Liminal space—fear and opportunity
The journey of faith is by no means a straightforward one. While some parts of it may be relatively smooth sailing, there are also storms and dark nights, days of fog and confusion, nights when everything seems turned upside down. These are the transition times, when the old no longer seems to fit and the new is still not perceived or understood. This is a time for transformation—the opportunity for God to slip through the crack into our lives and change us irrevocably. Many of us have experienced the questions and wondered if we were losing our faith.
John: For me, there has been a growing spiritual questioning. This has led to considerable internal conflict in terms of my faith, belief, and spiritual life. It has been a huge time of insecurity.
Frances: As you have described it, John, I see so many elements of liminality, the sense of vulnerability that is between forms. Victor Turner talks about it as a gestation process—what goes on in nature in the fertilized egg or in the chrysalis, or when a reptile has shed its skin but not yet developed a new one. Although it can seem disorienting and chaotic, it holds the promise of fruitfulness, the birthing of something new.
John: It’s exactly like that—very vulnerable—the questioning of things I have considered self-evident for so long. Acknowledging these questions and facing uncertainties has bordered on terrifying.
Frances: It really is terrifying. And yet, as Richard Rohr suggests, it can also be a sacred time, an invitation to transformation that should not be avoided but welcomed.
John: Yes, I’ve read Rohr. He says we should stay in that place as long as we can. He says it’s where we are “betwixt and between,” when we can no longer stay in the old world we have been in, when everything is shaken.
Frances: O’Connor relates a Celtic myth in which the threshold is recognized as not only the space between two structures, but between two worlds—a space between this world and the otherworld. And it’s the place where the spiritual is very close, where God can break through into our lives.
John: One of the scariest things, though, is that with all the questions, I have such a sense of not knowing where this is leading me. I wonder if I might end up in heresy.
Frances: It’s hard to stay with the questions when they raise such frightening possibilities.
John: What has really helped is the willingness of others to listen to my story without judgment. This has helped me face the terror and begin to work with the changes this experience may hold for me.
Places of transition, of crisis, of deep change challenge us to reassess the way we make sense of the world. Because the liminal space usually extends over a longer time than a simple change, and because it has more qualities of the unknown than a simple transition from one known structure to another, it invites us to ask the deeper questions of life. The key for John—and for those who might companion him—is recognizing this as liminal space and therefore daring to hold it as a place for growth, rather than a place from which to draw back or through which to race. Liminal space invites us to examine and develop our spirituality, our relationship with God.
Poetry often articulates what we cannot express more directly. Rilke recognizes that our spirituality is deeply a part of us—often not acknowledged until the liminal times:
You, the great homesickness we could never shake off,
You, the forest that always surrounds us,
You, the song we sang in every silence,
You dark net threading through us.1
Other poets have reflected specifically on the deep spiritual change that can result from the suffering and questioning of the liminal spaces. Twentieth-century Welsh poet R. S. Thomas shows a profound change in his image of God and his response to what God is up to in the world.
Not as in the days of old I pray,
God. My life is not what it was.
Once I would have asked for healing
I go now to be doctored.
I would have knelt long,
wrestling with you
Wearing you down. Hear my prayer,
Lord, hear my prayer:
As though you were deaf,
myriads of mortals have kept up
their shrill cry,
explaining your stillness
by their unfitness.
It begins to appear this is not
what prayer is about.
It is the annihilation of differences,
the consciousness of myself in you,
of you in me;
the emerging from the
adolescence of nature
into the adult geometry of the mind.
Circular as our way is,
it leads not back to that
snake haunted garden, but
onward to the tall city of glass
that is the laboratory
of the spirit.2
Rilke (1996) also understands the shift from known images to a place of unknowing and responsiveness:
We must not portray you in king’s robes
You drifting mist that brought forth
Once again from the old paintboxes
we take the same gold for
sceptre and crown
that has disguised you through the ages.
Piously we produce images of you
till they stand around you
like a thousand walls.
And when our hearts would
Our fervent hands hide you.3
Liminal space and “unknowing”
John is experiencing, even as Rilke and Thomas did, that this liminal space is a place of unknowing. Thomas calls it “the laboratory of the spirit”—a place of spiritual learning. Rilke’s addressing God as “You drifting mist that brought forth the morning” is much closer to the God of Job who may not answer our propositional questions but to whom our hearts are drawn.
This recognition of unknowing, of finding self and God with a different way of knowing is not new. Thomas Aquinas wrote of the via negative—the way of not knowing—in the thirteenth century. The fourteenth-century English mystic who wrote The Cloud of Unknowing also speaks of this way of knowing God.
