What if our Whole Life is a Liminal Space?

Our days on earth are like grass; like wildflowers, we bloom and die.
– The Psalmist –

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Last week I had a fascinating conversation with someone about liminal spaces. It is a topic that I am very interested in as I have found that my life has often led me into these perplexing spaces. “Betwixt and Between” is what Victor Turner called them. Threshold moments of letting go of a season in your life while still not having fully landed in the next phase. Liminality is not a comfortable place as it brings with it a sense of pilgrimage and movement. It’s like living out of a caravan. It is the ‘free fall’ between separation and re-assimilation.

The man I was talking to was a professor of history and the question he posed to me that day has given me some serious reflection moments: “Don’t you think that our whole life is a liminal space?” At first, I resisted this idea. Surely we are not on a perpetual pilgrimage? Or are we? Is the idea of reaching the next chapter and settling in, just that? An idea? Or perhaps even a mirage? Human nature would not allow for this permanent liminality – falling between the cracks of an imagined social structure and remaining there like a sewer dweller. We want safety, borders, predictability, and acceptance. This is not what liminal spaces are all about. And maybe that is why we spend our whole life fighting them!

That hit me like a ton of bricks in the middle of the night. Of course! Our ridiculous notions of happiness are nothing else than an escape plan out of liminality. Existential angst manifests itself in so many ways. We may never acknowledge the anxiety that accompanies what it means to simply live. And maybe that is why we have such a terribly hard time coming to grips with the ever-shifting sand under our feet from the time we are born to the time we go to the grave.

But what if we simply accept the fact that liminality is what life is about? What if we created a different narrative around the ‘shifting sand’? What if we recognised in this consistent state of flux we can also find freedom and growth? Understanding liminality as a part of everyday life prepares us for the one thing that is certain: change! Change comes to all of us, whether we like it or not, admit it or not. Just take a look in the mirror and then look at a photo of ten years ago … it’s called change.

I realise we need stability. I am not suggesting we turn into unreliable liminal travellers driven by every whim or fancy. Rather, I am asking how seeing our whole life as a liminal space can help us in navigating the twists and turns that life brings. We are pilgrims on this earth. We are a moment, a breath. The Psalmist said we are like wildflowers … we bloom and we die (Psalm 103:15). If we begin to really see our lives like this, perhaps we can curb our empty pursuit of happiness and simply enjoy the moment, the shifting sand, the twists, and the turns?

I guess what I am really trying to say is that perhaps liminality is given to us as a gift? Instead of fighting it, we can make peace with it. When we truly grasp that our whole life is a liminal space then we can also learn how to live in the moment and the now. Liminality undergirds mindfulness as we take nothing for granted. Liminality assists us in overcoming a sense of entitlement. Liminality is what gives sight to blind privilege.

So, dear friend, next time life grabs you like an unexpected wave in the ocean and tosses you around, breathe deeply. You are a pilgrim. Your whole life is a liminal space. You are that trapeze artist who can let go and not freak out. You can change. You eat “betwixt and between” for breakfast. You are fearfully and wonderfully made. You’ve got this!

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The paradox: there can be no pilgrimage without a destination but the destination is also not the real point of the endeavour. Not the destination, but the willingness to wander in pursuit characterises pilgrimage. Willingness: to hear the tales along the way, to make the casual choices of travel, to acquiesce even to boredom. That’s pilgrimage – a mind full of journey.  
– Patricia Hampl –

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Reflection on Rites of Passage

“Few of us go through life without taking part in some kind of rite of passage.”
– Hank Nuwer –

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It was the French ethnographer and folklorist, Arnold van Gennep, who first coined the phrase “rites of passage”. It is the ceremonial event that exists in all known historical societies that marks a person’s passage from one social or religious status to another – e.g. birth, puberty, marriage, etc.

Van Gennep distinguished the different kinds of rites of passage:

  1. Rites of Separation

One of the most prominent examples of this pre-liminal rite would be funerals. But it is also important to recognise the more subtle versions of this rite in our own everyday lives. A time of necessary endings when the world, as we have known it, is coming to an end. The reasons for this are numerous.

Over the last several years I have experienced an ideological shift that was more congruent to my personal values. However, this shift separated me  from some of the ideas held as ’truth’ by a community I belonged to. It was a most difficult space, as fear often keeps us confined in places that we have actually shifted away from.

The separation stage calls us to leave behind an old way of life and perhaps an old way of thinking. It calls us to leave things or events or ideas and at times, people, behind. It asks us to let go and trust an unknown future.

  1. Liminal Rites
Liminal or transition rights are important in pregnancy or engagements. It is the place between two worlds: the one you left and the one you have not quite arrived at. It has also been referred to as a “threshold”.

