Findhorn Nature Sanctuary, Scotland
The taxi pulled into the Field of Dreams and the driver slowed down, asking, “What number are you going to?”
“417” I answered, anxious that I was going to be late.
“And that’s where we are!” he excIaimed, pulling off the road and alongside a wooden house perched on the edge of a cul-de-sac. I paid the fare and jumped out into the pelting rain, weather typical of early spring in Scotland and known in the local lingo as “dreich,” which seemed apt.
As I ran toward the cover of the home’s front porch, the door opened, revealing a smiling couple who introduced themselves as Carin and Ian. I apologized for not being punctual and Carin said, “Not to worry, Ian is usually a few minutes late to Taize singing” as she efficiently helped me into a raincoat while Ian extended the shelter of his umbrella. Before I knew it, I was trotting off beside Ian toward Findhorn’s Nature Sanctuary.
The Findhorn Foundation is a spiritual community, eco village and an international center for holistic learning, based in northeast Scotland on the Moray Firth coast, 26 miles east of Inverness. The Foundation’s main campus is called “the Park,” which spans 32 acres and includes areas known as Bag End, the Runway and Duneland.
The community was founded fifty years ago by Eileen and Peter Caddy and Dorothy Maclean, each of whom had followed disciplined spiritual paths for many years. They first came to northeast Scotland in 1957 to manage the Cluny Hill Hotel in the town of Forres, which they did remarkably successfully. Eileen received guidance in her meditations from an inner divine source she called 'the still small voice within' and Peter ran the hotel according to this guidance and his own intuition. In this unorthodox way – and with many delightful and unlikely incidents – Cluny Hill swiftly became a thriving and successful four-star hotel.
After several years however, Peter and Eileen’s employment ended, and with nowhere to go and little money, they moved with their three young sons and Dorothy to a caravan (or trailer in American parlance) near the seaside village of Findhorn. Feeding six people on unemployment benefit was difficult, so Peter decided to start growing vegetables. The land in the caravan park was sandy and dry but Peter began to apply the instructions Dorothy felt she received in communicating with the intelligence of nature, which she called “the Devas.”
Amazing results ensued--from the barren soil sprouted huge plants, herbs and flowers of dozens of kinds, most famously the now-legendary 40-pound cabbages. Word spread, horticultural experts came and were stunned, and the garden at the Findhorn community became famous.
The community has grown to encompass more than 500 people and 30 organizations that range from publishing to pottery and the arts to alternative medicine. Today the Findhorn Foundation is a learning centre which offers a continual series of workshops, retreats and events that attract thousands of people from around the world annually.
One such soul was my companion on this early morning walk in the dreich dampness. Ian Rippon, 55, of Norfolk England first came to the Findhorn Foundation at the end of 2000 to participate in one of the community’s “Experience Weeks,” a seven-day program that includes meditation, sacred dance, nature outings as well as working alongside community members in areas such as the gardens, kitchen and dining room.
“One of the options during the week was to go each morning to Taize, which was vaguely explained as a singing meditation,” Ian told me. “As a keen singer, I decided to try it out and was completely blown away by the experience. There are usually about 20-25 people present each morning, depending on what courses are going on at the Foundation. In the winter we may have as few as six people but together we can create a beautiful sound and have a wonderful experience.”
I learned that Taize is the name of a French village that is home to a Christian Eucumenical community who share their faith through singing. With the practice at Findhorn inspired by this group, the term "Taize singing" has become synonomous with their morning choral devotion.
“Although we call it Taize, after a form of meditation developed by a spiritual community in France, the practice at Findhorn is much broader and includes sacred songs from many different traditions,” he explained. “From the first day I went singing I was entranced and eager to experience and learn as many of the songs as I could, and this continued even when I left and went back to my home and life. It became for me a connection with the divine and a time of peace and reflection, even when singing on my own.”
