Liminal space

I was seventeen when I went off to college. I was a year younger than most of the other students in my class. For the most part, this didn’t make much of a difference in my life. Most of the time I simply pretended that I was as old as my classmates. But in private, I knew that I was younger. I struggled with roommates, changing roommates twice my freshman year and ending up getting a private room for the next two years, which I preferred. I was afraid of failing in college and perhaps overcompensated by working very hard and earning good grades. Looking back from a distance of half a century, I realize that I was going through what anthropologists call a rite of passage. The journey from childhood to adulthood took me through a phase of life when I was not still a child, but not yet fully an adult.

One of the terms for those in-between spaces is liminal. It is a term that I didn’t know at the time I was beginning my educational journey, but it is a good descriptor of that phase of my life. Different disciplines use the term in different ways with slightly different definitions.

In anthropology, liminality is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete.

Psychologists use the term liminal space a bit differently, describing liminality as the feeling of unease or disorientation that comes from being in between two places in one’s life. That feeling can come from certain physical spaces. Stairwells, elevators, and hallways are liminal spaces. They exist to provide transition from one room to another. The feeling of being in transition that one experiences in those physical spaces is similar to feelings that come at major points of life transition such as a change in career, a change in marital status, becoming a parent, or experiencing the death of a loved one. In the late 1960’s, Holmes and Rahe developed a scale for measuring the impact of stress on health. They defined 43 life events that cause increased stress and result in negative health outcomes. Events perceived as negative such as divorce, loosing a job, and the death of a loved one were seen as producing stress, but those deemed positive such as purchasing a home, graduating from school and the birth of a child were also identified as liminal events.

Theologians use the term liminal space to describe places where a person is aware of the presence of God. Our people encountered God in nature and certain spaces were identified as holy places. Moses encountered God on the mountain, Jacob named the place where he wrestled with an angel Peniel, which means “face of God.” Shrines and temples, altars and churches are constructed in places that are significant in the relationship between people and God. The sanctuaries of the churches I have served are liminal spaces for me. As I enter the space I am aware of the significant moments shared in those spaces. Baptisms, weddings, funerals, ordinations and other major life events have taken place in those spaces. Though I have presided in those rooms, those rooms have never been about me.

As is often the case in academics, different disciplines approach the same concept from different perspectives. Whether liminality is described as an anthropological, psychological or theological concept, the disciplines are all approaching a similar reality.

I am literally living in liminal space these days. Our furniture is in our new home in Washington. We are currently in the home we are selling in South Dakota. We have a few of our things around us, but most of our possessions are in another place. Our house is empty, its rooms bare, but it is still our house. It is filled with our memories. But we know it will be ours for only a little while. The date of the closing of our sale is rapidly approaching. In a few days we will move on from this place and someone else will call it home. We live in a liminal space.

I am writing in the wee hours of the morning when the Presidential race and the control of the U.S. Senate are still uncertain. In the case of some election results we don’t even know when we will know the results. We can remember an election when it took months and a major supreme court decision to give us the results. Our nation is in a liminal space as we try to discern our future together. We do not yet know how the deep divisions of our country will play out or if we will find the political will to overcome them. The decisions of this time seem to us to have huge consequences and we don’t know what the future will hold.

I return to theology. Liminal spaces are sacred spaces. We meet God in the spaces of transition and change. In the language of one of our church’s slogans, “God is still speaking.” Sometimes we don’t recognize God’s presence in the moment, but only when we look back from some point in the future. Sometimes we have to go through an experience before we are able to recognize its meaning.

God of all of the times of our people, we know that you are with us even when we are not aware of your presence. Help us to open our lives to the sacredness of the moment in which we find ourselves. Remind us of your abiding love in all times and places.

Hear our prayers for leadership in these uncertain times. Grant us peace in the moments of not knowing. Allow us to dwell in this liminal space long enough to discover your presence and know of your love.

May we sense the sacredness of this time as we wait.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!