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Easter Liminal Space

The tomb as liminal space: Some contemporary versions


You are not here to verify,
instruct yourself,
inform curiosity,
or carry report.
You are here to kneel.
-- T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

Resurrection takes care of itself. It’s getting people into tombs that’s hard. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, most contemporary people, both liberals and conservatives, abhor boundaries.

I do too. They are an immediate assault on my intelligence, my freedom to choose and make mistakes. Boundaries are an insult to this self that we have all constructed. We, like Adam and Eve, have a certain compelling urgency to “eat of the apple that we should not eat.” I believe this “apple eating” is a necessary stage in the development of consciousness (from ages 2 to 15), but when the search for diversion and individual expression becomes a consistent avoiding of the tomb, I am convinced that the self becomes scattered, ungrounded, addictive, and finally unfree.

Classic initiation rites say that the candidate must be led into some sort of boundaried “tomb.” Apparently we don’t really know what life is until we know what death is. You can’t experience rebirth until you have somehow died. We Americans think we are an exception to this pattern, and we create a totally new and unfounded spirituality of constant and false resurrections. Much of our problem today is that we lack authoritative guides through the mysteries and, even worse, we no longer even believe that there is a perennial pattern through which we can be guided.

That amounts to a loss of faith in the central, essential mystery of Christian faith: the paschal mystery. It was the core of all four gospels and the heart of Paul’s preaching, and yet we now consider it questionable. The great traditions clearly teach that we can’t have a life of ascent unless it is balanced and taught by descent. We can’t have the joy and freedom of resurrection without some learned limitations, some necessary failures and some tombs that we must pass through. This takes natural and daily forms. It is not necessarily dramatic at all.

I grew up, for example, with a whole set of limits and boundaries to my little imperial ego, in my natural family in conservative Kansas, in my early church training, and in formation for priesthood and religious life. The older I got, more and more of it appeared arbitrary, cultural, accidental and, in some cases, even wrong. The Franciscans educated me in the good humanistic, liberal traditions of the Christian West. I soon knew how to discern, and I could rightly “eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” without danger or even guilt.

Good tomb, good resurrection

I knew how to obey laws when helpful, necessary or “commanded by God.” As Paul would say, the law had served its function well as a “babysitter” or guardian (Galatians 3:24), but now “that the time has come, we are no longer under that guardian.” It was one of the first tombs that I resurrected from. It was a good tomb and a good resurrection.

The call to freedom and resurrection in the second half of life is the scary one, both for ourselves and for our capacity to guide the next generation. We don’t know how to lead people until we have lived the perennial pattern ourselves -- and come out the other side -- more dead and more alive at the same time.

Elders were normally considered people in the second half of life, or, even better, the last third. You can only lead people if you yourself have been there. Those who have emerged from the tomb know something that you can’t know in any other way, something absolutely essential. And you only know it by hindsight. The risen Christ, as the gospels go to great lengths to illustrate, is a different Christ and yet in continuity with Jesus “according to the flesh.” Clear continuity and yet absolute disjunction: This is the paradox of the paschal mystery. Death and life seem to be correlatives at the deepest level.

This dilemma affects almost every church issue on the practical and pastoral level today. Your perspective depends on what generation of Catholics you grew up in. We pre-baby boomers usually got loads of boundaries and are either still reacting against them or totally trapped inside them. The baby boomers, therefore, were given little positive mentoring in regard to containment or identity, and totally swung the pendulum in the opposite direction.

Start with boundaries

Now Generation X and their younger brothers and sisters are totally unguided, and often too self-absorbed to even know it. And both of the generations ahead of them are in a poor position to exercise healthy and clear guidance. The liberals abdicate authority because power is somehow inherently bad, and then the conservatives overdo it to compensate for the culture and church that seems out of control.

The result is that few know how to creatively initiate and mentor the next generation of believers, much less live the paschal mystery themselves. There is an essential sequencing between authority and freedom, between boundaries and knowing how and when to move beyond boundaries, between tombs and resurrections.

