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Lenten Series Liminal Space

We should ask why few transformations happen in church


Are the liturgy and sacraments liminal space?

Hardly ever, in my experience.

That does not mean that sacraments are not lovely, needed, helpful, God-filled, sometimes effective and often beautiful social ritual. I could not define my life without them, nor could most of my Catholic family and friends. But in my experience, they are seldom true liminality. I could count on one hand the people I have met in my 31-year ministry who have had their great transformational experiences in churches or during sacramental ritual. I keep asking crowds if they can even remember their confirmation day. Only one hand was ever raised to tell me it was a significant moment in her life. This is absolutely tragic, especially when we consider the amount of time, education, ministry, ritual and episcopal gas mileage we put into it. This is not a good use of resources! It ends up being a countersign for most of our youth. Like the first converts in Ephesus, they end up saying, “We never even knew there was a Holy Spirit!” (Acts 19:3). And then they leave us for the fundamentalists or the New Agers.

Let me offer some advice, again from my studies on classic initiation and the necessity of liminal space. Liminal space is essentially and intrinsically “sacred space” in the way that Mircea Eliade first defined the term. In sacred space there is a clear and absolute center point. It is not a hall of mirrors and feelings and moveable feasts. That is profane space. The single reference point is not doubted for a moment in sacred space. That is why people do so well in times of tragedy, suffering and true worship, and why they do so poorly when they shuffle around inside their vagabond minds. Even psychologically, we need “one God before us” or we are lost in a flurry of whimsical choices. “I choose, therefore I am” creates self-absorption and narcissism. “I am chosen, and therefore I am” creates saints and mystics.

According to Eliade, most Westerners now live almost entirely in “profane space.” There is no center of gravity, no absolute, no consistent reference point except what-I-want-from-moment-to-moment. This is why we teach contemplative prayer more than anything else here at our center in Albuquerque. It is the only thing true enough to free us from our endless attempts to concoct an identity.

We pick up whatever is available so we can feel momentarily significant or at least distracted. Since most of us do not even understand or have never experienced true sacred space, I find that most Western liturgy and sacraments are easily pulled inside profane space because it is our home base. Here liberals are probably even worse than conservatives. “It must be meaningful to me, it must be intelligent and appropriate.” The word and gender police are constantly scanning the horizon, and the ego is focused on what is politically correct. But liturgical Nazis come from both left and right. Ken Wilber rightly calls them “egos in drag.” How dare we call such silliness worship, whether it is a Tridentine Mass or a Vatican II tour de force? In either case, God and truth are not served.

I hate to admit it, after all I have tried to do to critique fundamentalism, but many Evangelical, Pentecostal, Islamic and Hindu services I have attended have a much stronger sense of sacred space than most Catholic services I attend. Last fall I spoke to a large group of young Evangelical pastors who were trying to find ways to minister to Generation X. I was amazed they would invite a Catholic priest, but I was even more amazed at the clear, unquestioned and absolute Jesus-centeredness that radiated through all aspects of the gathering. It was clearly sacred space. Not in an arrogant way, not in an exclusive way, but in a love way. It was a joy to minister in the midst of such “separated brethren.” I must admit it was much easier than the minefield that is most Catholic gatherings today.

If you want to feel totally “unsafe,” go to a Catholic group of social activists, feminists, conservatives, any official diocesan conference or group of professed liberals, especially from my age group. These are supposed to be “my” people. I espouse their causes, and validate their positions, but nothing is ever good enough for them. To be a Catholic public speaker today is like taking up permanent residence between Scylla and Charybdis. Our people just cannot rest, because they have not found a God to rest in. There has been no radical transformation, in the ways I described in the past weeks. Such Catholics are part of the problem more than the solution.

I also hate to admit it, but some conservative Catholic groups do have all the correct props and intentions for creating sacred space. Externally, it looks more likely to touch people and bring people to commitment. They are like young Mormon missionaries in black ties. The theology is atrocious, but the earnest and generous energy will win every time. They look like they believe it and that they take transcendence seriously. The trouble is that it is so dang self-conscious, so overly smug and self-assured. After a while, in most cases, one feels they are actually taking themselves far too seriously, and not God at all. It is all dependent on technique, methodology, buzz words about Mary and the pope, in-group and out-group thinking, terribly Pelagian and almost totally non-Biblical. They exhibit very little interest in social action or any action outside of defending their own orthodoxy. Please. This is also the ego in drag, but now the costumes are fiddleback vestments.

From my studies of primal and universal initiation rites (what you need to know to get started and to end life successfully), I am convinced that baptism was supposed to be the initial facing of one’s mortality in a very concrete ritual way. This is still clear in Romans 6:3-11 and in the early writings of Cyril of Jerusalem, Ambrose and Chrysostom. There is nothing soft and sentimental and “isn’t he cute in his white dress?” about early baptism. Confirmation for a long time held onto the rather universal practice of “sacred whipping” to remind the boy inside sacred space that life would whip him and he had better be ready to learn from it. But now the bishop, sometimes in white gloves, no longer gives us the old symbolic slap. It might look too much like child abuse, I guess. Yes, I know the church is extremely patriarchal, but actually the sacraments have become quite maternal, nurturing and “feminine.” Let’s be honest, males don’t respect these symbols or even relate to them. They are too soft and sweet. Not a single initiation rite I studied dresses a boy up in white. In fact, he is usually forced to roll naked in the dust and ashes to remind himself of what he had better deal with.

The difference between mere “ceremony” and true sacred space is that in sacred space you are always secure enough to let the shadow show itself. In ceremony you just parade the American or papal flag around, and shout about your wonderfulness. The statistics speak for themselves, so please do not get angry with me for saying this. After Roman Catholics, the second biggest group in America is former Roman Catholics, who now fully inhabit every fundamentalist church, recovery group and alienated group I know of, often calling themselves “recovering Catholics.”

How can we “shepherds” have any room for smugness? Our track record is not something to brag about, even before Vatican II. How can we think that more rules from the chancery about liturgical minutiae are going to help anybody or anything? Yet they are coming out like never before. If I followed them, I would, in fact, give Communion to no one at the county jail. At the same time the banners on the front of all of our churches are shouting “Open wide the doors to Christ!” Well-intended, but no one believes it.

Liturgy will change lives and invite humanity to God when it addresses real life issues at real life moments in believable and credible symbols. Right now, our people have learned to create their own rituals and altars at Columbine, Oklahoma City and ground zero. They have created wailing walls in Washington, D.C., and healing murals in every inner-city ghetto. There are monuments of remembrance in front of every city hall and rituals of joy and renewal by fringe groups on every spring and summer solstice. We dare not laugh at them. If we will not rightly celebrate the true heroes and paschal seasons, then the very stones must cry out.

People are inherently sacramental. They know no other way to make sacred their fragile lives except through ritual, song, symbol, prayer and holding human hands. This is how they let God touch them. Precisely when the patriarchs are forgetting how to do it, ritual is being picked up, often in crude and clumsy form, by feminist circles, bereavement, justice and minority groups and belief systems of every stripe. I am sure this pleases God who welcomes our attempts to love one another and to honor life. My only sadness is that most of the rituals I have attended still avoid, deny or mitigate the stark and truthful and impossible revelation that we call “the paschal mystery.” That is still our big trump card, even though we ourselves, while we mouth it so well, barely believe it.

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

National Catholic Reporter, February 22, 2002