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Lenten Series Liminal Space

We need transformation, not false transcendence


“The good news is that you eventually internalize community. The bad news is that you will never get to where you can handle it alone.”
-- Robert L. Moore

I am convinced that without experiences of liminal space (that place where all transformation happens), there is no truthful perspective on life. Without truthful perspective, there is neither gratitude nor any abiding confidence. It is precisely this deep gratitude and unfounded confidence that I see most lacking in our people today, even the people of the church. It makes me wonder whether we are doing our job. We are not being initiated into the mysteries.

Victor Turner, in his classic study of initiation, The Ritual Process, says that some kind of “shared liminality” is necessary to create what he calls communitas, or what I would call church. Communitas in a spiritual sense does not come from manufactured celebrations or events. Haven’t we all tried that? It is forgotten the next day or even the next hour. It depends on artificial stimulants of food, drink, music, shared common space and energy. It is really lovely and probably necessary, but it does not transform. It merely sustains, and it is often unfortunately diversionary from the deeper task. True communitas comes from having walked through liminality together -- and coming out the other side -- forever different. The baptismal drowning pool was supposed to have ritualized just such an experience. But something happened along the way. Baptism became a pretty blessing of children.

Why don’t we have much communitas on the other side of the pool? Maybe because there is no drowning pool to sacralize our drowning experiences, and there hasn’t been for centuries. Why is it that we experience both liminality and communitas much more in groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, in places like Ground Zero, in people like cancer survivors, than we do in most churches? Why is it that church people by and large mirror the larger population on almost all counts (and this can be statistically verified) except that they happen to self-identify as Christians? With some grand exceptions, of course, I would have to say that we are not a genuine alternative to mass consciousness. On the whole, we tend to be just as materialistic, just as warlike, just as individualistic, just as protective of power, prestige and possessions as everyone else. We pray together on Sunday mornings, and most of us do have several moral stands through which we define ourselves. They are not necessarily the moral stands of Jesus, however. For example, Jesus never mentioned issues like abortion, birth control, or homosexuality, but he made an awful lot of simplicity of lifestyle, status reversal and open table fellowship. Really quite amazing.

Not bad, just dangerous

At the risk of being unfair and even making some enemies, I am going to say that much of the church I have experienced in my 58 years of life and 31 years as a priest is much more “liminoid” than liminal. Liminoid experience substitutes group think, shared and engineered feelings, mass reassurance and group membership for any real or significant personal transformation. It works real well. It creates false transcendence in just enough dosage to inoculate people from Real Encounter. It takes away one’s sense of aloneness and one’s sense of anxiety -- and for most people this feels like “God.” And, of course, God is so humble and well practiced that God will use all of these things to bring us to Beloved Union. As I keep saying, these things are not bad, just dangerous and highly productive of delusion. In the world of the Spirit, the real sins are usually quite subtle. The devil is used to dressing in clothes that draw no attention to himself or herself, and if the clothes do, they usually impress us.

Let’s clarify the distinction between liminal and liminoid: Liminoid is the Catholic control freak, suddenly teary eyed while the choir sings “O Holy Night” at Midnight Mass. Liminal is the mother in the hospital waiting room who finally hears the meaning of the song for the first time, and she is interiorly changed. Liminoid is the sudden “United We Stand” bumper sticker appearing everywhere, when there have been no noticeable movements toward American healing, forgiveness or reconciliation on any real level. Liminal is the very real fragility, compassion and humility that I have seen on the faces of World Trade Center widows. Liminoid is the camaraderie at football stadiums and rock concerts -- which does take away some momentary alienation. Liminal is the amazing trust I have experienced at the county jail here in Albuquerque, when the macho Mexican guys go to their knees after Communion. The same men who normally would never be caught off guard or close their eyes in one another’s presence. In each case, the first is pseudo-religion, which is everywhere. The second is church, which is also everywhere, but does not have a sign out front.

