In Chronology

Between Two Worlds

 Richard RohrSunday,  April 26, 2020 

Liminal space is an inner state and sometimes an outer situation where we can begin to think and act in new ways. It is where we are betwixt and between, having left one room or stage of life but not yet entered the next. We usually enter liminal space when our former way of being is challenged or changed—perhaps when we lose a job or a loved one, during illness, at the birth of a child, or a major relocation. It is a graced time, but often does not feel “graced” in any way. In such space, we are not certain or in control. This global pandemic we now face is an example of an immense, collective liminal space.

The very vulnerability and openness of liminal space allows room for something genuinely new to happen. We are empty and receptive—erased tablets waiting for new words. Liminal space is where we are most teachable, often because we are most humbled. Liminality keeps us in an ongoing state of shadowboxing instead of ego-confirmation, struggling with the hidden side of things, and calling so-called normalcy into creative question.

It’s no surprise then that we generally avoid liminal space. Much of the work of authentic spirituality and human development is to get people into liminal space and to keep them there long enough that they can learn something essential and new. Many spiritual giants like St. Francis, Julian of Norwich, Dorothy Day, and Mohandas Gandhi tried to live their entire lives in permanent liminality, on the edge or periphery of the dominant culture. This in-between place is free of illusions and false payoffs. It invites us to discover and live from broader perspectives and with much deeper seeing.

In liminal space we sometimes need to not-do and not-perform according to our usual successful patterns. We actually need to fail abruptly and deliberately falter to understand other dimensions of life. We need to be silent instead of speaking, experience emptiness instead of fullness, anonymity instead of persona, and pennilessness instead of plenty. In liminal space, we descend and intentionally do not come back out or up immediately. It takes time but this experience can help us reenter the world with freedom and new, creative approaches to life.

I imagine that even if you’ve never heard the word liminal before, you likely have a sense of what I’m talking about. It would be difficult to exist in this time of global crisis and not feel caught between at least two worlds—the one we knew and the one to come. Our consciousness and that of future generations has been changed. We cannot put the genie back in the bottle.

The Presence of Spirit
Monday,  April 27, 2020

Many things can bring us to the “threshold” of our ordinary ways of thinking and behaving, but even good rituals are merely “stand-ins” until Reality itself, often in the form of great love or great suffering, steps in and changes us forever. My friend Paula D’Arcy, with whom I have taught many times over the years, lost her husband and young daughter in a tragic car accident while she was pregnant with their second child. This story from Paula reveals how liminal moments can occur at any time.

One afternoon, my heart breaking, I began sorting through the clothes my daughter Sarah would never wear. A dress lay across my lap, a little piece of white cotton. It evoked one more moment . . . of bitter tears and confused disbelief. . . . Life was not supposed to turn out this way. . . .

It was such an innocent and common thing—a child’s garment. Yet even as it broke my heart, that dress became an opening; the soft cotton tore at me from within and began to empty me.

You are not the only heartbroken parent in the world, it said. The pain of loss is not yours alone. Disappointment is the human condition. I continued to stare at the cotton and lace, but something had shifted. The dress was somehow connecting me to the texture and mystery of greater things . . .

Without fully understanding why, I began to soften. I saw life’s contour, its density and its brilliance, just as it is, nothing more. . . . I saw how I’d been caught in a script of my own creation and . . . was totally caught up in my own world—my emotions, my wants, and my needs. . . . Now it was simply my time—my turn to know the darkness and discover whether or not I was brave enough to accept the human journey and find a way through. . . .

I slowly began to see that within the cells of every living thing is the same essence—the presence of spirit. The heart of our journey is to awaken to this spirit within. . . .

Hardly anything turns out the way you expected it to, and you’re frequently ready to write life off as too paradoxical and too difficult to endure. Then some indescribable light fights its way through the impenetrable dark—an unpredictable, unimportant, runaway moment that lights up everything you’ve been unable to see until then. That light removes all the shoulds and oughts, all the illusions about fairness. You enter liminal space . . . In that space you take your first script [or what I call your false or separate self], the one that weighs five hundred pounds, the script that was cutting into your heart all along, bleeding you to death but you didn’t realize the wound or its seriousness—and you simply let it go.


Dark Liminality
Tuesday,  April 28, 2020

When I am in that darkness, I do not remember anything about anything human. —Angela of Foligno (1248–1309)

After working as a physician and bioethicist for decades, Living School alumna and chair of the CAC Board LaVera Crawley became a hospital chaplain and spiritual companion for patients and their families in the liminality that often occurs between life and death. It seems to me that spiritual companionship is an art many of us are learning to practice these days, but we must be willing to be present to those in need, not just physically (or virtually), but with our whole selves. LaVera shares some of the challenges of this spiritual work and how it can be transformative for both parties.

There are likely few situations with the power to reliably propel us beyond the threshold of everyday existence and into the realm of the liminal than the way of the despair of receiving a diagnosis of a serious, life-threatening illness. It can feel like being hit by a brick or like being hurled into the dark abyss. Once there, the territory can be utterly disorienting and terribly frightening. . . .

Few know how to enter the liminal space where their loved one or patient has been forced to go, let alone how to be there should they be brave enough to dare to enter. We are uncomfortable in these kinds of liminal spaces because it is strange and unfamiliar territory, woven with the difficult feelings we’ve been taught to suppress by medicating them away, by bypassing them through platitudes . . . or denying them all together. . . .

