"Stay with me, Lord Jesus Christ, night will soon fall.
"Stay with me, Lord Jesus Christ, light in our darkness."
They repeated the verses 10 times, perhaps 20 or 30. One by one, worshippers came up to a large icon of a cross laid flat in the center of the chapel. Each spent a few moments of prayer there, some kneeling upright and others resting their foreheads on the cross.
Such is the essence of "Taize" liturgy, a style of worship steeped in some of the most traditional religious trappings -- candles, incense, icons, chants -- yet holding an enduring appeal for the young and, often, unchurched.
There's no sermon, no reciting of creeds and no members-only sacraments in this liturgy, created by an ecumenical monastic community based in the French village of Taize and now used in churches worldwide.
"It's a whole hour of prayer, of thinking about your relationship with God," said Heidi Thompson-Pena, who doesn't attend church on Sunday mornings but goes to the weekly Taize services at East Liberty Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh. "Nobody's telling me what to believe and think. It's just the prayer and Scripture."
Added Jon Buonaccorsi, a University of Rhode Island senior: "Taize takes a lot of the really positive aspects of church and puts them in one service. Whenever I walk out of a Taize service, I feel better about life in general."
Thompson-Pena and Buonaccorsi joined about 100 young adults for a Taize retreat in mid-February here at St. John's Cathedral, one of several retreats conducted annually around the world by monastic brothers from Taize (pronounced tezz-ay). Over the New Year's holiday, some 70,000 people gathered in Warsaw, Poland, for an annual Taize youth rally. During the summer, up to 5,000 visit the monastery itself each week from throughout the world.
The community is marking its 60th anniversary this year.
"We are surprised by the numbers of young adults who come," said Brother Pedro, a native of Barcelona, Spain, and one of two Taize brothers who led the Providence retreat. (The brothers do not use surnames.) "Some of them come looking for God, some of them are looking for friendship. They feel welcome."
And they have come for decades.
In the 1970s, 21-year-old Geralyn Wolf was disillusioned to find she was the youngest person in her Episcopal parish by 30 years. She began asking friends, "Where does someone my age go to find God?" They directed her to Taize.
"I couldn't believe it," recalled Wolf. "There were thousands of people my age talking about faith."
In fact, many American churches, most of them Catholic or mainline Protestant, hold separate Taize-style services or incorporate the soothing, repetitive chants into their own services.
"There's hardly a hymnal published in the last 10 years that hasn't included something from Taize," said Bob Batastini, senior editor and vice president of GIA Publications, which sells numerous Taize CDs and songbooks.
Brian Smith, a University of New Hampshire student, said he often listens to a Taize recording in the morning to get a chant flowing through his head as a "mental reminder of God's constant presence."
Roy Green, who works with youth as canon for Christian formation in the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island, said he's not surprised by the popularity of Taize.
"The spirituality of people 18 to 30 years old is the spirituality of a seeker," he said. "They want to ask questions, they want to understand deep in their souls what God is about. The Taize experience, because it's very simple and quiet, leaves room for reflection. And it asks basically nothing of people. There's no request to become an usher or serve on the vestry."
But it's not for everyone. Some Christians prefer more lively renewal programs. Green said he took 21 Rhode Island youths to Taize last summer and three of them vowed never to return. "They said it was boring."
But many teens are "very ready for it," said Michael Ruk, who teaches at a Pittsburgh preparatory school and is preparing for the Episcopal priesthood. He led a recent student retreat where a scheduled 15-minute Taize service stretched into two hours.
"If done well, the past can be made more present," he said. "We just have to make it more accessible."
The Taize monastery's very location suggests the past being made present. The order is based in the central French region of Burgundy, near the ruins of the great medieval abbey of Cluny, which itself exerted a towering influence on the development of Western musical liturgy a millennium ago.
A Swiss Protestant, Brother Roger, founded the order in 1940. He and other early members developed their monastic prayer cycles based on the sparse worship style of their Reformed heritage and their research into Catholic and Orthodox worship.
The community later swelled with Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican members. In the late 1960s, the community began attracting thousands of visitors from many countries, and the flow increased in 1990 after the opening of the Iron Curtain.
The polyglot, multi-denominational crowd inspired the order's signature chants, containing little more than a phrase or two and containing a haunting simplicity reminiscent of Gregorian chants. Some are in Latin, some in Spanish or Polish or English, and all are based on Scripture.
"People come from all over, from all backgrounds, so we had to find an easy way for people to pray together in a meditative way," said Brother John, a Philadelphia native who helped lead the Providence retreat.
While best known for its liturgical style, Taize has emphasized social justice since its origins, when Brother Roger aided Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. Of the approximately 100 Taize brothers, about 30 are working overseas at any time, either leading Taize retreats or living among the poor in places such as Bangladesh, Senegal or Brazil.
"We wish people wouldn't just think of us as music or musicians or a style of prayer," said Brother John, who formerly worked with Brother Pedro in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of New York. "For us, the music is a means to pray, it's not an end in itself. And the prayer also is a part of a life of reconciliation."