"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Through the Portal to Holiness, Life, Transformation and Liminal Space

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“Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” (Jonah 1:17)

What is it that happens to Jonah inside this great fish? One moment he is fleeing to Tarshish and peacefully asleep in the ship’s hold, then awash on a stormy sea expecting death by drowning, then in a fish . . . singing a psalm of thanksgiving. Clearly, something has happened to him, there has been a change in Jonah, some kind of transformation.

We have similar moments of transformation in our own lives: graduating from high school or college, obtaining our driver’s permit, the birth of a child, the death of a beloved friend or family member, a promotion at work. The one common thread between each event is our need to stop and reconsider the ageless question: Who am I now? How do I learn to live in this new existence? How do I become a person who can endure the joy of new life, or the despair of the loss of a spouse?

The church seeks to create ‘inside the fish’ events for the people of God through ritual and liturgy. These rituals are an attempt to make sense of a fundamental change in the sea state of our life. Through this understanding of ritual as transforming event you can see marriage as marking the two becoming one, baptism with water and the Holy Spirit the entry of the new believer, funerals as a means to help us answer the question: ‘can life continue after death?’

We have lost much of our language to describe the transformative event for we live in a pragmatic time: a culture that seeks results, planning milestones and existence for the moment. To Jonah in the fish we ask, “Did you at least have your Blackberry so you could check email while you were waiting?” For Job’s friends who sit with him for seven days and nights without speaking (Job 2:13) we think, “Ah, the benefits of being self-employed.”

Our focus on the moment and on results, always on the results, means that transformative space is foreign and frightening when we suddenly find ourselves immersed in it. There is no discernable horizon and the forest looks the same in all directions, and our compass spins lazily about pointing us to no direction in particular. We are lost, with no hope of finding our way on our own.

Anthropologist Victor Turner brings us the concept of “liminal space”, what he calls as the place “betwixt and between”. Liminal space is the place where great transformation is enabled to take place. The word liminal comes from the Latin ‘linima’ which means threshold. We might call liminal space a kind of “holy twilight zone” where God can work the clay that is our existence. Liminal spaces are defined by uncertainty, risk to self, the suppression of our old comforts and, most importantly, being a place where our selves are moved aside so that we are open to change.

Liminal space is a powerful tool for understanding our Scriptures, for the liminal is the place of God’s transforming presence. Liminal experiences are plentiful in the Old Testament: 40 years wandering the wilderness in Exodus is a journey of transformation for the people Israel — this is a liminal space; the detailed instructions for setting up camp and endless lists of people of Numbers 1 and 2 establish boundaries of safety to keep out the liminality of the wilderness; Elijah as he flees through the wilderness for 40 days (1 Kings 19) travels through liminal space to meet the living God. The examples are endless but all linked by the same opening, unveiling, unbinding of the self to enable an encounter with the living God.

The liminal is a great challenge to us for it calls us into a place of not knowing, a place defined by its lack of definition. It is not a safe place for we thinking creatures, but it is a place of God and a place where we can encounter The Mystery in a new and personal way. Liminal journeys are spoken of often by our great mystical writers as “the dark night of the soul”; our “interior castle” the “cloud of unknowing”. When we enter into the liminal we leave behind the tried and true of our lives to not replace it not with something new, but with waiting on the living God.

It may be just a fancy term for an experience we’ve all lived but the concept of liminal space opens up new vistas within the Scriptures, for it presents a way of understanding what is happening behind the text. Rather than a few hours in Gethsemane, consider Jesus’ journey though a liminal space that involves the loss of whom he was to that point, and the acceptance of what he will be as the resurrected Son of God. The overshadowing of the cloud on the Mount of Transfiguration brings Jesus, Peter, John and James into a new reality, even if Peter is still stuck in worldly ways (Mark 9). Each of Jesus’ encounters with death brings into liminal space those who die and are resurrected. Jesus as God incarnate is a liminal space with legs that travels and transforms those who willingly enter in.

This is also a means of understanding church worship in a different light, for sacred space is liminal space. When we speak of transformative worship the discussion is really about creating a liminal, a sacred space into which the worshiper may enter and be transformed. In this way, each milestone service becomes an opportunity to experience liminality in a familiar, and to leave set on a new journey with the church’s guidance: the newly married couple to their joint life in Christ; the grief-stricken to the faintest thought that life might possibly exist beyond loss.

So, a message contrary to our cultural message of control above all else; a message embodied by Julia Robert’s character in Pretty Woman, a prostitute who insists: I decide when, I decide with who. A message that says as long as we can continue rearranging the deck chairs we can at least put off in our mind the inevitable docking that ends the vacation. To this message of control the idea of liminal space draws us and all of our confusing, frightening and joyous transformations together into one thought: we join with all God’s people, past, present and future in entering that liminal space. Not knowing what we will be on the other side, but knowing that we will continue to exist in God throughout the journey. It is this perspective that allows us to rest “inside the fish” and still sing psalms of thanksgiving for we know that God is good. “I called to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and thou didst hear my voice. (Jonah 2:2)


Written by sameo416

June 17, 2013 at 7:43 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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