The Abraham Project
Paul Rebillot's last big project
by Tony Khabaz
In 2005, Paul Rebillot launched “The Abraham project”: the design, with a group of students of a workshop based on Abraham's journey. Beyond the description of how the specific Abraham workshop was developed, this text provides insights into the complex creative process that Rebillot had devised for designing structures based on mythological content.
When Paul Rebillot started thinking about the Abraham project in 2005, he had for a long time been deeply affected by the division and conflicts pervading the world, particularly on religious grounds. On his side, he was an expert in designing and facilitating experiential workshops (which he called “structures”) that reach far beyond mental preconceptions and touch upon the deepest, truest roots of life as one may experience it. He then decided to put this expertise to use and started to gather a group who would “work together to design a structure based on the story of Abraham, common father of three great faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam and to explore the common ground of these faiths, to discover ways to bring healing rather than division among the people who follow these religious paths” (1). It was his hope that the team could then take this structure to people not only in Europe, but also in other parts of the world including the Near-East. This was to be his last big project.
Myth as a healing experience
The people who joined Rebillot in the Abraham project were mostly former advanced trainees of his. While some members could not make it to the end of the project, present all along were seven members originating from three countries: Giddy Mellick-Felstead, Dorothee Kölle and Andreas Wandtke-Grohamm from Germany; Kathy O'Connor and Donal Dorr from Ireland and Claude Bounieux and Tony Khabaz from France. Each one brought to this undertaking their individual sensitivities, enriched by the diversity of their cultural backgrounds. Tony Khabaz also brought the touch of one who had been raised in the Near-Eastern culture. Collaborative work was all the more a challenge that the team was scattered over three countries and each one had to balance the demands of the project with work and family responsibilities. Over two years, they met twice, for seven and nine days, and they worked remotely the rest of the time.
The main feature of the project was to approach the story of Abraham as a myth, leaving aside the dimensions of history, creed, religion as well as intellectual analysis. To Rebillot, myth was indeed the royal way to the personal quest for an authentic life.
“A story, he wrote, integrates an idea of the mind with the feelings of the heart and the sensations of the body. Even if the intellectual message is not understood, the teaching may be realised by the soul, beyond words. The process is an educational one, a process of discovery and expansion. It's a unique experience of living intimately the myth from the inside. The work is not about helping people cope with problems and function better; but rather to help people open up the vistas of their being so that life becomes more liveable — more of an experience and less of a problem. Out of that opening and realisation will flow the ability to cope and to function more satisfactorily, for the person will have tapped their own creative sources.” (2)
Hence, the idea was to approach the story of Abraham as a timeless plot with meaning for everyone, whoever they are and wherever they come from. In line with this perspective, the team based their work on how the story of Abraham was referred to in both Hebrew and Muslim sources whether written or oral, as well as anthropological essays.
The Abraham project was developed along the process that Paul Rebillot had long ago devised for his structure Dancing with the gods. At first, the team dramatised the story of Abraham in the course of a seven-day session held in Germany in July 2006. Then, they created the structure that would enable workshop participants to experience that story from within. This was accomplished through remote cooperation, and completed in the course of a second nine-day session in October 2007, together with a third and final step which was to facilitate the structure with a group of external people. All this was accomplished with the active support of Paul Rebillot. A workshop open to a wider public was later organised in Ireland, in 2009, a year after Rebillot had left Europe for San Francisco.
Aggregating diverse traditions into one transformational structure
In the July 2006 session, the team's first aim was to reach beyond preconceptions and intellectual considerations and to connect in depth to the story and its characters. First, based on as many sources and traditions as possible, oral as well as written, the story was sifted through and the most evocative scenes were selected. Regarding the sacrifice of Abraham's son, which is Isaac in the Hebrew tradition or Ismail in Muslim one, both versions were retained. Once the main scenes had been picked out, a list of the key characters was established, each one with their specific qualities and the personal, unique intention that drives them all along the story.
The next step was to incorporate the characters one after the other. For each character, the team would get some music going and start “dancing the character”. Each one in their own space, the team members would move to the sound and rhythm of the music while focusing on the character in question, his or her qualities, desires and aspirations. They would let their body and imagination guide them in exploring how the character would move and behave, attentive to all that could arise in terms of sensations, emotions or images, until they ended their “dance” with a fixed body posture that incorporated and summed up the character.