Walter Brueggemann, in one of his brilliant scriptural analyses, says that he believes the sequence of the Biblical revelation reveals the healthy development of human consciousness: Torah, Prophets, Wisdom -- in that order. First law, then critique, then synthesis. Paul says the same thing in his tortured cry to the Romans and Galatians. You cannot begin with critique, you cannot start with anti-structure, you cannot let go of boundaries until you have some boundaries that you are happily ensconced inside of. Then you can react, refine and renew. It does not work the other way around.

The healthiest people I meet all over the world are people who began with a strong sense of tradition, containment and identity. It is the healthy path. Ask Maria Montessori, ask therapists, teachers, and vocational counselors, ask anyone who works with people that they can rely upon.

You need to know the rules before you can break the rules.

Or as the Dalai Lama put it, “Learn the law very well so you will know how to disobey it properly.” Pure genius, in my opinion, but a genius that normally only comes to you by the second half of life. This is much of the practical problem, because we in the second half of life have to form those in the first. By then, the structures have a secondary value for us personally.

Do you see the problem? I don’t know the way out of it myself, except the regaining of lived inner authority by the elders themselves. Then you know how to build the bridge between law and freedom.

So what does this have to do with Lent and its Easter conclusion? I think the Easter “joy” that many Christians know they are supposed to sing about in this season is often artificial, or worse, not even expected. Unless Lent -- and our early life -- has been a mature spiritual container, unless someone has been “stewarding the boundaries,” there is no “tomb” to break out of, there is little new to break into beyond some verbal acclamations about “Christ is risen, he is truly risen!” But usually we are not risen with him.

By and large, we no longer understand ritual process, the cauldron of suffering, and how the boundaries have to be kept “hot” for the stew to cook. I predict that so-called conservative people and traditional groups are going to finally win the tide of history -- if they stay on the full path. For some reason, they tend to know how to keep the stew hot. They tend to create structures that last and that draw forth enduring commitment. They steward boundaries fairly well. They call forth a kind of respect, especially from the young and from the earnest. We others largely talk to ourselves and to people who already think like us. We beat dead horses to useless death.

Groups that keep clear expectations, customs and practices that they all observe are the ones that gather and form the next generation -- in every generation. On the other hand, groups that say in effect, “It’s all up to you,” “You figure it out,” “Just be true to yourself” are perceived as not taking themselves seriously, or not having anything that demands inherent respect. They basically self-destruct.

There is nothing to cooperate with and participate in. We have wrongly told young people they could play the prophet and pretend to wisdom before they had paid any dues to anybody, any other, any past or any future except their own. Surely a recipe for narcissism and for social disaster. Not a “hot stew” that anybody would want to eat.

On a most practical level, I am saying that things like being on time, being there with the group when convenient and inconvenient, “bowing and genuflecting,” doing the disciplines whatever they might be, showing respect and reverence for the ritual and the place, an earnest spirit that goes the extra mile. These are not small and arbitrary things, but the way that you keep the boundaries of sacred space -- and keep them hot for transformation. This is not a theological thing as much as it is a psychological and spiritual thing that the ancients profoundly understood and we no longer do.

No longer bothering to bow

I know Catholics who will happily take off their shoes, do a full body bow when entering the Zendo, sit in a perfectly erect prayer posture for hours and accept correction for slouching. Yet they will no longer bother to bow when they enter their own Catholic church -- and who will not accept challenge on it either. Such Buddhism will inspire a kind of transformation and a next generation of dedicated people, while such Catholicism is an embarrassment both to the party involved and to any fervent observer. They know we are not serious about ourselves, and will rightly not take us seriously either.

Healthy transformative religion is always earnest, willing and ready to be awestruck.

We are all waiting for a new Easter in Western Christianity, and I have no doubt that we will have it. But we must have it together or we will not have it at all. Maybe this confusing time is a descent into a common tomb. We cannot do this alone by private and cosmetic piety. We need to do something good together, something we are proud of together, something that we can happily invite others into, something that we can hand on to the next generation as a true alternative.

We need to die together, and I think we are. My generation has had its time on the stage. Whatever time we have left must be for those who are entering into a much more complex period of history. We do not need to hand on our hang-ups to them, but we do need to hand on our wisdom. That is what it means to be an elder and a generative adult.

Our transformed pain can now become a most excellent runway toward the Real Life, and for those coming after us.

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 seventh and last in a series.

National Catholic Reporter, March 15, 2002