Encounter beyond words…

In the evening of the third day of our camping trip we headed into the local town of Uzerche to watch a piece of street ‘entertainment’.

We had little idea of what we were going to see. I don’t speak French so it was hard to access the information: What were we going to see? What did ‘cooperation’ mean on the poster? Was it primarily aimed at children? Would I be able to understand enough language to access it and enjoy it when we got there? We weren’t even sure where the performance was taking place.

But we love theatre and the arts and engaging in local culture, and we didn’t want our uncertainty of the unknown to get in the way of what could be a unique and special experience.

So we drove to the town and parked the car in a car park we had used 2 days before. Surmising that the performance would be in the old town – a cobbled area of old buildings and open squares surrounding a central old church overlooking the rest of the town – we began to ascend. Some people, we realised were driving up the hill through the narrow streets but we had no way of knowing the way or the parking. We had to walk, but this afforded us the opportunity of looking and listening for signs of where the event might be taking place.

Using these clues and our previous experience of the town on our arrival day, we found an area with 2 stage lights, two wooden boxes with a child’s wooden chair on top of each. Surrounding this area were chairs, ranked wooden benches and a large carpet at the front. We were quite early but already some people were assembling – children on the carpet chattering and laughing and adults on the chairs. This was clearly an audience of local people. There was much kissing and greeting of friends and running of excited children towards known playmates.

We were both excited and uncertain. We wanted the option to slip away if we had misjudged this, if it were to be a children’s performance in incomprehensible French. Being early we had a choice of where to sit, so we choose a place on the end of one of the benches, nearest to the exit from the square. We waited and observed the growing and expectant crowd.

During the time we waited we gave up our seats to a family with children so that they could see, settling instead for higher seats, less comfortable as my feet would not touch the ground. If we had not wanted to remain on the edge we could have moved to better chairs. However our commitment to engage wasn’t strong enough to move into the centre.

Half an hour later after an introduction in French which we did not understand from a third party, two men dressed identically in jeans and black tee-shirts, took their places next to each wooden block.

They began to move simultaneously making percussive and musical noises. They used their bodies as both percussion instruments and to perform athletic ‘dance’. To begin with it was simply a performance, then the men began to acknowledge and imitate the crowd. A child made a noise, the men repeated it, sung it, improvised around it; then someone coughed, that too was imitated and became the basis of percussion.

The crowd were uncertain at first. There was something pleasing about what was being demonstrated but it wasn’t clear how it would develop. Then having copied us there were gestures from the performers that we should copy them; a simple clapping rhythm. Hesitancy at first. But then, as security and confidence grew, we too began to use our bodies as percussion and our voices as instruments.

We were drawn in to the co-creating of a performance ( the meaning of a ‘cooperation’ became clear), which drew on the the few props, the wooden stage blocks and chairs and a bottle of water (for slapstick and then musical gargling) and the crowd.

The two performers led us, weaving their set pieces of music, slapstick and physical theatre in and our of our participation.

It didn’t matter that I didn’t speak French, or that we weren’t part of the local community of known relationships, we had become part of a shared experience transcending language, age and culture. It was beautiful.

The performance touched me deeply. For me it also went beyond the beauty of the actual performance and pointed towards to a deeper truth.

Back at the tent I was reading a book by Janet Williams entitled Seeking the God Beyond. The book explains and explores apophatic spirituality. Apophatic stems from the Greek for away from words. The book leads the reader into a tradition in which deep encounter with God is found beyond words. Post-Reformation Protestant spirituality is rooted in a kataphatic tradition (towards words) and whilst kataphasis has its place, Williams exhorts us to dare to go beyond what may be expressed in language into a place of intimacy with God who is beyond words.

For me the theatrical piece was in itself an apophatic experience. The parallels between the performance and a spiritual gathering and encounter are mostly obvious, but there were also some specifics to the apophatic tradition, that particularly connected with me.

Firstly it illustrated the apophatic characteristic of Ascent. In scripture, deep apophatic encounters happen on mountains – Williams particularly notes Moses on Sinai and the disciples witnessing the transfiguration. Committing to walking up the hill, to seek out the place of encounter was part of the experience.

Secondly, there was also a certain degree of hesitancy and uncertainty about committing to something we couldn’t fully predict. Will I understand? Is this just for children? And yet there was a desire not to miss out. It holds a potential to be wonderful..

For those schooled in a kataphatic approach to Christianity, there may be a hesitancy to engage in a less defined spirituality – although for others this will be the very thing that entices them forward – this may lead to something wonderful. The apophatic way is also, by its very nature, one of unpredictability. We can live in openness to God encounters, but only the Spirit can enable the encounter, at a moment of God’s choosing. The disciples ascended many hills with Jesus; yet suddenly (a key word on apophatic encounter) on one occasion, of God’s choosing, they witnessed the transfiguration.

Thirdly there was a need to be vulnerable, to strip away a desire to be in control. To begin with we wanted to ready to slip away so we sat on the edge. If we had been prepared to lay down more, strip away more of our need to be in control we could have sat in comfier chairs in the middle, with an excellent view. And so with apophatic way. We are invited to take Jesus’ words of discipleship seriously,

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.

Mark 8:34-35

In stripping back and laying down we find life. If I had been less eager to keep control, with an option to leave, I could have had a even richer experience.

And finally the joy of the experience was for all, children and adults, those who spoke French and those who didn’t. No previous knowledge or learning was required. We were simply invited into an encounter. An encounter beyond words. And so it is with the Apophatic way. We are invited to simply encounter God beyond words…

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