He whom neither men nor angels can grasp by knowledge can be embraced by love. For the intellect of both men and angels is too small to comprehend God as he is in himself.4
When I speak of darkness, I mean the absence of knowledge. If you are unable to understand something or if you have forgotten it, are you not in the dark as regards this thing? You cannot see it with your mind’s eye. Well, in the same way. I have not said “cloud,” but cloud of unknowing. For it is darkness of unknowing that lies between you and God.5
Thought cannot comprehend God. And so, I prefer to abandon all I can know, choosing rather to love him whom I cannot know. Though we cannot know him we can love him.6
Then let your desire, gracious and devout, step bravely and joyfully beyond it and reach out to pierce the darkness above. Yes, beat upon that thick cloud of unknowing with the dart of your loving desire and do not cease come what may.7
A naked intent toward God, the desire for him alone, is enough.8
The liminal space is an opportunity for growth—a time when the old structures and explanations do not fit, when the old way of knowing is brought into question, when one’s very life-meaning is threatened and made anew. If the believer can suspend her own desire to know, to have answers, to lessen the pain, she can hold the liminal space until the new patterns can appear out of the chaos.
Thomas’ and Rilke’s poems show a change in the image of their God, and indeed the mystics have taught us through the centuries that our image of God often must change for us to understand our suffering and make sense of the patterns of our lives. Ross tells of a God rather different from the powerful, triumphant God many Christians worship. “The heart of Christianity is the self-emptying, kenotic humility of God expressed in Jesus the Christ. . . . What do we mean by the humility of God, the self-emptying of God, the kenosis of God? At the heart of God’s humility is this: God willingly is wounded.”9 Those who are pilgrims in the liminal space catch an awareness of what it may mean to be self-emptied, to accept the wounds of the journey.
Metzner explores the many metaphors of this transformative experiences—dying and being reborn, reconciling with the inner enemy, fragmentation to wholeness, from darkness to light, from captivity to liberation, dream to reality, caterpillar to butterfly, purification by inner fire—symbols that cross cultural and religious boundaries.10 The most vivid and compelling transformative symbol is, of course, that of the Cross with its accompanying story of lived experience of suffering, death, and resurrection. These metaphors give us images to relate to the changes that may be happening inexplicably in our lives.
Liminality as transitions between stages
Christians who find themselves in a position such as John may wonder if they are losing their faith. An understanding of the stages of faith development can help with the unknowing of liminal space.
John: The scariest elements of this were associated with the not knowing where this was going to lead me. I was reminded of the Thomas Jefferson line in the American Declaration of Independence about considering “these truths to be self-evident.” I had considered many things to be self-evident.
Now I no longer consider them to be self-evident. There may in fact be another place of greater peace and security ahead, but I am definitely not there. I have stepped off a place I know into a place where I do not know much of anything, and I have no idea of where it will end up. That is the frightening part of it. I do not have any idea where it will go.
Denis: I identify with your wondering about heresy—about losing your faith. One of the things that has really helped me in this is the work on stages of faith. It has given me something of a road map in what otherwise seems like chaos.
John: Chaos certainly! I’ve wondered if I might be getting it totally wrong. I ask myself, What does it mean for my life, my relationship with God, and my eternal future if I move out of orthodoxy? Am I being deluded; am I being led astray?
Denis: I think the transitions between the stages are always like that. It feels like being led astray compared with the safety of where you’ve been. I found Fowler’s Stages of Faith really helpful. He talks about midlife as a time of having to reclaim and rework the past—a focus on paradox and contradictions.
John: Contradictions—when before, I had it all worked out! It makes me think of Genia’s notion of transitional faith. I certainly have had the “safety of an explicit worldview, with a conscious and explicit system of meanings and boundaries.” I have had it all worked out, and now I don’t know much of anything. Genia talks about the “doubt that takes people to deeper levels of psychospiritual integration.” I just hope it does lead to that! Because it’s a rather terrifying journey!
John refers to Genia’s stages of faith development.11 Perhaps less familiar than those of Fowler, they are built around emerging self-awareness.
- Egocentric Faith: Religion is rooted in fear and need for comfort. Persons in this stage tend to reenact their relationships with their parents in their relationship with God. They might be self-deprecating or attempt to be perfect so God will accept them.
- Dogmatic Faith: The organizing principle for those in this stage is devotion to earning God’s love and approval. They might gravitate toward religious groups that focus on self-denial and allegiance to religious authority. They are commonly intolerant of diversity and ambiguity.
- Transitional Faith: Individuals in this stage examine the tenets of their faith. They are open to exploring new spiritual paths, might switch affiliations, and could experience doubt that takes them to deeper levels of psychospiritual integration.
- Reconstructed Faith: Persons in this stage have chosen a faith that provides meaning and purpose and fulfills their spiritual needs. They are aware of their human limitations, acknowledge their mistakes, and seek forgiveness for them.
- Transcendent Faith: People in this stage are committed to universal ideals and experience community with others of diverse faiths.
