Those Terrifying Liminal Spaces: Reflections on Not Knowing

“This is the ultimate knowledge of God, to know that we do not know” – Thomas Aquinas
 
I was slowly dying on the inside. The many faith cliches I had used in the first half of my life were turning into ash in my mouth. As a spiritual leader, I found myself answering questions in a manner that I know would bring a sense of comfort to the ones who posed them, whilst leaving me personally deeply unsure about these ‘water tight’ interpretations. An insistent inner voice was growing louder, demanding that I give attention to some of the doubts and hesitancy that I continued to deny in my need for absolute certainty. An ‘absolute certainty’ addiction that had been fed by strong fundamentalist paradigms that allowed little room for ambiguity or paradox. Like a prickle in my shoe or sand in my bed, I could not ignore it. It nagged at me and terrified me: “If I start to question, where would I stop? Where would it take me?” I was unsure that my concept of God was big enough to take this leap. But leap I did …
DSCF0111“Liminal Space” by Lisa Hunt-Wotton
 
So I found myself in this strange place. A place that my early faith tradition did not prepare me for, perhaps because it simply lacked the language to describe it? Like someone debilitated by frenzied religious ideals, I lay waiting to see who would stop. It wasn’t who I expected. Unlike the story of the Good Samaritan, in my case, the ‘priests’ stopped and saved my life: Brennan Manning, Jean Vanier, Henri Nouwen, and Richard Rohr – pouring healing words on my wounds and helping me to understand this liminal space. This uncomfortable place where I could no longer pretend I had all the answers. The place of not knowing. ‘Liminal’ comes from the Latin word ‘limen’ meaning ‘threshold’. A place of waiting. A place of transition. A place where you finally let go that treasured trapeze bar and you find yourself free falling and hope that the grace that has carried you this far will still be there as you sail through the air, with no safety net, and no alternate trapeze bar swinging to meet you.
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It was the writings of Victor Turner in the second half of the 20th century that made the term ‘liminal’ popular. He borrowed and expanded the ideas of Van Gennep. Some of his writings included, “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage”,Liminality and Communitas”, and “Passages, Margins, and Poverty: Religious Symbols of Communitas.”
His thoughts on liminality can be summarised as: “For Turner, liminality is one of the three cultural manifestations of communitas — it is one of the most visible expressions of anti-structure in society. Yet even as it is the antithesis of structure, dissolving structure and being perceived as dangerous by those in charge of maintaining structure, it is also the source of structure. Just as chaos is the source of order, liminality represents the unlimited possibilities from which social structure emerges. While in the liminal state, human beings are stripped of anything that might differentiate them from their fellow human beings — they are in between the social structure, temporarily fallen through the cracks, so to speak, and it is in these cracks, in the interstices of social structure, that they are most aware of themselves. Yet liminality is a midpoint between a starting point and an ending point, and as such it is a temporary state that ends when the initiate is re-incorporated into the social structure.”
 
Richard Rohr describes this place most vividly: “Liminal spaces, therefore, are a unique spiritual position where human beings hate to be but where the biblical God is always leading them. It is when you have left the ‘tried and true’ but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is then you are finally out of the way …  If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait – you will run – or more likely you will ‘explain’.” I frantically tried to ‘explain’ this place to myself, to my friends and family, to the wider faith community. You feel like an idiot at this threshold. An idiot who leaves behind a wonderful place of safety and comfort only to find yourself in a place totally beyond your control and comfort. You are left with an unanswered “Now What?” question, and a dangerous assumption that this question will be swiftly answered like Harry’s beautifully wax-sealed, owl-delivered, Hogwarts Acceptance Letter. Rarely is this the case. Rarely is it this simple.  
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The frantic search for that one perfect answer in this disturbing, sacred place will not be helpful. Transition is slow and the transformation that happens here is painful. It is here we find ourselves suddenly faced with our own liminality. We are confronted by the lies of our age – success, influence, importance – everything that has upheld the ego and our own ideas or spiritual superiority, comes crashing down. We beg, plead, tantrum, bargain in this disordered habitat of loss, longing and disequilibrium. But as so many who have gone before us have experienced, there’s no bargaining in the desert, there’s no hidden sun in the middle of the night.
 
Finally, the struggle turns quiet. It would be nice to suggest that this happens due to mindfulness and spiritual practices. These certainly help, but I have found that you come to a place of rest because you are exhausted from the struggle and the only option is to Let Go. The more you do, the more you recognise your own insecurities, false ego and the lies you have believed, and, like Alice, you keep falling down the rabbit hole. When you finally stop freaking out, you discover to your surprise, that the grace that carried you in the hurried first half of life has not left you…
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Grace suddenly becomes far more real. In this suspended, mid-air, confusing liminal space, you are still God’s beloved. Gradually, like a sunrise in slow motion, it begins to dawn on you: All is grace! This one magnificent life that we are given is not made meaningful because we adhere to the messaging or image of a consumer driven culture. Neither do we derive meaning from our ability to ‘succeed’ spiritually or relationally or financially. Liminal spaces expose the unnerving reality that we are really not in control in the way we think we are. Liminal spaces confront us with our innate craving for certainty. Liminal spaces show us that ambiguity and paradox are part of what it means to be human and of the journey with the divine. It is in the not knowing that grace shines. Like Jacob, we wake up in this foreign place and exclaim: “You have been here all along and I was not aware of it.” All is grace. 
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Don’t surrender your loneliness
So quickly.
Let it cut more deep.
 
Let it ferment and season you
As few humans
Or even divine ingredients can.
 
Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft,
My voice
So tender,
 
My need of God
Absolutely
Clear.
 
– Hafiz –
 
If you cling to your life, you will lose it, and if you let your life go, you will save it.
– Jesus –
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7 thoughts on “Those Terrifying Liminal Spaces: Reflections on Not Knowing”

  1. This is such a beautiful piece. It is close to my heart. I am currently undertaking my third online Richard Rohr course. It has been a wonderful experience learning through his teachings as well as the likes of other great Christian teachers, but it has also been a time in my life of much personal struggle and confusion – much of what you have written about here. I am grateful for a glimpse of what lies ahead.

  2. Such a beautiful and raw piece of writing Nicole…thanks for sharing your journey so honestly. There are so many gems in this that I think I need to commit it all to memory! The ultimate gem…”All is grace”. And Lisa’s paintings are brilliant. xC

  3. Nicole, I absolutely love this post. My very favourite. I wish we all understood liminal space more than we do. It is such a relief. Lisa

    1. Thanks, Lisa. Thanks heaps for letting me use your beautiful painting – it puts all the words into one perfect picture.

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