The Power of Liminal Space


Mid Week Faith Lift

May 6, 2020

The Power of “Liminal” Space

Rev. Deb Hill-Davis


We are in this unusual time of betwixt and between, in this space where things have really changed so abruptly that we do not know what to expect next.  Living with that uncertainty has produced a lot of anxiety and fallout in our body politic.  Our political leaders may want us to go back slowly, to things as they were, but my observation is there is a great reluctance to do so on the part of most people.  We know that things have changed, it is not the same.


The most sensible perspective that I have heard came from the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, who recommended that the best perspective to take is that you have the Coronavirus and your strongest and best intention is to keep from spreading it to others.  Given that we still don’t know for sure who has it and who does not, that seems a reasonable assumption for the time being.  As long as the cases are increasing, we can safely assume that it is still with us.


And that puts us all in what is best described as “liminal space.”  What is liminal space you might ask?   Well it is best described by one of my favorites, Fr. Richard Rohr, who in his Sunday, April 26 blog wrote:


           Liminal space is an inner state and sometimes an outer situation where we can begin to think and act in new ways. It is where we are betwixt and between, having left one room or stage of life but not yet entered the next. We usually enter liminal space when our former way of being is challenged or changed—perhaps when we lose a job or a loved one, during illness, at the birth of a child, or a major relocation. It is a graced time, but often does not feel “graced” in any way. In such space, we are not certain or in control. This global pandemic we now face is an example of an immense, collective liminal space.


           The very vulnerability and openness of liminal space allows room for something genuinely new to happen. We are empty and receptive—erased tablets waiting for new words. Liminal space is where we are most teachable, often because we are most humbled. Liminality keeps us in an ongoing state of shadowboxing instead of ego-confirmation, struggling with the hidden side of things, and calling so-called normalcy into creative question.~Fr. Richard Rohr


When we are hanging out in a place of ambiguity, between life events; we are in liminal space.  Think of the kids who are graduating from middle school, waiting for high school in the fall. Or consider those going from high school to college; that is liminal space.  You are neither here nor there and it takes a great deal of courage to just be there, in the nowhere, in the liminal space.  The same is true for expecting parents in the 9 months of pregnancy between “going to have a baby” and then actually having it.  Those are all “happy” or positive in between spaces with anticipation of good things to come. 


We also experience liminal space when we contemplate or finally experience divorce. Losing a job and relocating to take a new job puts you right in the middle of liminal space as you leave your old familiar community to feel lost and unsure in a new one. Retiring and letting go of your work identity puts you in liminal space, wondering how you might continue to contribute to life.  Retiring and going back to school, to Seminary is a familiar liminal space to me, and it is quite humbling. Moving into active ministry was much the same!  Learning that you or someone very dear to you has cancer or a life threatening illness puts you into a liminal space that feels like the dark night of the soul.


Being in these kinds of liminal spaces have much the same features as where we are right now as a country, as a global community.  In this “nowhere” space, we sit with questions of “How do I do this?”  It is very humbling and one of the most frequent questions I hear from folks about our current conundrum is that we have NO WAY of knowing how long this will last or how we will really know when we are out of it.  What that leaves us with is a huge sense of having no control over our lives, our safety, our future, our daily life circumstances.  How do we competently and thoughtfully navigate this nowhere space?  We don’t really know and that is very humbling.


It is no surprise that the sale and consumption of alcohol has gone up some 40% in this time of isolation and quarantine!  People are seeking all kinds of spiritual solace.  Many of us are motivated by escape driven behavior to avoid what is unpleasant and if we can no longer stay busy enough, we will escape in whatever way we can, alcohol, binge watching TV, walking the dog 5 times a day and on and on it goes.  It is uncomfortable and unpleasant to not feel in control of our lives and we don’t like the feeling, not even a little bit.


So we are feeling lost, unsure of how to move forward, not willing to heed the directions of our leaders because of our unwillingness to trust they are acting for our highest good.  It really pushes us to look at what we value, doesn’t it?  I am an extrovert, so when the ban on religious gatherings was lifted, for a split second, I was thinking, yes, that would be great.  It wasn’t about religious liberty; I just really miss seeing everybody.  Doing church online from my study at home feels so much like being “nowhere” in cyber-liminal space. 


But wait, hit the pause button, Deb and reflect on this carefully.   The transition I had to make was to shift from being “nowhere” to being “now here,” a small but highly impactful shift. Same seven letters, but what a different mental and emotional space! Nowhere to now here….let’s make more space to be now here.


What does it mean to really be “now here” instead of nowhere?  It means to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.  It means that I, that we embrace the truth that we are the Presence of God, we are not just seeking it. It means that we really grasp that there is no separation in Spirit, even if my human self feels really separated and isolated.  It means living with my whole self, both that which I want the world to see and my very human reactions, my resentments, my irritability and judgmental outbursts, which I would rather not have anyone see so much.


It means getting comfortable with being fully human, even as we are also an expression of the Divine energy manifested here and now.  It means a deepening, a growing of my tolerance for uncertainty as I learn to be fully present to what is.  It is learning to live in a consciousness of mindfulness as much as I really want to be mindless.  It is learning to love instead of ranting and raving against what is “wrong with everything right now.”  And I have spent a fair amount of time and energy in that place lately.  Just scratch me a bit about this whole COVID 19 business, I can launch into….well you have no doubt heard it or said it yourself, and it is not very pretty. 


I take solace in what Fr. Rohr also said about how we show up in liminal space:


           In liminal space we sometimes need to not-do and not-perform according to our usual successful patterns. We actually need to fail abruptly and deliberately falter to understand other dimensions of life. We need to be silent instead of speaking, experience emptiness instead of fullness, anonymity instead of persona, and pennilessness instead of plenty. In liminal space, we descend and intentionally do not come back out or up immediately. It takes time but this experience can help us reenter the world with freedom and new, creative approaches to life.


As much as we want to get through this quickly, it takes time, all the time that it needs for us to lean into the experience and welcome the transformation.  Much as we may want to hide and avoid feeling all that we are feeling right now, whether it is frustration with relatives who won’t respond to us, or fear of loss of income or employment, or loss of relationships that may not weather the strain, or loss of loved ones to the disease…..we are asked by that which is greater than we are to be here, now, in this mess together.  We are asked to love more than ever.  We are asked to be more mindful than ever and to live in a state of presence, of a deep and profound awareness of the Presence of God as us. 


I long to feel resilient, resourceful, peaceful and empowered for more than 15 at a time each day.  To do that, I have to remember to focus on who I am as a Divine/human being and welcome that into my conscious awareness each day.  Our prayer calls on MWF help me do that; they help me welcome this liminal space and get comfortable with what it has to offer.  I want to close today with a passage from Psalm 139:7-14 and it is about our relationship to Spirit, to the God of our understanding, and it goes like this:


7    Where can I go from your spirit?

    Or where can I flee from your presence?

8    If I ascend to heaven, you are there;

    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

9   If I take the wings of the morning

    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

10 even there your hand shall lead me,

    and your right hand shall hold me fast.

11  If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,

    and the light around me become night,”

12  even the darkness is not dark to you;

    the night is as bright as the day,

    for darkness is as light to you.


13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;

    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

    Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.


My friends, there is not a spot where God is not… we exist in this liminal space together learning how to be now here.


Blessings on the Path,

Rev. Deb