Archive for May, 2015

Liminality

Thursday, May 14th, 2015

The word “liminal” comes from the Latin limen which
means threshold. The anthropologist Arnold van Gennep used
this term to describe rites of passage, and and another
anthropologist, Victor Turner, expanded its significance in
his book, The Ritual Process. He spoke of a liminal space
between stages of life, when initiates would be separated
from their normal lives and prepared to enter a new stage.

This liminality fits puberty rites such as circumcision or
some other body manipulation at the entry into manhood, or
first menstruation and the entry into womanhood. In the
Christian world, Baptism and Confirmation are liminal
rites. A priest, teaching children in church, asked what
the age of confirmation was and a kid piped up “puberty.”
The Jewish bar or bas mitzvah fits in here, as do Marriage
and Ordination.

All these rites have some form of preparation. Often there
is a retreat before the rite. The is a liminal period is the
place where you are betwixt and between or you feel yourself
on the edge of something. These are places where ritual
recognition is appropriate and useful. I once met a priest
on retreat to prepare for death. I directed retreats for a
woman who was preparing to go to prison after committing
civil disobedience against the nuclear state.

Where do we find our unseen thresholds?

The Church and its liturgy are such thresholds. There we
enter a special place, a place set aside. That’s what the
Hebrew word for holy or sacred means. There are two
thresholds there, the place where we enter the sacred space
and leave behind our usual lives, where the word of God is
proclaimed and explained, and the altar rail, where heaven
and earth meet, where God enters us physically as bread and
wine, entering our very physiology and nourishing us both
physically and spiritually.

There can also be liminal persons. I think Mary the mother
of Jesus is such a one. This helps usĀ  understand her
cultus. She was God’s threshold, through which Jesus and God
came among us to redeem us. So she is for many a persistent
threshold to God. To consider Mary, her virginity, and her
love of her Son, is to enter a space away from ordinary
life, ordinary thought, where we can find our own way to
God, to bringing Jesus and God to life in our lives.

There are also liminal places. Often they are called “thin
places,” places where in some way we feel closer to the
Divine, whatever we call it, higher power or God, or any
other name. A classic Christian one is Iona, a small island
off the west coast of Scotland. Here the fugitive monk
Columba settled to do solitary penance. Here a community of
monks grew up around him. Here a large abbey and nunnery
grew up. And here in the twentieth century a community of
Scottish Christians formed a community to work in the slums
of Glasgow and at the same time rebuild the Abbey as a place
of retreat and spiritual self-care. Iona was not only
Christian. Even before Columba there is some evidence of the
Druidic. The island was reputed to be the only place on
earth that was above the waters of the flood. It was the
burial place of the Pictish and Scottish kings. Thus Macbeth
and Malcolm whom he murdered are both buried here.

There are also old pagan holy places. When I first visited
Iona, I had a strong sense of a holy place. I also
remembered such a feeling when as a teen I visited Monks
Mound on the flood plain across the Mississippi from St
Louis, Missouri. It was thought to be a large burial mound.
I felt just a funny itch of a feeling that I couldn’t
understand or explain. A number of years later I was invited
by a friend who was taking a course in anthropology to come
along on their field trip to the mound. There were found an
solitary archaeologist digging. He explained to us that this
mound was the center of a great pre-Columbian city built of
wood, so that there were no obvious remains. On the large
mound was a temple of some sort. Further explorations
revealed numerous subsidiary mounds as places of worship.
There was a whole royal court burial and a woodhenge, a
solar calendar like Stonehenge in England. This was one of
the largest cities in the world of its day, a thousand years
ago. And this mound was a thin place.

We find thin places where people have prayed and worshiped
for long periods. And places of reverence of all kinds. I
experienced the same thin place feeling in the tomb of
Abraham Lincoln on an eighth grade field trip. Many people
find thin places in nature, in places which draw us into
reverence and awe. Some times we find thin places in our
homes and hearts.

These are places where we can meet God, where we can step
through the veil, where we can leave behind us whatever
hinders us from knowing and loving God and our neighbors in
God.