Tag Archives: Jean Vanier

Those Terrifying Liminal Spaces: Reflections on Not Knowing

Last week Tim Carson provided an excellent guest blog on Psalm 139: Treasures of Darkness – I thought this blog from 2015 would add to the conversation.

“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 ‘watertight’ 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. The 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 –

Want to Learn about Community? … Listen to the Trees!

“Trees also understand that slowness is the key to a good life. For humans, at the moment, it feels like life is going faster and faster. This way of living uses up so much energy that the quality of our lives doesn’t get better. We should slow down.” 
– Peter Wohlleben – 
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My father has always maintained that Mother Nature is the best teacher. He laments our modern day disconnect from the wild and the sense of ‘lostness’ that so many feel amidst our techno-driven, hyper-real existence. So it was with interest that I read the interview with Peter Wohlleben in the recent Slow Magazine and his study on The Hidden Life of Trees.

Peter’s premise is that trees, like us, experience pain, and form social and family bonds. His years of research have him conclude that different trees have different personalities. Some act as parents and good neighbours, while others are brutal bullies. Trees are anthropomorphic. It is almost as if they have feelings and character. They communicate via a ‘woodwide web’ of chemical and electrical signals. Their young ones takes risks and then learn life lessons from their mistakes. It is like trees form villages, recognising their friends from strangers.

As I fell down the rabbit hole of reading article after article about Wohlleben’s study of the ancient beech forest he manages in the Eifel mountains of Western Germany, I was reminded of my father’s sentiment – Mother Nature is a much better teacher than humans. While we wax lyrical about community and philosophise about life, trees just simply live their ‘philosophy’. No wonder one of the wisest men in ancient text studied the cedars of Lebanon and nature (1 Kings 4:33). Jesus himself suggested that we look at nature to obtain wisdom and meaning (Matthew 6:26).

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Wohlleben points out the communal nature of trees. In a tree community, every member is important, including the ‘weak’ ones:

Their well-being depends on their community, and when the supposedly feeble trees disappear, the others lose as well. When that happens, the forest is no longer a single closed unit. Hot sun and swirling winds can now penetrate to the forest floor and disrupt the moist, cool climate. Even strong trees get sick a lot over the course of their lives. When this happens, they depend on their weaker neighbors for support. If they are no longer there, then all it takes is what would once have been a harmless insect attack to seal the fate even of giants.”

and

“Every tree, therefore, is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible. And that is why even sick individuals are supported and nourished until they recover. Next time, perhaps it will be the other way round, and the supporting tree might be the one in need of assistance.”

Wohlleben has observed the friendships between trees, some deeper than others. They grow but don’t compete with each other and “if you fell one of those two trees, the other will die too, like an old couple.”

Trees teach us about life and community. In our very important, crazy-busy lives, we seldom notice their quiet and majestic presence. Unlike trees, our ‘developed’ world tends to shove our frail and ‘weaker’ members into places where they are not seen, somewhere on the margins where their presence does not taint our perfect image or require our time and understanding. We build on ideas about community that are quickly dismantled in times of crisis. We betray each other by the disregard we display to these very ideals. The ancient forests teach us that every tree plays a role. Even the oldest, frailest stump is cared for and significant. 

In this Year of Discernment, I have found the learnings about trees astounding and healing. I no longer stare past them as I look out my window. I notice these giant teachers of life. I find hope in their presence. Perhaps one day us humans can become as kind and learn to love our neighbour as these ancient Douglas firs and beeches? 

“A community that is growing rich and seeks only to defend its goods and its reputation is dying. It has ceased to grow in love. A community is alive when it is poor and its members feel they have to work together and remain united, if only to ensure that they can all eat tomorrow!”
– Jean Vanier, Community and Growth – 
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