By Richard Rohr | ONEING Vol. 8 No. 1 | Liminal Space
I’ve been fascinated by initiation rites for much of my adult life, after witnessing some in Africa and Australia. America is a ritually starved culture, at least when it comes to meaningful rituals beyond blowing out the candles on a birthday cake. True rituals (as opposed to mere repetition of civic ceremonies) intentionally create what anthropologists call “liminality,” or liminal space. The term “liminal” comes from the Latin word limen, meaning threshold. We all need to consciously spend time at the thresholds of our lives, and we need wise elders to create and hold such spaces for us. Liminality is a form of holding the tension between one space and another. It is in these transitional moments of our lives that authentic transformation can happen. Otherwise, it is just business as usual and an eternally boring, status quo existence.
In liminal space, we must leave business as usual—which often looks like a sleepwalking trance through daily life if we are not conscious—and voluntarily enter a world where the rules and expectations are quite different. Some call it “voluntary displacement.” When we wake up in this way and find ourselves on the threshold of something new, we are shocked into realizing that our usual trance state is not the only option, and there might just be something more. Historic initiation rites were always inherently religious, but not in the organized way many have now come to resent in religion. These historic rites rely upon some experience of wonder, awe, and transcendence, which is the initial religious call.
Over the decades, I’ve seen the need for such liminal spaces again and again. Without some sort of guidance and reframing, we don’t understand the necessary ebb and flow of life, the ascents and descents, and the need to embrace our tears and our letting go as well as our successes and our triumphs. Without standing on the threshold for much longer than we’re comfortable, we won’t be able to see beyond ourselves to the broader and more inclusive world that lies before us.
Revelation 3:20 tells us that Christ stands at the door and knocks. Too many of us want to show up at the doorway looking prim and proper and perfect. We stuff our egos and anxieties in the front hall closet so Christ won’t see them when we open the door. But Christ isn’t showing up to see our perfect selves. Instead, we are invited into a real, deep, transformative conversation, there on the threshold between who we are and who we can become, if we are willing to let go of what holds us back.
If we are able to stand it, and stand there, liminality is likely to induce an inner crisis. I’m well-known for saying that the two greatest liminal spaces in human life are great love and great suffering. My mother’s and father’s deaths were powerful liminal spaces for me that lasted most of a year. More recently, the death of Venus, my beloved dog, brought me nearer to God on that liminal threshold. In her final moments, Venus taught me about love and acceptance of the unknown at levels I never could have imagined.
Retreats can take us into liminal space, but only if we avoid bringing our “business as usual” mindset with us and dragging all our baggage along. To really “retreat,” we must be willing to be stripped of much—or all—of what makes “me” me. (Think about soldiers retreating from a battlefield: They’re not worrying about grabbing their kit bag; they’re running for their lives!)
Religious leaders throughout Christian history have taught us that time spent apart, in a hermitage or other retreat setting, will help with that stripping and bring us into liminal space. Just two centuries after my father Francis lived, there were thirteen hundred Franciscan hermitages spread across Europe! Those hermitages model the truth that we must take ourselves away from our everyday world and break our addiction to it. Only then can we cross the threshold and learn to see in a larger frame.
Nothing could have been so universally recognized as necessary if it was not essential, especially for the male. Women tend to have been historically initiated naturally through their subordinate position in most societies, and what were called “the humiliations of blood”: menstruation, labor, and menopause. We men just tried to imitate this liminal space in the strange but almost universal ritual of circumcision for all males.
Only after spending time in liminal space can we live as Jesus taught, being in the world but not of it (see John 17:14–15). Unfortunately, many people come on retreat just to receive reinforcement for what they already know. I see them sitting there, arms crossed, protecting themselves from anything that might challenge their well-barricaded status quo. Without some humility, vulnerability, and openness, there’s really no reason to take a retreat at all. If we aren’t honest about our reasons for coming and our openness to transformation, we should just stay home.
Culturally, we don’t want to embrace liminal space or recognize our natural egocentricity. In fact, we avoid trying to experience it at all. We shut away the ill and dying in hospitals and nursing homes, rather than allowing them to spend their final days at home, surrounded by loved ones who will learn and grow by dwelling together in the liminal space between life and death. We avoid other times of liminality in our lives through denial, escaping with the help of alcohol, sugar, and drugs to avoid truly experiencing the opportunities of liminal space.
Yet the irony is that liminal space doesn’t have to be difficult. While it can be challenging, it can also be extremely rewarding. Imagine immersing yourself in another culture or country. I’m not talking here about making a visit, but of really engaging with the culture—eating their food, talking with the people, living life through their daily rhythms.
When we do this, our understanding of existence expands. We comprehend that our way of viewing the world is not the only perspective. Other tastes, sounds, and smells assail our senses. Other viewpoints, other priorities are revealed to us, as every view is a view from a specific point—usually unrecognized. Then we understand that ours are not the only questions, ours is not the only way, our faith tradition isn’t the only path to transformation, our one country is not the center of the world. There is another Center, and it’s not me!
Liminal space relativizes our perspective. When we embrace liminality, we choose hope over sleepwalking, denial, or despair. The world around us becomes again an enchanted universe, something we intuitively understood when we were young and somehow lost touch with as we grew older.
Our prior edition of Oneing invited reflection on the Future of Christianity. That was, most definitely, standing on the threshold of the unknown and speaking from liminal space. Not one of us has a reliable crystal ball. We don’t know what lies ahead. Yet we know we are called into relationship, with our Creator and with each other. At the CAC, we are currently preparing for the final in our CONSPIRE series of conferences. This conference will focus on non-duality, which is the highest level of consciousness. Divine union, not private perfection, is the goal of all religion. It is usually learned through some experience—however short—of liminal space and recognizing the radical oneness we all enjoy with everything—simply by being born.