I have found the metaphor of a trapeze artist most helpful to describe this stage. It is letting go of one trapeze bar yet having not taken hold of the one coming your way. You find yourself simply flying (or falling!) through the air … and hoping like mad that there will be something out there to meet you!

Symbolically, the liminal space is where you ‘shed your old skin’. It is a form of ‘seclusion’ – a place that often leaves us disorientated, vulnerable and feeling rather ‘naked’.

I have found this place to be one, where in the midst of turmoil, I have discovered my voice or language through the language of others. For example, it was Richard Rohr’s book Falling Upwards, and the skills and knowledge he shared about spirituality and transition from the first to the second half of life, that assisted me in finding words to describe this liminal space and hope for a different tomorrow.

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  1. Rites of Incorporation
Incorporation rites are often highly developed, like in a marriage ceremony. This stage is a form of ‘home coming’ that completes the ritual passage. It is a time of celebration and communal acknowledgement that recognises a successful transition.

I have found this to be a place of celebrating the union of ideas and dreams with personal values, that in the first half of my life were not always compatible.

Rites of Passage have multi-layered meanings: social, psychological spiritual and/or religious. They help us recognise change. They also help us personally, and the family/community that we are part of, to assimilate this change.

Rites of Passage help to establish a sense of identity, and they mark personal growth and development. Perhaps it would beneficial to take some time to reflect on the Rites of Passage in our own lives (or maybe the lack of these rites)? How are these rites recognised in our families and or communities?

I have found the first to second half of life, as described by Rohr, a transformational journey. Other have shared their stories with me and we have found much common ground.  Perhaps it is time to recognise this as a rather important Rite of Passage in our spiritual lives.

“When I was a child I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child does. But when I became a man my thoughts grew far beyond those of my childhood, and now I have put away the childish things.”

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians – 13:11 TLB
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Saying Goodbye Sucks!

Why can’t we get all the people together in the world that we really like and then just stay together? I guess that wouldn’t work. Someone would leave. Someone always leaves. Then we would have to say good-bye. I hate good-byes. I know what I need. I need more hellos. – Charles M. Schulz

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It was February 1985 when I loaded up my 1967 Valiant Station wagon, affectionally called “Boris” (the nickname of an old flame), and drove myself from Rockhampton to Melbourne. I was all of 19 years old and, of course, had the world all figured out …!! What took me to Melbourne? Well, I could say it was the leading of the Divine, or a career move, or a whole bunch of other crap, but really I came down because a tall, gorgeous redhead young man had stolen my heart on his short visit to Rockhampton and I was stalking him ?

I had no idea that this guy was also the pastor’s son at a conservative, Pentecostal church in Melbourne. I still remember the first time I set foot in that place. I felt like I had stepped into another planet and I’m sure with my tight jeans, several ear piercings and motorbike-friendly hair I would have looked like an alien to the parishioners. That was over thirty years ago! How time flies! Here we are all these years later with three incredible young adult kids, two amazing daughters-in-law and two fur children, facing yet another major move and transition in life.

Melbourne has been home for over three decades. As we move to the Sunny State we say goodbye to a city that has held our great joys, amazing triumphs, disastrous failures, disappointments and seasons of what felt like intolerable grief. We say goodbye to family and friends who, when you boil it all down, really are all that matters in life. We say goodbye to communities we love. We say goodbye to a home that has been our haven and most pleasant place. And before I can talk about a different tomorrow, I have to rest in this hauntingly painful place of goodbye. Goodbye sucks!

Is there an elegant way to let go? Can you really say goodbye without anxiety, grief, fear, and horribly ugly crying? If so, I haven’t figured it out. In the past, I have heard people speak lightly and with great excitement about closing a chapter and beginning a new one. I have also heard people talk about living life without regrets. I have not mastered either of these. I find letting go and closing chapters extremely painful. And if you are short on regrets – please come and see me, I’m happy to share.

So I sit here in this liminal space. I am not sure what tomorrow holds. As a person of faith I trust the guidance of Providence. I reflect on my life and like Jacob would say, “You have been here all along, and I didn’t even realise.” I choose to trust this Divine Presence in this place of great unknown. However, I do not deny the tears or the grief. For these are all part of what it means to say farewell.

So, Melbourne, thank you for opening your arms to me. Thank you to my faithful and loving friends. I could not imagine life without you. Thank you to my family – you are my greatest joy and sense of fulfilment in this short life. Thank you to my adversaries – from you I have learnt that I am stronger and have more courage than I ever realised. I’m forever grateful. Thank you to the Spirit of Life that lives in and through me, forever pushing me beyond the edges of safety and comfort.

For all of you, who for many reasons have had to say goodbye – you know this feeling well. Goodbye really does suck. We need to learn to feel, rest and trust the seasons, even the sucky ones.

Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes. – Henry David Thoreau

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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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