October 20, 2020

Richard Rohr on Liminal Space

Plain Space. Photo by Andrew Carr at Flickr. Creative Commons License

Richard Rohr on Liminal Space

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.

It’s no surprise then that we generally avoid liminal space. Much of the work of authentic spirituality and human development is to get people into liminal space and to keep them there long enough that they can learn something essential and new. Many spiritual giants like St. Francis, Julian of Norwich, Dorothy Day, and Mohandas Gandhi tried to live their entire lives in permanent liminality, on the edge or periphery of the dominant culture. This in-between place is free of illusions and false payoffs. It invites us to discover and live from broader perspectives and with much deeper seeing.

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.

I imagine that even if you’ve never heard the word liminal before, you likely have a sense of what I’m talking about. It would be difficult to exist in this time of global crisis and not feel caught between at least two worlds—the one we knew and the one to come. Our consciousness and that of future generations has been changed. We cannot put the genie back in the bottle.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Adam’s Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 2004), 135–138.

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Comments

  1. I liked this. In my mind this brings up an overused but apt phrase ” A new normal” which we gradually or sometimes suddenly move to a new normal. A black man checking into a hotel in Selma Alabama 2020 normal, same man in 1960 not normal. We can all go thought changes in our life time fast and slow. Going to store in mask , perhaps new normal, not shaking hands etc.

    • anonymous says

      ” ….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.”

  2. Robert F says

    I have a hard time relating to spirituality that talks in terms of stages of life. I haven’t seen any spiritual stages line up during the course of my own life. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say my entire life has felt like a liminal space: uncertain, uncomfortable, lacking normalcy, a place of vulnerability, an in-between place from which I never find egress.

    And then when Rohr says, “In liminal space we sometimes need to not-do and not-perform according to our usual successful patterns,” he loses me completely — I have no “usual successful patterns,” not having been successful in my life. A spirituality that talks in terms of success being standard for the human condition — something from which one must be jarred by events that put one in a liminal place of not-doing and not-performing — is a spirituality for those who have had a sense of control in life, who believe themselves to have mastered at least some of the important elements of social reality, who have confidence in their own ability and competence. That’s not a spirituality for losers like me.

    • senecagriggs says

      I’m thinking you assessment is most insightful Robert F.

    • Robert, I think you express a reality not covered in this post, but true for many. A life lived in liminal space. You’ve given me something to think about.

      But I also wonder if you’re being too hard on yourself, Robert. You make daily contributions here that make me think you have gained a lot of wisdom and compassion over the years — without regard to how you view yourself or feel at any given moment. Perhaps it is not for us to know our “formation,” but it may well be evident to others.

      • Robert F. I associate you for your gift of mastering a very difficult type of poetry that I could not master. It is hard for all of us to judge ourselves and be objective, we are either too critical but mainly most of are too lavish in our own review of where we are. I am at the Popeye stage of life where , good or bad , I yam what I yam. I agree with CM comments. Be kind to yourself.

  3. Liminal space could also be described as the center point of a paradigm shift. It is simultaneously painful and exhilarating. All together the old structure is caving in around us (pain) while the new vista (exhilaration) is appearing before our eyes. Perhaps it’s “the patience of the saints” not to push or pull but to let it happen in its time. It’s often a hard place to sit. You could also, it just occurred to me, compare it to one of the fundamental terms used here at Internet Monk – wilderness. Painful and exhilarating.

  4. Stephen says

    After 9/11 there was a feeling of uncertainty and therefore, possibility. But how soon the old patterns came rushing back. And how many folks simply saw the uncertainty as an opportunity to push their agenda? But there were some who paused and considered, and consequently found their perspectives subtly altered. These changes in perspective tend to play out in the long term and don’t make a quick splash. Unfortunately crisis demands a quick splash and this explains our irrational and undisciplined national political response after 9/11.

    Will this present occasion be any different?

  5. This sounds a lot like what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was talking about in his book The Sabbath.

    • anonymous says

      yes, this

      “The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”
      – Abraham Joshua Heschel