Message of powerlessness

I do not think that Jesus came to create a religious tribe. I think Jesus is a universal message of powerlessness and true power that all religions and all people need. I do not think Jesus came so we priests could dress up and Rome could feel good about itself; I think Jesus came so that all people could “dress down” and universal communitas could be possible. I do not think Jesus came so that people could be pious and separatist, but so that all human beings could start trusting the nakedness and the vulnerability that he had to trust unto the very end. How else will communion ever happen? When has quick self-assurance, ready-made answers and dogmatic-truth-dogmatically-presented ever united anything? It only circles the wagons of those already in the circle. This is not evangelization in the way Jesus and Paul practiced it. They were “all things to all people.”

Although I have not been able to check it out, two different scripture scholars have told me that Jesus is asked 183 questions directly or indirectly among the four gospels. Do you know how many of these he directly answers? Three! Jesus’ idea of church is not about giving people answers but, in fact, leading them into liminal and dark space, where they will long and yearn for God, for wisdom and for their own souls. This is itself -- and always has been -- the only answer. He says it so clearly in Luke’s Gospel (11:11-13). Jesus says that the answer to all our prayers is exactly the same: the Holy Spirit. Pray for bread, fish or egg, pray for whatever you want. God might give you these things, but what God promises is that you will always receive the Holy Spirit. That is God’s answer to every prayer and to every question. We ourselves would prefer to give and receive seminary textbook answers, thank you. They keep us liminoid, and we can avoid that terrible space where only God is in control and where God is the only answer.

Once in a while church is liminal space, and often it prepares us for it. It keeps the pot stirred so that when the fatal ingredients are dropped into the stew of life, all the necessary spices and condiments are ready to do their work. I have seen church as liminal space in charismatic prayer meetings back in the 1970s when they were absolutely God-centered and dangerous. I have seen church as liminal space when the just word is preached at funerals and times of immediate crisis in a neighborhood parish. I have seen church as liminal space when the Eucharist actually creates communitas and reconciliation among Hispanics and Native Americans in the Santa Fe Cathedral. I have seen church as liminal space when the daring table fellowship of Jesus is actually practiced at Catholic Eucharist and long-alienated people are brought to tears and brought home. I have seen church as liminal space just this year at St. Andrew the Apostle in Chandler, Ariz., and Pax Christi Parish in Eden Prairie, Minn. So much life and so much ministry goes on in these places that one actually thinks it must be a different religion than the usual Roman Catholicism.

Satisfied with passivity

I don’t know why we are satisfied with such utter passivity in most Catholic parishes. Are we actually happy to be kept as subservient little children who ask for nothing and give little in return? (We are one of the lowest of all churches in terms of per capita giving!) It is bad enough that we priests are content with such overwhelming passivity, but sometimes I think we actually prefer it. It keeps us in control, with no one asking hard questions, and actually decreases the workload. Participatory faith community is a lot of extra work and meetings and people. Church as liminal space would require solid biblical preaching, contemplative Eucharists, and a cadre of female and male spiritual directors and ministries. Instead, we are reasserting the role and centrality of the priest like never before. Even the deacons must kneel. Siege mentality, I guess. The quiet noncooperation and passivity will only increase, I promise you. Bishops, please listen.

So what might we do? We must stay on the journey ourselves. We must trust that this darkness, this tragic time, is also light unimaginable. This is where and how it happens. This is how it has always happened. This is the liminal space we have been talking about. We don’t need to go create it artificially. Lent is everywhere now. We are all in it, like Jonah, running from Nineveh, caught unwillingly in the belly of the whale, and thrown to him by friends.

Time, time, trust, and more time. We are being cooked. The job of the ritual elder in initiation, according to Robert Moore, is to keep us in the stew pot, which is the cauldron of transformation. The elders must keep the temperature hot, while also “stewarding the boundaries” so that people do not take fright and run. Few of us are prepared for this. But such ministry keeps people in the true liminal space of a transformative church, where eventually, in God’s time, we will be spit up like Jonah on the right shore. For now, we do not even know what or where the right shore is. All we know is that we cannot run from Nineveh.

Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr, a popular retreat master, speaker and writer, is founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, N.M. This is the third in a series.

National Catholic Reporter, February 15, 2002