Yet the emerging self-awareness of Genia’s stages can still blur when the call on our lives is to move beyond knowing and when the invitation is into love, into deeper relationship with something far greater than ourselves for reasons we do not know. Terror is often our natural first response to such an invitation.
Denis: The terror of liminal space reminds me of Annie Dillard’s metaphor of “riding the monsters.”
In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us. But if you ride these monsters down, if you drop with them farther over the world’s rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate, the ocean or matrix or ether which buoys the rest, which gives goodness its power for good, and evil its power for evil, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here. This is given. It is not learned.12
I see you as riding the monsters of your own deep questioning and fears until you began to find this ocean to be the safe place of God’s presence.
Bringing liminality to a sacred story
Denis, John, Irene, and Chris have been meeting for some time for theological reflection on their counseling and companioning practices. One particular focus has been the movement between lived experience and theology, bringing our story to stand under the greater wisdom stories. John had told something of his story of questioning and being caught between what had been his orthodox worldview, and his present reworking of this. Chris and John decided to bring this to a Gospel story. This conversation unfolded as follows:
John: I feel as if I am on a boat tossed to and fro in the midst of a great storm. I can feel the sway of the deck and the nausea in my stomach. The ship is pointing towards the storm. And the sense I get is that the storm is worse ahead.
Chris: As you look at yourself—this figure in the ship and the storm up ahead—I wonder if you would like to invite a story from the Gospels. Just invite it. Don’t go looking for it.
John: It seems far too obvious. The one I get is the story of Jesus asleep in the midst of the storm. He is asleep and not bothered. And the disciples are all freaking out. He is asleep, and the disciples are all really worried.
Chris: Focus on the figures in the story. What do you notice?
John: The thing that strikes me is the contrast of the reactions. There is still the storm. It is still the same reality—the boat and waves and everything. But Jesus is clearly unfazed by it. The disciples are absolutely terrified by it. I am really struck by the fact that Jesus is so unfazed by it. “Of course, we will be all right! It is a safe universe.”
Chris: Now I wonder if you would like to invite Jesus into your boat. Ask him to come. And just notice what he does.
John: Okay: “Oh, Jesus, are you coming on this voyage with me? I am asking all these ultimate questions about you. Are you happy to come on this voyage?”
Chris: Put that out in front of him. And just notice his reaction.
John: He is very unfazed. And this is the shift. It makes me aware that this is a safe universe. What Jesus said—“Those who seek will find”—really is true. Just for a moment I felt something like, “It’s okay.” And it was okay. There is still a storm. My boat is still rocking. And none of my questions have gone away. But it’s a safe universe, and Jesus is unfazed. And he will come!
Chris: And he will come?
John: Whatever I end up believing, he will come. I just feel he has come and stood next to me at the bow of the boat. He is there in this companionable sort of silence. It is not like the Gospel story where he is calming the waters. It is more, “Well, here we go. It is okay. We will keep going.” The fear is that I would go off the path and that I would lose God. But actually, the picture says that is not going to happen.” I can keep exploring and he will come.
Liminal space: transformation to the true self
All of John’s spirituality and faith has been brought into question, into what has been called a “second naivete.” Fowler (1981) says, “There must be an opening to the voices of one’s ‘deeper self.’”13The promise of this stage, Fowler points out, is that the person develops a capacity “to see and be in one’s or one’s group’s most powerful meanings, while simultaneously recognizing that they are relative, partial and inevitably distorting apprehensions of transcendent reality.”14
Fowler’s reference to the “deeper self” suggests that this process is one of becoming who we most truly are, who God has created us to be. Metzner uses the term “the unfolding self.”15 Each can imply a leaving behind of the masks of what Pennington calls the false self and becoming the true self.16 Indeed, Turner states that this is typical of the liminal space: “Liminal phases and states are often more about the doffing of masks and the stripping of statuses, the renunciation of roles, the demolishing of structures, than their putting on and keeping on.”17 The lived experience of this, however, may be much more likened to the suffering, terror, dying, descent, and rising that are all part of what is often called the Paschal Mystery. Sarton puts the process into poetry:
Now I become myself
It’s taken time, many years and places.
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces.18
The process is one of being dissolved and shaken in order that we might find our way forward to become those who, through knowing and unknowing, can provide a safe place for others to face the terror of the liminal space, the place between the worlds where transformation occurs.
O’Connor, P. Beyond the Mist: What Irish Mythology Can Teach Us About Ourselves (London: Allen and Unwin, 2001).
Rohr, R. Everything Belongs (New York: Crossroad, 1999).
Ross, M. Pillars of Flame: Power, Priesthood, and Spiritual Maturity (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988).
Turner, V. “Are There Universals of Performance in Myth, Ritual and Drama?” in By Means of Performance: Intercultural Studies of Theatre and Ritual. R. Schechner & W. Appel, eds. (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990).