liminal spaces and thin places (holy saturday)

Celtic crosses in a graveyard along the southwestern coast of Ireland

I first heard the term ‘liminality‘ from a book I read for a seminary class back in the late 90’s.  Liminality is a word used to describe the in-between places–whether culturally, geographically, or metaphorically–places or spaces which are often thresholds between one world, or way of being, and another. The book, “Missionary Congregation, Leadership, and Liminality (Christian Mission & Modern Culture)"".” The Missionary Congregation, Leadership and Liminality, planted in me an interest in this idea of liminal spaces that has continued to grow over the past decade, and has cropped up in all sorts of unexpected places.

Like the garden.

I’ve been reading quite a bit about permaculture (which is, of course, an entire subject in its own right) as it relates to more sustainable ideas for gardening, water usage and soil conservation. Within permaculture I came across the concept of ‘edge.’

Edge, used in this way, refers to the ‘boundary between two elements.’ Edge, as permaculturetokyo describes it ‘is where the action is.’ Edge is the intersection between two worlds–not entirely one, and not entirely the other.

Edge, ecologically speaking, is a place of diversity.  On the edge, “life takes advantage of these energy and material exchanges, and thrives far more easily at these discontinuities than in the more homogenous interior of an area.”*

Like La Mision.

La Mision is a small coastal Baja town about an hour south of the US/Mexico border. It is actually three communities: one primarily American expatriate, and two Mexican, all nestled within a river valley that opens onto the coast. La Mision is so named after the Spanish mission, Misión San Miguel Arcángel de la Frontera, which was built here in 1787.

La Mision, perhaps because of its proximity to the border and the intermingling of its Mexican and American communities, is, in many ways, a place of ‘edge’ where different cultures, people and worlds have the opportunity to, in a sense, marinade together in the same juices. Some consider the region to be a vortex, or a sort of thin place, as Celtic Spirituality would describe it. (For a fascinating (and quite in depth) look at this idea within the Christian tradition, take a look at Mark Roberts’ series of posts on thin places.)

A thin place, put simply, is a place where the boundary between heaven and earth, or the divine and human, is especially thin–a place in which we can experience the divine more easily.

In such liminal spaces and thin places we are given the opportunity to learn, to shift, or to be transformed. But such transformation is not forced on us. The edge is where the energy is, but we can always choose to move away from it, back to the comfort of the center.

Like today.

It was Catholic priest and author Richard Rohr, who’s Daily Meditation for today, Holy Saturday (the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday) got me to thinking of liminal spaces in relation to this day ‘between.’

As Rohr puts it, “A “liminal space” is the crucial in-between time—when everything actually happens and yet nothing appears to be happening.  It is the waiting period when the cake bakes, the movement is made, the transformation takes place.” Holy Saturday, the day that commemorates Jesus laying in the tomb after his crucifixion, before any idea of impending resurrection was yet known, is, in one sense, the ultimate of ‘in between spaces.’

The thing about liminal spaces and edge is that they can often be places of discomfort–even, in many ways, feeling like a ‘death’ of sorts. Because one is living in the midst of that which is no longer, but not yet living into that which will become, it can feel disorienting, difficult, and discouraging. Take living in another culture, for instance. Sure there is the excitement, the fun of learning new words or new foods, making new friends. But there are also the frustrating and challenging components like figuring out how the system actually works, or learning the difference between ‘ahora’ (now) and ‘ahorita’ (soon, sometime, not too long from now) if you’re waiting for someone to arrive.

One of my most painful cross-cultural experiences came when I was living in St. Andrews, Scotland. I assumed that since I was living in an English speaking country that the cross-cultural ‘confusion’ would be minimal. I spoke the language, didn’t I?

It struck me, literally, one day walking out of a photo shop in town. After picking up some prints I had made, I went to exit the shop, pushing on the metal handle of the glass door. I ran right into the door. Somewhat painfully, I might add. Somewhat embarrassingly as well, with the shop full on a Saturday afternoon and with my crash into the door causing a decent racket. Red-faced, I pulled open the door, and exited the shop.

That was when I realized what had, up to that point, been more of a subtle discomfort. In the US, almost always, if you are exiting a public space you push the door out–I believe it has something to do with fire codes and being able to leave in a hurry. In this particular shop, and in others, as I later discovered, that ‘rule’ of pushing to exit did not apply. I had made an assumption that things were ‘the way they always are’–at least ‘always’ in my own experience. Prior to this day, each time I had exited the store, it had been a bit awkward as I navigated the door. But it took me literally crashing into it to make me realize that my assumptions and my past experience, in this case, did not hold true. It’s a silly example, but a telling one.

What liminal spaces, edge, or thin places do is to present us with a similar sort of ‘crash’ of our ordinary assumptions of ‘the way things are.’ Immigrants, those living outside of their own culture, are often most in the position to encounter such insights, living, as they do, in a world that is often, in many ways, foreign to them.

Those within the dominant culture (or previously dominant culture)  may do well to listen to and learn from those groups who have long navigated life from within the margins of society.  Often this societal shift is mourned by those who sense that their place at the center is somehow eroding out from under them. Sometimes it can even be so intense as to feel like the death of the world as it always was.

But sometimes, as we are especially reminded of today, that which seems to signal death is often actually the path to new life.

* From Permaculture Theme: Mind the Edge

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