With the time it took for this brief introduction to the Findhorn community and their practice of Taize, we rounded a corner and came face-to-face with what looked like a magical hobbit hole built into the hillside in front of us. The low stone structure had Arts-and-Crafts style squiggly lines, with windows that had an amusement park fun house feel to them and a green roof alive with tufts of heather, mosses and grasses. My delight must have been visible on my face and Ian smiled and said “This is the Nature Sanctuary” as he opened the rounded wooden door.
Inside, there was a vestibule where slickers were hung on pegs and the floor was piled with footwear. Ian quickly slipped off his shoes and I did the same, following him to the adjoining chamber. The small round room was packed, with people seated at the bench built into its circumference as well below them on cushions on the floor. He made a beeline for a seat across the room and I scooted into the one remaining spot on the bench to the left of the door.
It seemed like I felt the sound before I heard it. My senses have a distinct pecking order and it’s always the visual stimulation that gets processed first. I scanned the room, noticing the rosy cheeks and soft, comfortable clothing in bright colors of the mostly middle-aged or gray-haired people gathered together. Many of them had their eyes closed or focused on a faraway spot in their mind’s eye.
A young woman across the room seemed engaged in the same exercise as me, and I watched her assessing her surroundings, seeing in her eyes a cautious curiosity about these people absorbed in sounds of their devotion. I had an odd sensation of seeing a younger version of myself and wondered if her experience here would foster an openness to the unknown that I didn’t have at her age. Our eyes met and we smiled at each other; I imagined we recognized in one another the conflicted emotions conjured by these serene people tuning into themselves, each other and beyond. For me, those colliding instincts included both fear and hope.
As the first song came to a conclusion, I absorbed the smells of patchouli oil and pine and felt the warmth of the humidity created by our collective breath and body heat in the small contained space. A man announced the next piece, and people raised their voices. Even with no musical aptitude, I was very aware of each person’s individual pitch and tone and the fact that some were stronger singers. But as the song progressed, their voices blended and coalesced, with the result being that the overall sound, as well as each distinctive voice, resonated more richly.
The leader named the next song, "Singt dem Herrn," and the group dove into a joyful German piece that Ian later jokingly referred to as a “jolly drinking song.” The selection seemed to bring the singers to another level, and the sound of their voices came together even more vibrantly to the upbeat tempo; I observed people emerging from their reveries to exchange smiles as they sang. The young woman and I grinned at one another, and while I didn’t dare to join in the singing, the reverberations of the group’s energy had begun to gently wash away my tension and apartness.
When the song finished, the leader invited people to offer an intention or prayer. There was silence for a few minutes, save for the chirping of birds outside. A lanky man with tousled red hair spoke, saying “Let greed recede and fear disappear.” Someone else said “I am grateful to know that prayer works.”
The leader began the last song, “Bogjest Milosciawhich,”which he introduced as a Polish piece that would be sung in English. The simple lyrics repeated the refrain “God is forgiveness” and as those words resounded over and over in a sweet melody, I knew with great certainty that I was not the only one in the room who had sought and found that connection. With the very last line of the song, I was able to open my mouth and join the chorus, self-consciously but happily croaking out the words. Like my act of forgiveness, it was too long in the making but when it came, it was a comforting relief.
Later, I sat with Ian and Carin in their home and over a cup of tea, learned more about the Taize tradition at Findhorn.
“After many trips to Findhorn Foundation for courses and conferences, I eventually decided to move here and was given the opportunity to become a Taize leader,” Ian said. “At Findhorn, the leaders are people who have sung Taize for some time and have it firmly embedded as part of their spiritual practice and feel confident and willing to share this with others. For me to be asked to join this group was an incredible honor. I wanted to give others the experience that I had back in 2000.”
“As a leader, my experience changed from the enjoyment of being part of the harmony of each song to ensuring that there was a balanced set of voices there so that others could enjoy this,” Ian said. “The songs range from very simple rounds to quite complicated four-part harmonies. In both the simple and the more complex songs there is a real beauty in bringing the voices together.”
