Liminality – Embracing the Space In Between

“In anthropology, liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”) is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rites…During a rite’s liminal stage, participants “stand at the threshold” between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which completing the rite establishes…During liminal periods of all kinds, social hierarchies may be reversed or temporarily dissolved, continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt. The dissolution of order during liminality creates a fluid, malleable situation that enables new institutions and customs to become established.” (Wikipedia)

Liminality, welcome to our present reality! Whether it be political, scientific or religious we presently are in a time where much of our lives are in a place of in between. Politically, the United States is attempting to make an “orderly transfer of power” from the 45th President to the 46th. Scientifically, as hundreds of thousands continue to contract and succumb to the deadly Covid 19 virus there appears to be real hope that a vaccine may be availed in just a number of weeks. Religiously, Christians who subscribe to a liturgical calendar, amidst their own season of waiting to regather in person, will begin the season of Advent. A time which is framed in waiting for the coming of the Christ child.

In Danann Parry’s ‘Parable of the Trapeze’ she gives a masterful description of liminal / in between space: “I have noticed that, in our culture, this transition zone is looked upon as a “no-thing,” a “no-place” between places. Sure, the old trapeze bar was real, and that new one coming towards me, I hope that’s real, too. But the void in between? Is that just a scary, confusing, disorienting nowhere that must be gotten through as fast and as unconsciously as possible?” Parry aptly names how many of us try to navigate the liminal times in our lives. She goes on to suggest, “I have a sneaking suspicion that the transition zone is the only real thing and the bars are illusions we dream up to avoid the void where the real change, the real growth, occurs for us. Whether or not my hunch is true, it remains that the transition zones in our lives are incredibly rich places. They should be honored, even savored. Yes, with all the pain and fear and feelings of being out of control that can (but not necessarily) accompany transitions, they are still the most alive, most growth-filled, passionate, expansive moments in our lives.” (Shout out to my soul brother Fran McKendree for bringing Parry’s work to so many of us through his music!)

What would it look like for us to lean into rather than just trying to get through the liminal times and experiences of our lives? For me, what I have found most helpful are the lessons I have learned from the Advent season. There are two approaches specifically. First, establishing a posture of not simply waiting, but spending time wondering and imaging both what can I learn from this present time, and how might those learnings prepare me for the future. And second, embracing patience with the world, with neighbor and with self through intentionally exercising restraint on judging.

It is important to name that liminal / in between space is hard. Yet when we embrace that space there can be value as a place to learn, grow and even be transformed through wonder and patience. Our time in liminal space may in fact be time well spent.

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