping for air. But at the same time, I felt exhilarated, ecstatic, bursting with joy! That moment has stayed with me as a reminder that to be truly alive is to take risks, and to feel assaulted and embraced by the world at the same time.
Second, there was the sunrise Easter service itself, which led into a mad line dance snaking in and out of a massive tent. Young people from all over the world made a chain and sang together as we danced. The miracle was in the way the words we were chanting morphed from one language to another. What began as “Laudato si, O mi Signore” changed and changed again as half-heard words were translated into something familiar as the chant moved across the field. “Lord let me see,” I heard the English singing — but the French, the Spaniards, the Germans, the Poles, the Greeks, each echoed the Italian with something distinctly different, something that made sense in their own tongue. As I danced, I felt Christ’s message spread around the world, across time and space and nations, with the unique imprint of each singer upon it. It was only years later that I understood that we had all, in our own way, been singing St. Francis’s “Canticle of the Sun”.