I BELIEVE that both Walt Disney World and the Sinai Desert can
inform our experience of church. During a recent sabbatical, I
managed to visit both, with striking results.
We loved Walt Disney World in Florida. We went on rides,
rollercoasters, and safaris, and had such fun. Disney is an
incredible experience. It is a consumerist heaven, where the cult
of celebrity exudes from every pore, even though most of the
celebrities are animated creatures. Visitors are told that their
dreams will come true, without being asked what those dreams might
The experience was beautifully crafted, manufactured, and very
uncreative. You did not have to think, just to accept and enjoy. It
was inclusive; the cast were of all different ages, cultures, and
sexualities, and all there with the sole purpose of giving you a
We have so much to learn from Disney. Its clarity, beauty,
inclusivity, sense of engagement, fun, and gregarious nature can
all be used in the mission of God's Church. Every member of the
clergy vows to proclaim the gospel afresh in each generation, but
not many of us take a thought to this, before we trot out the same
orders of service, year after year.
We must learn from Disney in its passionate desire to engage
creatively with all senses and all technologies, ancient and
modern. Worship is a lively holistic encounter with the Risen
Christ, the Trinity in action, and not a cerebral activity for the
Disney's gospel, however, is very different from that of the
Church. Its product is undergirded by a narrow, capitalistic
consumerism, desperate for customers to part with cash. After the
event, there is little sense of belonging, except in an ethereal
world of dreams - although it might seem rather inviting after a
heavy PCC meeting.
AFTER this, however, I had a very different experience: two
weeks in the Sinai Desert, mostly alone. I spent one week at St
Catherine's Monastery, founded on the site of the burning bush by
St Helena in the fourth century. It is nestled in the shadow of
Mount Sinai, the top of which was a climb of 3700 steps, which in
the deep snow was not easy.
The second week, I lived as a nomad with members of the Bedouin:
Soleiman and Mohammed (who was deaf and mute). We crossed the
desert, with no tent, carried for part of the way by Abud and
Zarayan, our trusty camels.
In the desert, you stare death in the face. They say that you
are only 19 hours from death, but I felt safe in the hands of my
companions. I enjoyed watching them communicate, making food,
collecting wood, and planning. Their sign language was a beautiful
dance that put my poor verbal skills to shame. It was cold, too,
the sub-zero temperatures causing our water to freeze at
Then, towards the end of the week, I hit a bad place. I was
climbing a mountain, and I froze in fear. I am not good with
heights, and I panicked. I was staring my insecurities, my
brokenness, and my pathetic nature straight in the face.
I needed help, and there was none. The desert does not respond:
it mocked in its silence. Eventually, I made it to the ground,
shaking and alone. I had not reached the top.
I had failed, but I needed God more than anything at that
moment. A new, deeper relationship with God has begun, shaped by
the Jesus Prayer, and Charles de Foucauld's prayer of abandonment
(Faith, 13 September 2013), and aided by The Solace of Fierce
Landscapes by Belden Lane (OUP, 2007), Letters from the
Desert by Carlo Carretto (DLT, 1972), and the Bible, which is,
of course, rich in Sinai narrative.
DISNEY is a stunning kataphatic experience, by which you can
learn about God in positive terms, which emphasise his revelation.
Here, you are transformed and fed by image. You are bombarded by
sights, sounds, and smells, which demonstrate a God of creativity,
eagerly at work in the here and the now. This is playful God,
enthusiastically developing your passionate and prayerful
But the desert leads to an apophatic place, a place of
nothingness, where God is beyond any positive definition. The
desert delights in abandonment, and urges us to be in the presence
of God, in fearful awe. We do not revel, but we abandon ourselves;
for we are nothing. We are worthless and insignificant. This is a
kenotic, self-emptying experience, reminding us that we are not
really important, and that we worry too easily about insignificant
Apophatic prayer enables us to accept and to receive God's love;
God expecting nothing in return. It is when we fully abandon
ourselves that we can become our truest selves, made in God's
Disney and the desert inform our Church's mission. We need both
in order to express God's love, power, and creativity. We must use
the tools of Disney in worship, with image, music, and a
sensuality, to provide something that transcends our usual
experiences. We must be lifted from the everyday into God's
holistic presence, where the shape of the liturgy is a
rollercoaster ride to excite us.
Yet this can be embraced only if we also learn the practice of
apophatic prayer, as a way of fully accepting God's love without
putting our own baggage in its\way.
We need to offer silence for the Spirit to speak, and to develop
skills to use silence in the act of self-emptying. We must empty
ourselves, and rely no more on our attitudes, belongings, and
rituals, but come face to face with the God of love, full of
The Revd Rob Wickham is the Rector of St John at Hackney, in