Liminality and Transformation

Tuesday 29 July 2008

Let me introduce you to a concept anthropologists call "liminality." It's also called liminal space. The Latin word limen means threshold. It is central to initiation rites and is a good metaphor for preparation for transformation. We discuss it frequently in our men's retreats. We find ourselves in a strange position in the West. We alone, of all the centuries of civilization, culture, and tribe, do not have initiation rites for the young, especially for young men.

Other cultures have recognized that people in general, and boys in particular, are not born; they are made. These cultures took it upon themselves to transform a boy into a man. Certain things had to be told him because he would not come to them naturally. The boy would naturally want to ascend, and religion had to teach him the language of descent. He had to learn the way of tears and how to learn to let go.

These initiation rites are always about leading the boy out of the world of business as usual (the cultural trance we sleepwalk in) and leading him into liminal space. It's a voluntary displacement for the sake of transformation of consciousness, perspective, and heart. People didn't assume that just by getting up every day they would learn what they needed to know. They had to be displaced and shocked to teach them that this isn't the only world. There is another world, much bigger and more inclusive, that both relativizes and reenchants this world that we take as normative.

If we bring to a retreat all the baggage and mentality of business as usual, we aren't really making a "retreat." So nothing new or transformative can happen. I've given lots of retreats. Certain people come to hear what they already know. If I say something they don't know, I can see their arms cross and they mentally pack up and leave. But if we hear only what we already
know, we simply cannot learn or grow. That attitude is a sure ticket to ignorance. Alcoholics say that without humility and honesty, nothing new happens. These virtues, humility and honesty, are the foundation of all spirituality, but they are hard won. Most of us have to crawl our way back to them. Usually we don't go unless the pain of circumstance forces us. Jonah didn't dive over the edge of the boat; they threw him in!

Liminal space induces a type of inner crisis to help us make a needed transition. In brief, it should wake us up a bit. That's what is meant by a liminal experience. The two greatest liminal experiences, of course, are birth and death. My mother's death experience was a liminal experience for me as were two births I was privileged to attend. We can't understand such events except through experience. Many people try not to experience them. We use denial or drugs to prevent us from really experiencing what is happening.

The experiences don't have to be so difficult, though. A visit to another culture can jar us awake, if it is truly a visit to another culture. If we go and stay in an American hotel, eat at McDonald's, and complain because things are not like they are in Chicago, we really haven't left home. We've
let go of nothing. We have to see that others don't see things the way we do. We need to have our fundamental assumptions questioned. Maybe our questions are not the only ones and maybe America is not the center of the world. Maybe our religion isn't the only way to look at reality. Or maybe I haven't really understood how my religion has transformed many people, as
have the other great world religions, each in its own way.

Liminal space is always an experience of displacement in the hope of a new point of view. No wonder Jesus called it "turning around." Unfortunately, the Greek word metanoia, which literally means to move "beyond the mind," is usually translated "repentance" and no longer points to its much deeper meaning.

- Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs


  1. Love this passage and the concept of liminality. I guess Japan was a liminal space for me. I feel I am in another one now, only a darker and more confusing one. In any case, the limina is a transitional and disorienting space, but the way out will be shown us.

  2. i was a little confused at first, because i did not realize you were quoting rohr and thought you had had a transformative experience where you were now speaking as a man...o.k. i am on the same page now :-)

    i will need to ponder this a bit more as i just wrote this morning (prior to reading this) about my own liminal space. i connect with rohr's statement that "liminal space is always an experience of displacement in the hope of a new point of view", however, i am not certain that it always must be the jarring experience that RR seems to point toward.

  3. Barbara. Yes, Im in a dark one too. Just when it can't get any darker - another light goes out :) But still, this is purposive. We must remember that. And yes, I stand with you in reminding ourselves that there is a light at the end, for sure. Then we get to unwrap what's been cooking up without our noticing :)

    Lucy - No, I agree with you that it doesn't always need to be a jarring experience, definitely. Especially in creative terms.

    Actaully, the more liminal experiences I have, the more I am able to sit in the middle of a creative mess and trust that my right brain is doing stuff my left brain has no concept of :) It is the same in life. the two complement each other beautifully :)


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