Richard Rohr, All Transformation Takes Place in Liminal Space

Richard Rohr, Adam’s Return, Crossroad Publishing, NY, 2004, Chapter 12, pp 135-139

All Transformation Takes Place in Liminal Space

“Midway in life’s journey, I awoke to find myself alone in a dark wood.”

(Dante, The Divine Comedy, opening stanza)

“Liminal Space is a concept refined by Victor Turner in his classic study on initiation and ritual.  The Latin word limen means “threshold.” Liminality is an inner state and sometimes an outer situation where people can begin to think and act in genuinely new ways. It is when we are betwixt and between, have left one room but not yet entered the next room, any hiatus between stages of life, stages of faith, jobs, loves, or relationships.  It is that graced time when we are not certain or in control, when something genuinely new can happen.  We are empty, receptive, an erased tablet waiting for new words.  Nothing fresh or creative will normally happen when we are inside our self-constructed comfort zones, only more of the same.  Nothing original emerges from business as usual.  It seems we need some antistructure to give direction, depth, and purpose to our regular structure.  Otherwise structure, which is needed in the first half of life, tends to become a prison as we grow older.

“Much of the work of the biblical God and human destiny itself is to get people into liminal space and to keep them there long enough to learn something essential and genuinely new.  It is the ultimate teachable space.  In some sense, it is the only teachable space.  So much so that many spiritual giants try to live their entire lives in permanent liminality.  They try to live on the margins and on the periphery of the system so they will not get sucked into its illusions and payoffs.  They know it is the only position that ensures continued wisdom, ever broader perspective, and even deeper compassion…. It can take the form of monks, nuns, hermits, Amish withdrawal, and dropouts of various persuasions, but softer forms too, like people who do not watch TV, people who live under the level of a taxable income, people who make prayer a major part of their day, people who deliberately place themselves in risky situations, which is to displace yourself.

“For most of us who cannot run off to the wilderness or the hermitage, the older religions offer temporary and partial liminality in things like pilgrimages, silent retreats, periods of fasting, desert solitudes, and sacred times like Lent and Ramadan.  Once-a-week church services do not normally come close to creating liminal space.  It takes that long for you just to stop wondering whether you turned off the stove and begin to the get kids—or your errant emotions—under control.  There has to be something longer, different, and daring, even nonsensical, to break our comfortable sleepwalk and our compulsive trance…

“The bubble of usual order has to be broken by a bit of whimsy, holy uselessness, deliberate disruption or displacement, learning to walk in the opposite direction.  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 the other dimension of life.  We need to fast instead of eating, maintain silence instead of talking, experience emptiness instead of fullness, anonymity instead of persona, pennilessness instead of plentifulness.  What could break more assuredly our addiction to ourselves?  In liminal space we descend and intentionally do not immediately come back out or up; we seek status reversal instead of status, social displacement instead of social belonging….

“Remember that ‘Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights—after which he was hungry’ (Matthew 3:2).  It takes a lot of work to discover your true and real hunger.  Without good spiritual direction, however, you will run from the inner chaos and the aimlessness.  Without deliberate practice and training over time, you will not know how to face loneliness, yourself, hurts, personality conflicts, and your inner demons and patterns…

“Liminal space is always holy ground—but it takes a while to get those shoes off of Moses (Exodus 3:5) and for Jacob to realize that he had always been there, but didn’t know it (Genesis 28:16).  Forty days is probably a minimum period to spend in liminal space, which is why it becomes the symbolic number for Israel (Noah in the flood, Moses on the mountain, Jesus in the desert).  One of the most effective ways to avoid liminal space is to be quick, efficient, successful, and goal-oriented.  Or to be super-religious on the Right or super-correct on the Left.  In either place you will only reconfirm all your crutches, addictions, and false securities.

“If it is our temperament to seek security, we will run back to the old room that we have already constructed.  If it is our temperament to take risks, we will quickly run to a new room of our own making and liking.  Hardly anyone wants to stay on the threshold without answers.  It feels like Job sitting on his dung heap, picking at his sores.  It is “a narrow place that few know how to inhabit” (Matt 7:13).  None of us like to live in the insecurity of waiting without clear direction, meaning, or closure.  True biblical faith, therefore, will always be the minority position, in my experience.  God has to teach you how to go there, trust the emptiness, and stay there until you are led back out.  The truest word for that is “suffering.”  New things never happen when you are accumulating more self or more ideas and answers; new things happen when you are constricted and limited, and when what you think of as yourself is temporarily or permanently taken away.  That is more and more obvious to me, yet for some reason I still want to deny it and hope it isn’t true each time…”