Liminal – from the Latin word limens, which literally means, “threshold.”
A recent weekend of teaching has caused me to reflect on liminal space and it’s connection to healing as the arising of new possibilities in our lives, and about how, as a man/survivor of sexual abuse/recovered addict, I’ve historically resisted, run from, and been afraid of this space.
Fr. Richard Rohr, founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) in New Mexico, describes liminal space as “a place of transition, waiting, and not knowing … It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer.”
The truth is, we are invited to move in and out of liminal space on a regular basis. Any honest enduring attempt at true intimacy with another person demands that we sometimes move through uncomfortable and destabilizing feelings of uncertainty or even paralysis, especially if the people involved are committed to using the relationship for their own emotional/spiritual growth and healing.
I spent last weekend facilitating a retreat with my wife Lorie. I was the only man in a group with 8 remarkable women who we have worked with for many years. We know one another well. We’ve accompanied each other through marriage, divorce, death, and life-altering family confrontations. Over the course of our 3 days together, each of the women in the group engaged in a piece of personal work, asking for support from the other group members.
Anyone who knows me would say that I’m far more sensitive than the average American man. Yet in this workshop setting I was acutely aware of qualities that I can confidently attribute to the masculine in me. I watched my impatience with the often slow pace of emotional process, at one point expressed verbally as irritability toward Lorie, as I confronted my own limitations and self-perceived inadequacies at staying present in the face of what was transpiring in the room.
It’s scary not to know what to say when someone is breaking down in tears before you. It takes work to resist the impulse to resort to rational questioning or rush to a fix when someone’s world is falling apart. And it’s taking practice to learn how to sit beside the messiness of emotion with an unyielding faith that the momentary darkness and disorder will eventually give way to light and a new order.
This practice requires slowing down. It asks us to listen more, talk less, and that includes listening to our own souls. So much about our culture compels us to speed up, to keep climbing, to fill the empty spaces with distraction. Developing the capacity to tolerate liminality is like exercising any muscle, though paradoxically it requires more non-doing than doing.
I wouldn’t make the claim that all women are adept at navigating this space simply by virtue of their gender, or that men are inept on account of their Y chromosome, but I do thank the women in my life who regularly model for me through their femininity a way to step over the threshold of my own fears into a space where I am learning to trust that life is more often than not a mystery.