“I sing tenor and in the way that the songs are put together the tenor part is brought in last,” he continued. “It’s hard to explain the joy and lift to my soul that it brings to be able to bring in the tenor part and complete the harmony. I now lead once every couple of weeks--we now have about 10 residents who are also leaders.”
Fabien Barouch, 62, had led the singing that morning. Originally from Tunisia, he has been a member of the Findhorn community since 1988.
“Taize is one of my spiritual practices, every day I sing and it’s about setting the day right,” he said. “The space always makes me feel as if I'm out in nature, it’s a beautiful place to sing and meditate.”
“Being the leader I have the joy of choosing my favorite songs!” he exclaimed. “It’s a great lesson in flexibility and attunement as I have to know the strength of the audience, and adjust according to who is present. On Sundays, Taize is different as there can be 100 people singing. It’s more challenging to adjust to the range of voices and experience, but it’s very satisfying because the more people are singing, the more the energy is raised up.”
Fabien began his practice of Taize 20 years ago, when he was introduced to it by fellow Findhorn community resident Barbara Swetina.
“Having visited the Taize community in France, I was touched by their simple lifestyle and deep connection with God,” Barbara, 57, of Vienna, Austria recalled. “This helped me heal my own relationship with Christianity.”
“I was living in Findhorn, and wanted to sing more,” she said. “One person asked me to sing with them, and the only time that we had free was in morning. The experience was so wonderful that we decided to do it each day, to start each day with spirit, god, whatever word you like to use. Taize means to me connecting with the beloved and starting the day on a good footing.”
Barbara, who has been a resident of the community since 1984, is a member of the organization's outreach faculty and teaches workshops all over the world--Australia, Brazil, Japan, Russia and the U.S.
“I love getting people together to sing,” she exclaimed. “In my experience it is one of the fastest ways for a group of people to connect with Spirit and with each other. Through my life in the community I meet a wide variety of people from many backgrounds and therefore I have had the chance to learn songs from all over the world. With the Taizé singing, we start every day with half an hour of devotional singing in the morning. Great for opening the heart!”
“I envision a singing planet, many people gathering in different places on the globe to sing, dance and pray together,” she continued. “In so doing sacred space is created, moments where we are reminded of the love and harmony which is our essence and birthright.”
“The Nature Sanctuary is a beautiful space with wonderful acoustics,” Ian told me. “This chamber that we sing in almost sings by itself and it’s lovely to be in this space that has been sung in five days a week for many years. It’s also wonderful to think that each day, for someone, Taize is a new experience and for others it’s a deep fundamental part of their spiritual practice which they have been doing for many years --and a whole range of everything in between.”
The Nature Sanctuary was designed by Findhorn resident Ian Turnbull, 68, who is originally from Kenya.
“The Nature Sanctuary is a do-it-yourself building, made in the moment--that is, without plans,” he said. “It was created largely from recycled materials and in a mood of whimsy and hippiness which still prevailed in me and the Foundation at that time - 1986. The symbolic features within the building gave me cause to make it: the internal roof design is that of a solar logo, whereas the floor is a map of our experience of the Moon, as she journeys around us earthlings in the course of a year. These two heavenly elements are for me classic representations of masculine strength and feminine power: the two fundamental forces of the Universe within which we live, and which equally live in us.”
“When the building was complete, Barbara Swetina came along and saw how the space offered a venue where we could sing devotional songs to start the day,” he continued. “We began very simply, with no more than the melody line of some of the simpler Taize songs. Then we added the bass voice, and in due course, the other voice parts. Thanks to Barbara's encouragement and coaching, there is a body of perhaps one hundred sacred songs that we can now sing, in four part harmonies, often without the need of a song book.”
“A visiting choir leader once commented that what has evolved here is rare phenomenon: that we have a daily singing practice where anyone can join in, and participate at their own level, without anything being asked of them,” he said.
I smiled to myself, realizing that it was now fair to say that he was preaching to the choir.