Then came the dramatisation itself, scene after scene. The team would set the stage, share the roles and some would embody the characters in presence. Attention was brought more to the affinity between team member and character than gender: a man could embody Hagar, a woman, Isaac. As for Rebillot, he would sometimes involve himself just like the other members of the team. What mattered the most was to respect the key moments that structured the scene, then taking in anything that would emerge and letting it inspire the actual dialogue, gestures and pace.
After each scene, the team would sit down and share some feedback about the dynamics of the scene and what each one's inner experience made them realise, staying wary of any interpretation or intellectualisation and focusing on the sensations, feelings and images that had occurred to them. After which they would move on to the next scene.
Once this part of the dramatisation was completed, the next step was to step back and decide on the final overall structure of what would be a three and a half-day workshop targeted to external people.
The team decided which scenes they wanted to keep that would bring the most dramatic effect, and how to group them in “segments” (that is, key moments in the structure), all the while keeping the overall dynamics and pace in mind, in terms of tension building, climax point and falling-off in action that would lead to the closing.
Apart from opening and closing, they identified five segments which would constitute the main thread of the structure, which they called “Idols”, “Call”, “Family”, “Sacrifice” and “Funeral”. In “Idols”, young Abraham's father makes and sells idols. Abraham doubts their power and smashes them, then pretends that they broke while fighting with one another. Subjected to the test of fire, he escapes unscathed, proclaiming that he is protected by his own God. In “Call”, Abraham, who has long been yearning for a vision, hears the voice of God telling him to leave his land and promising him numerous descendants. In “Family”, Abraham begets two sons with two wives. Conflict arises. He excludes Hagar and Ismail. In “Sacrifice”, God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son — Ismail in the Muslim tradition or Isaac in the Hebrew tradition. The structure was to include both versions. In the last segment, “Funeral”, the two brothers, Ismail and Isaac, meet at their father's funeral.
As these five segments were progressively drawing up the main thread of a streamlined structure, the team session was getting near the end. They still had to organise to work remotely. They constituted a treasure chest of possible activities and ideas about how each segment might be approached and facilitated. Next, they established sub-teams and decided which one would be in charge of designing the facilitation of which segments, and they discussed how they would coordinate within and in-between sub teams. Then each one went back home to their countries.
Delivering a unique experience
For the next fifteen months, the team worked remotely. Based on their own experience and discoveries while they had dramatised the story, they specified, for each segment, its “theme” (what it was about), the “personal dynamics” which underlined the inner journey a this stage, and the “questions” these might raise within each person. Then they had to decide what they intended the participants to experience, through what kind of activity, and what would then be the best approach to help them integrate that experience. Meanwhile, they also had to ensure that every possibility they thought of would fit within the overall structure and pace — for instance, whether it would emphasize conflict or induce resolution, according to the effect intended at that point in the story.
At the time, their goal was to come to their next meeting with clear facilitation guidelines for each segment. But most of all, they had to ensure the overall coherence, dynamics and pace. Detailed facilitation guidelines helped them ensure this. Last but not least, they had to launch the communication to put together the first group that would experience the structure in the course of the next session.
While working remotely, the team had to face a quadruple challenge. Of course, they had to move through the complexities of figuring out the design and facilitation of the segments they were responsible for. They had to balance the demands of the project with those of their everyday life, namely at work and with their families. They also had to maintain their personal balance: some of them encountered health problems that would lead them to leave the project; and all of them had to deal with what the story of Abraham stirred in them. Finally, it was far from being easy for them to stay committed and to maintain coordination and coherence while moving forward on a project that was everything but technical.
Meanwhile, Paul Rebillot supported them from afar. In January 2007, he emailed, “I view the project as one of the most important actions that we have undertaken during this difficult time and, for me, it creates the possibility of continuity into the future. Of course this is my own ego speaking, I can recognize this, but I have a feeling, or a thought, that nibbles away behind the ego that says, something is crying out to be done, and we can give it a nudge with our hearts and souls. Perhaps we cannot change the world, but we can certainly hold it in our hands as a precious gift, and do what we can to nurture it, if only in the nearby. […] So I consider the project vital, valuable and, in fact, necessary, even if I will not be able to carry it further than its birth.” (3)
Rebillot and the team met again in October 2007 for a nine-day session. Four days were dedicated to testing the structure while experiencing it fully, in real time. Feedback was shared, some adjustments were decided, the facilitation process was streamlined, the material organisation was stabilised. The next three and a half days were dedicated to the external group of twelve people who was to experience the structure for the first time, after which they provided oral and written feedback to the team. After their departure, the team reviewed it, shared their own experience and agreed on the nature of new adjustments. Thereafter they separated, keeping in mind that the next step was, if possible, to organise workshops in their own countries.
