Experiencing God in Liminal Times [Part I]
I am in the process of writing Pilgrim Walk in the Valleys, a story of God’s faithfulness in the midst of personal struggles. Every “valley” experience moved me out of everyday routines and into a time and place where radical change and transformation could occur. Such a space is referred to as liminal from the Latin word, limen, meaning threshold. Psychologists call liminal space a place where boundaries dissolve and one figuratively stands on the threshold, preparing oneself to move across the limits of what one was into what one is to become.
Liminality can be a confusing time of inner dissonance. Although ambiguous and disorienting in the process, one can later identify signs of God’s transforming power and grace. I recently wrote about the liminal experience of midlife when the false self is revealed and replaced with a new self, a new understanding of one’s purpose, and a new awareness of God.
There is no limit to liminal experiences. Being engaged to marry, being pregnant and waiting to be a parent, seeking a job, experiencing loss in death or divorce or poor health are just a few of the times when our sense of identity is hung in suspension, when we are in-between, uncertain about where we’re going.
It was not until the late 1960s that the term liminality gained popularity through the works of British anthropologist, Victor Turner.* Numerous spiritual authors have since sought to describe this liminal space. Eugene Peterson likens the tension to the time when a trapeze artist is suspended in mid-air, having let go of the bar and awaiting the catcher. Paul Tournier describes the experience of “being in between,” such as “between the time we leave home and arrive at our destination”.
Demetrius Dumm uses the image of wilderness, the place where a believer leaves the familiar and secure past to move into an unfamiliar, but life-giving future. Richard Rohr writes of liminality as being “betwixt and between [where] the old world is left behind, but we’re not sure of the new one yet.” The common theme of all these writers is displacement, the sense of being in a “no-man’s land,” where nothing appears normal or familiar and there are no clear paths or road maps. There is a sense that something is ending and it is time to let go.
Companions On The Journey
How does God respond when a Christian is on such a threshold? What does God say at such vulnerable, uncertain moments? “Grow up. Get a grip. Get up and get on with your life.” Is this what God is saying? Or does God want to “sit beside us, put an arm around our waist, and tell us a story of the thresholds [His] own son had to step across, at Bethlehem, at the Jordan River, and at Gethsemane? Times when [His] son also felt something pulling [Him] forward and something pulling [Him] back. Times when [He] also was tentative, unsure, and yes, even afraid” (Gire).
How can we provide a safe, supportive environment for someone experiencing the angst of liminality? It may be tempting to act as Job’s companions, pronouncing judgment or offering simplistic solutions. This can result from fear if one is avoiding his/her own threshold experience. In much the same way, self-righteousness can arise as a defensive stance to protect one’s own denial or doubts. Friends often try to fix uncomfortable situations rather than simply walking as a companion in the midst of the mystery.
Thomas Moore writes that there is a significant difference between “care” and “cure.” A cure implies the end of trouble, but care has a sense of ongoing attention without any immediate resolution. Caregivers must be especially gentle with themselves and others in such a vulnerable time.
The Greeks told the story of the minotaur. . . “He was a threatening beast, and yet his name was Asterion – Star. I often think of this paradox as I sit with someone with tears in her eyes, searching for some way to deal with a death, a divorce, or a depression. It is a beast, this thing that stirs in the core of her being, but it is also the star of her innermost nature. We have to care for this suffering with extreme reverence so that, in our fear and anger at the beast, we do not overlook the star” (Moore).
Henri Nouwen says that what the searcher most needs is a “wounded healer,” someone who has walked a similar path who can provide hope and perspective in the midst of confusion and disorientation. Rather than offer fear-driven or self-righteous responses, companions need to provide solace in the way of Christ, being steadfast and faithful when God’s presence is hidden for a time (Nouwen).
Are you in a liminal place? Take courage. Pay attention. What is God doing in you? Find a trusted friend, pastor, or spiritual director to be your companion on this journey.
This is part one in a three-part blog series on liminality. Stay tuned for parts two and three, and please share your thoughts and questions along the way!
- Dumm. Flowers in the Desert: A Spirituality of the Bible. New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1987.
- Gire, Ken. Windows of the Soul: Experiencing God in New Ways. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996.
- Moore, Thomas. Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1992.
- Nouwen, Henri. The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society. London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1979.
- Peterson, Eugene. Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000.
- Rohr, Richard, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer. New York: NY: Crossroad Publishing Co. 1999.
- Tournier, Paul. A Place for You: Psychology and Religion. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1968.