Wilderness Meditation. Aoradh Christian Arts Project.

It is almost summer! Even here, in the west of Scotland, the sun is shining, and the life is exploding all around us. Many of us will be longing to get outdoors- out into the wild places, because just being in wilderness seems to give us soul-space, and opportunities to connect again with the Creator.

I am part of a small community of folk who live in Dunoon, Scotland. A few years ago we started a Christian arts project called Aoradh (Gaelic for ‘adoration’.) Our town is blessed with proximity to wonderful hills, lochs and islands. It seemed a natural thing to consider how we might use these wild places in a more structured way to be purposeful in our meditation on, and worship of, God. We looked for materials we could use or adapt, but found little, so began to develop some of our own. But before we discuss these, let me give you a little bit of background…

Much of the discussions around the emerging church have centred around the issue of how we engage with the culture and world about us. How we are relevant, and perhaps above all, the issue of context. However, my impression is, that both Emerging Church and Alternative Worship projects are stereotypically urban for the most part. They nod towards an urban sub culture, and tend to gather in former nightclubs or subterranean church basements… they anchor themselves in city streets.

This is no criticism! That is where the people are. But some are also in suburbs, and in small rural communities like mine. These contexts are often very different. In our group, people’s ages range from 7 to people in their late seventies- the group is much less homogenous, but at the same time, the small town situation gives people fewer options to explore their spirituality. There are huge fracture lines between groups in our community- natives/incomers, Catholic/Protestant, rural poor/comfortably independent. There is also a huge problem with alcohol miss-use.

Perhaps above all things, small towns wear their history like second hand clothes. Damaged and broken relationships – with churches or individuals – can last generations. Attempting to break these barriers is a difficult and sometimes painful task.

So the question for us is how we engage with people in THIS cultural context? How do we avoid becoming a little holy huddle, that meet to fulfil OUR needs, and have few connections to people about us? This is our work-in-progress!

But paradoxically, perhaps the heart of small community(within a small community) has to beat with what is meaningful to the group itself? What activities, acts of worship, connect us to God, and to his mission in our context? What releases his passion into our lives? Where do we meet the Spirit, and see his fruit growing, transforming all that we are?

There seem to be some important challenges that we are faced with…

  • Learning to live in inclusive, not exclusive community with one another.
  • Trying to make this word missional our a way of life, not just an interesting word!
  • Avoiding religious competition, whilst staying creative and active.
  • Connecting with men, who are leaving church even faster than women.
  • Catering for the tastes and preferences of a wide age range, and the inherent conservativism of small town life.

We have experimented with labyrinths, art exhibitions, music and poetry in pubs, more traditional musical worship events,Dunoon,Scotland 24-7 prayer rooms and have looked for partnerships with other community and church groups. There have been some ‘successes’, and some, shall we say, failed experiments!

But back to the wilderness stuff.

Within Aoradh we have been trying to bring together some different strands;

  • The great outdoors. For many, connection with nature is synonymous with spirituality. There may be a lot of new age nonsense mixed in with this, but for many folk, this is indeed their ‘church’.
  • Pilgrimmage. Why did people do this in such huge numbers through the ages? Perhaps the destination is less important than the decision to journey towards God?
  • Contemplative spirituality. We often fill our time with stuff. In our services, there is little silence. Yet there seems to be an increasing desire to return to more ancient spiritual practices. The space and peace offered by wilderness seems an ideal opportunity to embrace these traditions anew.
  • Celtic spirituality. The romantic attraction of what little we know of the Celtic tradition pulls at most of us. The rhythms of tide and migration of the wild goose- giving us a symbolism that still takes us to God.
  • Experiential education/outdoor encounter groups. Taking groups off into the wilderness to ‘find’ or ‘learn’ something has a long tradition.
  • Alternative Worship. The Alt.Worship scene has encouraged people to make creative use of space and time to make collective acts of worship.
  • Art. Appreciation of art is a highly personal thing. But for me, art (in it’s broadest sense – music, painting, theatre, etc) is at it’s most powerful when it allows people to ‘find’ truth. It creates a space into which meaning is projected.

This has led us to thinking about how the landscape, spaces, and qualities we might encounter in wilderness might bring meaning to our experience.

A cave that is tomb-like and dark- the savouring of this, and the contrast as we step out into light.

The movement of water. The symbolism of water in the Bible. Small islands, and the temporary removal from people within their small (yet also large) boundaries.

The concept of liminality, paced out along a shoreline.

The distant horizon and a path leading off into the unknown.

A fireplace, in the gathering gloom, with its ancient symbolism of community and hospitality. Tongues of fire flickering amongst us as the Spirit moves.

Sunsets that burn out red and gold, then leave you in the starlight.

Portals made from fallen timber in the forest- symbolising the movement from one space, to another.

All these are potential moments of transcendence when this passing and finite life of ours connects with something of the nature and majesty of God.

If anyone is interested in finding out more about what we did, feel free to contact us. Some of these meditations are available from our website. We are hoping that we can gather them into a book.

Chris Goan