It takes willingness, fortitude, knowledge, skill, and a deep trust in Spirit to go into these dark places as both witness and companion.

To be very clear, I am not equating darkness with something bad or negative, any more than I would consider the apophatic way [1] as such. There is deep beauty in the darkness, in the unknowing, in the indescribable, if only we can open ourselves to its purpose. Metaphorically, the dark emotions of grief, fear, and despair can be profound teachers and guides. . . . The primal howl of existential suffering holds within it the lesson that we all must learn at some time in our lives: To heal from our suffering—not merely to ease or palliate it, but to transform it into the source and substance of our growth and wisdom—requires a journey through it. We must listen attentively for whatever message it has for us and, according to [psychotherapist Miriam] Greenspan, find authentic ways to befriend it so that we can surrender to its transmuting power. All spiritual traditions teach some variation of this wisdom. While it may not come naturally to us to respond to suffering in this way, through practice, it can become a learned skill. . . .

The art of spiritual companionship through the realm of the liminal can be learned, whether we are accompanying others or attending to our own souls. The first step requires trusting that, in the course of time, the very healing we seek can emerge by our journeying through liminal space, listening attentively to what the liminal seeks to tell us.

The Liminal Paradox
Wednesday,  April 29, 2020

Sheryl Fullerton, an editor and author with whom I have worked for many years, received a cancer diagnosis two years ago which required a difficult surgery. Like many individuals who are on earnest spiritual journeys, she allowed the painful and challenging experience to transform and guide her to greater wisdom.

When we find ourselves in liminal space, does it matter whether we are pushed or whether we jump? Either way, we are not where or what we were before, nor do we know how or where we will land in our new reality. We are, as the anthropologist Victor Turner (1920–1983) wrote, betwixt and between. In that space—which is mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual—we are destabilized, disoriented. The old touchstones, habits, and comforts are now past, the future unknown. We only wish such a time to be over. We may be impatient to pass through it quickly, with as little distress as possible, even though that is not likely. . . .

But what if we can choose to experience this liminal space and time, this uncomfortable now, as . . . a place and state of creativity, of construction and deconstruction, choice and transformation[?] I wonder whether it is, then, also the realm of the Holy Spirit, our comforter, who does not take away the vastness and possibility of this opened-up threshold time, but invites us to lay down our fears and discomfort to see what else is there, hard as that may be. . . .

One transformation in this liminal time of cancer treatment and recovery was my recognition that the staggering vulnerability I was experiencing was not weakness, not shameful, but the source of what would allow me to survive and, eventually, to thrive. I allowed others to see me—not just my broken, lopsided face, but also my pain, sorrow, disappointment, and discouragement, as well as my gratitude, resilience, joy, and recovery. . . .

Like Jonah in the belly of the sea monster, we are led where we do not want to go—not once, but many times in our lives. Dwelling in unsettling liminal space, whether we are pushed or we jump, we are led to draw on resources and possibilities we may not have tapped before. In the unknown space between here and there, younger and older, past and future, life happens. And, if we attend, we can feel the Holy Spirit moving with us in a way that we may not be aware of in more settled times. In liminal time and space, we can learn to let reality—even in its darkness—be our teacher, rather than living in the illusion that we are creating it on our own. We can enter into the liminal paradox: a disturbing time and space that not only breaks us down, but also offers us the choice to live in it with fierce aliveness, freedom, sacredness, companionship, and awareness of Presence.

Friday,  May 1, 2020

After decades of observation, I can honestly say that the United States is a ritually starved culture. We are too easily satisfied with making a sign of the cross or blowing out candles on our birthday cake. True rituals create liminal space (from the Latin word limen, meaning threshold). We need them to help us consciously spend time at the thresholds of our lives.

Without some sort of guidance and reframing, we don’t understand the necessary ebb and flow of life, the ascents and descents, and the need to embrace our tears as well as our triumphs. Without standing on the threshold for much longer than we’re comfortable, we won’t be able to see beyond ourselves to the broader and more inclusive world that lies before us. In liminal space, we must leave business as usual and voluntarily enter a world where the rules and expectations are quite different. Wise elders, like the ones I’ve shared this week, help us to recognize and embrace such spaces.

Sadly, our Christian churches often fail to create such liminal space through authentic ritual. Perhaps that is one of many reasons people are leaving churches in the West. You could even say today that the institutions of Christianity themselves exist in liminal space. Author and pastor Brandan Robertson examines the threshold moment of our current religious institutions:

We are entering a truly liminal space where, for a multitude of reasons, many are leaving the ways they’ve historically worshiped and entering into uncharted territory. On one hand, this is an exciting time in religious history, as we participate in radical and fundamental reforms of our institutions. On the other hand, this process can cause great anxiety for those of us who have devoted our lives to teaching, practicing, and guiding others in a particular spiritual or religious tradition. . . .

What are we to do at such a threshold moment? . . . In moments of transition, we are simply to be. We are to pause and acknowledge that a transition is taking place. Instead of seeking to abruptly pass through a threshold, we are to tarry. . . . A new reality is emerging, but we cannot see beyond the threshold. All we know is that we exist in this moment, where everything is in transition. We may experience a new way of being, but we cannot yet sense what it will look like. [1]

Not one of us has a reliable crystal ball. We don’t know what lies ahead in this uncertain moment in history. Yet we know we are called into relationship, with our Creator and with each other. It is through liminal space that we may taste—however briefly —experiences of divine union, recognizing the radical oneness we all enjoy with everything—simply by being born.

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