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Lenten series Liminial space

Days without answers in a narrow space

This is the first of a series of Lenten reflections. It is published early for the convenience of those who choose to use it in discussion groups during Lent.


But there will be a door and I will open it
and I will get rid of the rat inside of me,
the gnawing pestilential rat.
God will take it with his two hands and embrace it.

-- Anne Sexton,
The Awful Rowing Toward God

For the past 15 years I have been studying everything I could on the once universal phenomenon of initiation rites. It seems that almost all primal cultures considered them absolutely necessary for spiritual survival, especially for males and for the common good. Yet the Christian world has falsely assumed that its “sacraments of initiation” were doing the job, and these once-necessary rites of passage have fallen into almost complete oblivion in the so-called civilized countries. The results are disastrous, and the negative effects are everywhere. We can no longer assume that elders are really “elders,” that leaders and politicians have a minimal spiritual or human maturity, or that youth have been mentored into some kind of adults. In fact, we have come to expect the exact opposite. This is not good.

We who think of ourselves as the upholders of tradition in the churches are largely out of touch with the Great Tradition. All truly traditional peoples had discovered that when structure is not countered by “anti-structure” or liminal space, the result is spiritual blindness, one-sided thinking that tries to pass for wisdom but is only cosmetic piety. In all the native spirituality movements, there seems to be a longing -- and maybe a need -- to return to what Karl Jaspers (The Origin and Goal of History) called the “Pre-Axial” period of history, when things were still communitarian, nature-based and transformative.

The Axial period of the last 2,500 years has largely repressed intuitive and universal traditions for the sake of managed and heady traditions. Not all bad, but they seem to be faltering now. Every country I go to, people are searching out Celtic, Aboriginal and native roots to ground their experience of Christianity.

My readings of people like Mircea Eliade (Rites and Symbols of Initiation, The Sacred and the Profane) and Victor Turner (The Ritual Process) and countless others have convinced me that through initiation rites we have a very clear pattern for really understanding the exodus and the exile, Jesus in the desert, the training of the disciples, suffering itself, religious life, liturgy, the church as a real alternative, and, in this case, Lent as a season.

I will be using the weeks of Lent to unpack these ideas in a very sketchy manner. Obviously, this forum does not allow for footnotes and covering all my bases, but I trust that the framework offered will be so exciting and promising that many of you will be eager to do your own further homework.

We Catholics know that the Latin word limina means threshold, from the ad limina visits of our bishops to the doorstep of Peter in Rome. Liminality is a special psychic and spiritual place “where all transformation happens.” It is when we are betwixt and between, and therefore by definition “not in control.” Nothing new happens as long as we are inside our self-constructed comfort zone. Nothing good or creative emerges from business as usual. Much of the work of the God of the Bible is to get people into liminal space, and to keep them there long enough so they can learn something essential. It is the ultimate teachable space, maybe the only one. Most spiritual giants try to live lives of “chronic liminality” in some sense. They know it is the only position that insures ongoing wisdom, broader perspective and ever-deeper compassion. The Jewish prophets, Socrates and Diogenes, Jesus, Francis, Buddha, Gandhi, virgins and hermitesses, the Hindu sanyassi, the Native shamans immediately come to mind.

But for most of us who cannot run off to the wilderness or the hermitage, religions offer temporary and partial liminality in things like Ramadan, pilgrimages, silent retreats, wilderness journeys and sacred spaces such as Lent. Once-a-week church services do not usually come close to creating liminal space. It takes that long to stop wondering whether you turned off the gas stove and to even begin to get the kids -- or your errant emotions -- under control. There has to be something longer, different and daring, non-sensical, “anti-structure,” to explain the meaning of the assumed structure. It is almost always counterintuitive, and not logical or sensible at all.

The bubble of order has to be broken by a bit of whimsy and by deliberately walking in the opposite direction. Here we need to not-do, not-perform according to successful patterns, fail, fast and deliberately falter. Not eat instead of eat -- what could be more counter to normal patterns? Silence instead of talking, emptiness instead of fullness. In liminal space we descend and intentionally do not ascend, “status reversal” instead of status-seeking. Shadow boxing instead of ego confirmation. It is what we mean by “death” or even “mortification” in traditional spiritual language. It is fairly universal language.

In a liminal Lent we choose the chaos of the unconscious over the control of explanations and answers. The language of the Lenten readings is the language of darkness not light, desert not garden. People have to be taught how to live there. Without good spiritual direction, you will run. Without encouragement ahead of time, you will assume you are doing something wrong and will seek a quick reordering to take away the anxiety. We have to be taught how to stay in liminal space. It is always holy ground, but it actually takes a while to get those shoes off. Forty days is probably a minimum. And I must warn you, one of the most effective ways to avoid liminal space is to be super religious on the right or super correct on the left -- and reconfirm all your needed securities.

If we are security needy by temperament, we will always run back to the old room that we have already constructed. If we are risk-taking by temperament, 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 is a narrow place that few know how to inhabit (Matthew 7:13). In my experience, liberals are no better than conservatives in this regard. We both like our own rooms and our own answers. Neither of us likes to live in the insecurity of not knowing. True Biblical faith will always be a rare occurrence, in my experience. God has to teach you how to live there. I think that is why we have always said that faith is a “gift.”

The most common substitute for liminal space is “liminoid” space. I must admit that organized religion is expert at offering people the liminoid. It feels like the real thing, it feels different while actually reaffirming ego and persona. It is the much-touted trip to poor Guatemala, where you stay in the American four star hotel! It is cosmetic and devotional piety that reassures me that I am already and indeed one, holy, Roman Catholic and apostolic. It is a movement into “trance” and unconsciousness so that nothing real will be revealed and where the shadow has no possibility of showing itself. In my experience as presider at parish Masses, there seem to be two clear types attending: the “catatonics” and those who are always ready to be awestruck. Any preacher or parish priest knows that this is true, even though it is hard to say. The catatonics are actually disturbed if you make the gospel or the Eucharist make any sense in the real world. Those ready to be awestruck, usually in the minority, thank you profusely for just showing up.

True liminality, true Lent, leads to increased awareness, increased consciousness of the pain and the goodness -- your own and others -- and increased knowledge of the shadow, too. Who would go there willingly? I wouldn’t. You have to be led, or, like Jesus, you have to be “driven by the Spirit into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12). Because first we must meet the “wild beasts” and only later do “angels minister to him” (1:13). No one wants to wait for the true angels. We would rather manufacture plastic, churchy ones and bypass the truly present wild beasts. Lent is 40 days of training in living with and learning from the wild beasts. Sort of a chosen three-ring circus and a deliberate refusal to retreat to the spectators’ grandstand. We intentionally sequester the angels for six weeks.

We cannot expect such daring from the secular system, but when the church itself offers us merely the secure old room or the trendy new room, I know we are in trouble spiritually. Our liturgies become mere ceremony and not truly sacred, transformative or initiatory space. Church becomes membership requirements instead of any kind of truly “new creation.” Priesthood becomes priestcraft, and religious life becomes a charade of an alternative because no real alternative has been seen or experienced. Spiritual leadership from people who have made the journey themselves is rare. This is what we will be talking about in these weeks of Lent.

The stakes are too high now. We cannot play around with religion and spirituality any longer. These patterns of spiritual initiation do not change. They are primeval and permanent and paschal. We need a good, liminal, and transformative Lent. We need some anti-structure to make sense out of the structure that is trapping us all.

Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr, popular speaker and author, is founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, Albuquerque, N.M.

National Catholic Reporter, February 1, 2002