Each one went back to their daily lives, work and families. As there was no longer any planned event ahead of them as there had been in the past, the creative tension that had been keeping them going faltered. As for Rebillot, he was in the process of putting an end to thirty-three years of European tours and, in March 2008, he returned definitively to San Francisco.
Keeping the Abraham project alive
However, three Ireland-based team members mustered the energy to organise a workshop there. Donal Dorr was instrumental in securing a venue. Thus the team had to rise up again to the challenge of presenting the Abraham structure to a group of participants and they resumed their remote cooperation.
They reviewed the points on which the October seminar had shown the need for adjustments and reworked the structure, flow and facilitation guidelines. They took into account the necessity to not rush the participants through the process and activities and to allow them all the time they needed to fully live and integrate their experience. Thus, they decided to extend the workshop from three and a half days to four and a half days.
Minor changes were made. However, a major shift was brought to the dynamics and facilitation of the “Funeral” segment. Actually, although Rebillot's structures were generally only that — structures void of content into which each one would project their own experience —, the Abraham project had been tinged with the hope that anger and resentment between the brothers would be sifted through, that mutual respect and maybe reconciliation would emerge and that they would make peace with each other. For the first time in his whole career, Rebillot had had a specific intention about the nature of what he wished the participants to experience: a happy ending was anticipated. This expectation proved erroneous.
In the October 2007 workshop in Germany, although all the participants were deeply moved by their experience of the “Funeral”, some of them, whether they incarnated Ismail or Isaac, found out that tense feelings originating in their own family stories kept resurfacing and that it was impossible for them to make peace with their “brother”. The team then realised that there was not to be any happy ending and that the structure must be improved in order to allow each participant to live an authentic experience. Yet, they were convinced that the “Funeral” represented an effective closure regardless of what each participant would make of it. This led them to introduce in the Ireland workshop a new, simpler approach which woud fully take into account the authentic “here and now” experience of each “brother”.
The team also rethought how they were going to communicate about the workshop. The previous name, Children of Abraham, was replaced by In The Footsteps of Abraham in order to emphasize the journey aspect of it. Abraham, they thought, travels with Sarah, Hagar, Lot, Ismail and Isaac from one land to the other on an outer journey which is filled with events. But the journey is also “an inner journey of faith, hope, joy, doubt, inner conflict, anguish and sorrow”. These ideas were formatted by Giddy Mellick-Felstead, website and flyer included, while the material organisation in Ireland was managed by Donal Door, Dorothee Kölle and Kathy O'Connor. The workshop was held in June 2009 with some twenty participants mostly from Ireland. It was facilitated by a team of six: Donal Dorr, Tony Khabaz, Dorothee Kölle, Gisela Mellick-Felstead, Kathy O'Connor and Andreas Wandtke-Grohmann.
The response was highly positive. From the participants' perspective, the journey had achieved its purpose, offering a smooth flow, a wide variety of approaches and experiences, a strong climax and a successful wind-down and conclusion. For the facilitation team too, it was a success. Not only had they reached their goal, but the learnings were numerous. The adjustments and additions based on the feedback from the previous workshop had proven effective. They actually could identify further possible improvements for the future. Equally satisfying to them was the fact that they had worked together quite smoothly. And their evening of celebration after the event felt truly delightful.
Looking into the future
Throughout the period when the team had been working on organising the 2009 workshop and getting ready for it, Paul Rebillot's health had been deteriorating. Shortly after they delivered it, his condition worsened. At least, he was aware that they had carried the Abraham project further.
Where are we at today? Most of the original team members are retained by professional and family obligations. Still, it is quite feasible to get the Abraham project back on track. The structure exists. The necessary adjustments are identified. Additional facilitators can be gathered and trained. It is mostly a matter of rekindling interest for it, which requires only converging efforts in terms of communication and organisation. The future remains open.
(1) Rebillot, Paul. Newsletter, 2006.
(2) Rebillot, Paul and Kay, Melissa. 'A trilogy of transformation', Pilgrimage: The Journal of Pastoral Psychotherapy, 7, 1, pp. 68-70, 1979.
(3) Rebillot, Paul. Email to Tony Khabaz and Giddy Mellick-Felstead, 9 January 2007.
Tony Khabaz (with Catherine Lagarde)
“To approach the story of Abraham as a myth, leaving aside the dimensions of history, creed, religion as well as intellectual analysis.”