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From Disney appeal to desert abandonment

by
07 February 2014

Rob Wickham learns from two different experiences that both need their parallels in church life

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Experiencing the apophatic in "a place of nothingness": the Sinai Desert

Experiencing the apophatic in "a place of nothingness": the Sinai Desert

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 be.

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 good time.

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 few.

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 night-time.

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 imagination.

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 things.

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 image.

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 awe.

 

The Revd Rob Wickham is the Rector of St John at Hackney, in east London.

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