As we explored in last week's meditations, liminal space (from the Latin
limen for "threshold") is an inner state and sometimes an outer situation where we can begin to think and act in genuinely new ways. It is when we are betwixt and between, having left one room or stage of life but not yet entered the next. We often 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, engagement, or at the birth of a child. During this graced time we are not certain or in control. This openness allows room for something genuinely new to happen. We are empty and receptive--an erased tablet waiting for new words. Liminal space is where we are most teachable.
Because we have avoided liminal space, we have created a very smug and middle class kind of Christianity that has little wisdom or compassion to offer the world today. 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, Dorothy Day, or Mohandas Gandhi) try to live their entire lives in permanent liminality, on the edge or the periphery of the dominant culture. This in-between place is free of illusions and false pay-offs; it invites us to discover and live from a broader perspective and with a much deeper seeing.
Most of us cannot run off to the wilderness or the hermitage forever. But spiritual traditions offer temporary and partial liminality in experiences like pilgrimages, urban plunges into different levels of society, silent retreats, extended periods of fasting, solitude in nature, and sacred times like Lent and Ramadan. There has to be something different and daring, even nonsensical, to break our comfortable sleepwalk and our compulsive cultural trance. Mere piety will never do it.
In liminal space we sometimes need to not-do and not-perform according to our usual successful patterns. We actually need to fail, fast, and deliberately falter to understand other dimensions of life. We need to be silent instead of talking, 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. From this experience we can reenter the world with freedom and new, creative approaches. Liminality keeps one in an ongoing state of shadowboxing instead of ego-confirmation; it can keep us struggling with the dark side of things, calling the center and so-called normalcy into creative question.