I first heard of the concept from anthropologist Victor Turner. From his study of primitive rites of passage, Turner describes the trans-formative space in between being a boy and becoming a man as “liminal space.” It’s odd to me, and perhaps to you, that this learning from another time and distant culture could be a frame for understanding pastoral work.
Limen is Latin for “threshold.” Turner observed young males being taken from their mothers by older males across a “threshold” (limen) into the “wilderness,” an open, uncertain space where their capacity for manhood was tested in multiple ways. Then, they returned to the village, crossing back over the “threshold” as men, no longer boys, picking up adult privileges and responsibilities.
What about the girls? What rituals mark their transition from young to adult women? I don’t know the answer to this good question, a question perhaps more difficult to explore in a patriarchal society. It’s the concept of liminal space that I find so transferable to the work we do.
Note the movement: crossing one threshold from the familiar and comfortable . . . to a time for questioning and challenge within a contained space that’s unfamiliar, unpredictable and yet protected . . . then re-crossing the original threshold as a new person, a different person. In short: from separation to liminal space to re-assimilation. It’s that trans-formative, numinous space beyond the threshold that fascinates and engages me.
This is the connection. Our work, in large measure, is creating liminal spaces or naming the liminal spaces into which life crises thrust us. That’s what we do. We invite others to enter or see these trans-formative places and stay awhile, long enough to engage some aspect of the essential religious questions—Who am I? Why am I here? How will I live? And with whom? Then, after a period of time, they return to their familiar, more ordinary lives. But they return, in some measure, different persons.
It’s a frame, a re-frame, a way of seeing what we do. I invite you to pick up this concept, as if it were a pair of glasses, and notice what you see.
Let’s look at corporate worship. In public worship, as leader, you are creating liminal space. Congregants, by walking through an entrance into the church building, are crossing a threshold, a limen. Ideally they are leaving behind the pressing concerns of their ordinary, day-to-day lives. They are welcomed into another kind of space, liminal space, designed for reflection on their lives in relationship with God and others. For an hour or so the phone doesn’t ring, the computer screen is blank, and no appeals beg for attention. Congregants settle down into a sanctuary, a protected, safe container, with clear boundaries amid a plethora of pointers to the Transcendent.
In this liminal space, you and other leaders, as liturgical guides, provide an array of symbols—written, sung, spoken, silent, embodied—that kindle the experience of the mind and heart with the Sacred. In this safe environment each person is invited to ponder the meaning of their lives, who they are and what they are about.
Then, after this Service of Worship, congregants cross back over the threshold, back to their ordinary lives, as changed persons. No one leaves as the same person who entered. To be in a safe, contained space with others who are also engaging essential questions is trans-formative. It has to be. To some degree, likely a degree not definable, worshipers re-enter their familiar lives as different persons.
If I were again a pastor, I would mark these thresholds more clearly and sensitively. It’s so difficult, given the pace and busyness of our lives, to leave behind the agendas pressing on our minds. Without a conscious crossing and returning, the space between will be neither liminal nor trans-formative.
Or take a look at funerals. Here you are not only creating liminal space, you are naming, or framing, the liminal space the grieving family and friends are already experiencing. Framing the event as safe, liminal space is the gift. For a brief but “full” time, family and friends leave their normal lives, cross a threshold into an intentional numinous place where the meaning of life and death is faced in intense, profound ways. Then, following this extra-ordinary time, everyone returns to their daily lives, but not the same person. You and I cannot contemplate our relationship with a loved one’s life and death without reviewing our own. Transformation happens.
Leading weddings is creating liminal space. It’s so obvious. The individuals, engaged to be married, literally enter the liminal space (sanctuary) from separate directions, meeting at the altar before the priest/pastor. Within this safe, holy space they ritualize their union, to be broken only by death, whether relational or physical. Then they exit down the aisle, through the threshold, back into the community no longer as just separate persons but as a new unit, a couple, a family. Transformation has occurred, visible and irrefutable.
In pastoral care, the dual aspects of both creating liminal space and naming a crisis as liminal are ways to see this work. It’s what pastoral care is.
On one hand, you create sacred space. There is the crossing of a threshold—whether a door to your office or door to a home or coming from the outside and sitting down at a table. The person or family are invited into an out-of-the-ordinary, separate place for conversation and prayer. Within this secure, protected, and confidential space, the unknown occurs. Without the fear of judgment, life is shared, questions are raised, healing is invited, decisions are made. Then, with the time completed, persons cross back over the threshold, returning to their ordinary lives, somewhat different, somewhat changed.
On the other hand, in crises people may be in liminal space and not know it. The crisis takes them out of the ordinary to a place where the primary questions of identity and meaning are being raised in bold relief. In these instances, you help them frame their disruptive experience as liminal, full of trial, testing and change.
Consider a person grieving the loss of a job held for decades or a marriage broken after many years or the loss of health not to be regained or the death of a loved one. This grieving is liminal space. It is a heart-breaking, soul-making place. The suffering, not to be denied or even relieved, can be embraced as a painful invitation to deeper places of acceptance, forgiveness, grace and new life. It’s the in-between place where new questions are engaged, new possibilities surface and letting go is demanded.
Pastoral care has these two dimensions: we regularly invite people into liminal space; at other times, we invite others to see that they are already in liminal space, providing a caring and curious presence within clear boundaries.
Even in our role of managers and leaders of the congregation we offer liminal space. That’s what the opening prayer or opening statement of a committee or business meeting is about. You are saying, “This meeting occurs in a sacred space. We gather as disciples seeking to embody the spirit of Christ as best we can discern.” You are inviting them to leave behind their ordinary “business as usual” assumptions, to cross that threshold into business as worship and embrace presence, God’s and each others’. Then, at some point, the meeting will end, some summary stated and benediction offered before members re-cross the threshold, returning to their various worlds. But changes have occurred in perceptible or imperceptible ways.
This privilege of ritual leadership, more than any other reason, accounts for my return to a congregation as pastor. But let’s admit that rituals can be deadly and deadening. They may not be strong enough to break us open to the new. The container with pointers to the Sacred can fail to hold our attention. Simply, our preoccupations may be so charged that leaving them behind is impossible. But sometimes, even often, the soul is stirred. Unexpected breakthroughs, fresh clarities and new decisions occur. Rituals are that powerful. When they are led with sensitivity, the church is at its best, and it’s at its best for this reason—rituals invite transformation.
It was Victor Turner, through conversation with a friend, Dick Hester, who helped me see the connection between the early human rites of passage and our current multiple rites of passage within congregational life. The common thread—liminal space as trans-formative—became a re-frame that mattered.