We continue the journey of living our faith amidst a pandemic. Provincial health officials are loosening, ever so slowly, some of the restrictions we have all been living under. Premier Higgs even suggested church services can resume outdoors albeit with cars spaced a safe distance apart. Bishop Vienneau is not moving in that direction, as we would still not be able to share in Communion and having a “drive-thru” Mass would trivialize the sacrament. I agree.
As we await the day when we can all gather together again to celebrate Eucharist, a word keeps emerging in me. It is the word “liminal” or “liminality.” Liminal comes from the Latin word limen which means “threshold.” (In the Middle Ages, a raised board was fixed on the ground in the middle of a doorway. Its purpose was to “hold” the “thresh” from moving from one room to another, thus, the “threshold.” Think of it as the board preventing the mudroom’s dirt from entering the living room).
You are in liminal space when you are on the brink of something, but you have not quite accomplished that something. The cocoon is a type of liminal space for the would-be butterfly which is neither a caterpillar nor a butterfly but something in between. To be in liminal space is to live in a betwixt and between state, where you have left one room but you have not yet entered another room; you have left your old job but have not started a new job; you have ended one relationship but have not quite embraced another. I find the expression “liminal space” is one of the best words to describe Church. We are icons of a Kingdom already here but not yet fully here. The Risen Lord is already in our midst and yet we eat this bread and drink this cup until He comes again. Or as St. Paul says, “For now I see in a mirror dimly, and things come to me in a riddle, but some day I shall see face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12). He is talking about this already and not yet world that he lived in and that we are living in.
This is truly a space we can only inhabit with faith. People who live in a dualistic world, who cannot live with paradox and who have to have all the answers right here right now, tend to avoid liminal space and so truncate their own spiritual growth. “In fact, when a Christian needs to ensure outcomes, you know they are outside the realm of faith. When we do not need to control the future, we are in a very creative and liminal space where God is most free to act in our lives. Faith seems to be the attitude that Jesus most praises in people, maybe because it makes hope and love possible.” (Richard Rohr in Jesus’ Plan For A New World).
Liminal space is absolutely necessary for spiritual growth; it’s just not a space we move into readily or with any enthusiasm. Usually we have to be taken there. Don’t worry about how you will get there, though; life will take you there on its own. This time of the pandemic is a time when we are collectively living in liminal space, a space none of us would have chosen willingly. In this space my mind either wants to run back to a time before the pandemic hit or rush ahead to a time when this will be all over. Remaining in the middle is the hardest place of all. Yet, all transformation happens in liminal space. In fact, it’s the only place where transformation happens.
Why do we resist going into liminal space? It is because living in that space, even for the shorts period of time, requires letting go, surrender and even submission. We may not consider ourselves control freaks, but relinquishing control is difficult for everyone. Liminal space is like a death before we are made into a “new creation” as St. Paul says. Our ego resists liminal space because our ego does not know that there is a resurrection on the other side. So, while our ego and our instincts try to prevent us from entering liminal space, this space, nevertheless, has much to teach us. It is transformative and well as Biblical.
The story of Jonah and the whale is a classic story of liminal space. Jonah was called by God to go to Nineveh (enemy territory), but instead, he went in the opposite direction by boarding a ship to Tarshish. After being thrown overboard, God arranged for a mighty whale to swallow Jonah. He remained in the belly of the whale for three days before being spit up close to Nineveh. Being in the belly of a whale and being led to a place not of Jonah’s choosing…talk about losing control! (At the last Men’s Rite of Passage Retreat that four of us participated in, all the talks and rituals were done while the retreatants were inside an enclosure of 8-foot tall wooden “ribs”). Life itself has taken all of us into the belly of the whale.
Another classic story of liminal space come from the Book of Exodus. Under the leadership of Moses, God called the people away from the land of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. The 40 years of wandering in the desert was liminal space for the Hebrews. Many wanted to run back to Egypt while others kept asking Moses, “Are we there, yet?” Only Moses and a few others were convinced that this time in the desert was valuable time, a time when God was with them and transforming them.
Jesus himself enters liminal space many times in the gospels. In fact, the gospels tell us that “Jesus was led by the Spirit out into the desert” (Matthew 4:1). God saw the necessity of liminal space in his own Son’s journey so much so that God’s own Spirit drives Jesus into the desert. Jesus did not consciously lead himself to the desert, he had to be led there, just like we have to be led. But once there, he did not go back nor leapfrog ahead even though his days were fraught with such temptations to do so. Jesus believed that the liminal space of the desert was the only place where his own true transformation could happen. Can we also believe that God is fully present during these pandemic days? Could it be that we have been led here just as Jesus was led into the desert? In liminal space you may not, necessarily, meet God, but you will meet the True Self, which is always a Divine encounter.
It takes courage to remain in liminal space and faith to believe, that while there, we are being formed for the better. Fr. Richard Rohr says it well in his book, Things Hidden, “There is a necessary light that is only available through darkness, the darkness that comes in those liminal spaces of birth, death and suffering… There are certain truths that can be known only if we are sufficiently emptied, sufficiently ready, sufficiently confused or sufficiently destabilized.” COVID-19 has done its share of emptying, confusing and destabilizing much in our lives. I have to believe that somehow God’s Spirit is still in the middle of it all leading us ultimately to a deeper sense of ourselves and a truer sense of God.
Fr. Phil Mulligan