A liminal space of transition, unknowing
by Claude Miller
And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” Matthew 26:39
There is a beautiful painting called The Holy Family on the North wall of the Church of St. Joseph in Nazareth. In it are Mary, Jesus as a young teen, and Joseph. They are in Joseph’s workshop. Jesus and Joseph stand at a fully equipped workbench, Jesus with a studious expression and under the watchful eye of his father. As I studied the painting I was drawn to Joseph who held a bow saw in his left hand and rested his right on the workbench. He looked on Jesus with an expression that can only be described as that of a loving mentor, yet he also looked perplexed. Joseph, who had just instructed Jesus on the joining of two pieces of wood, clearly didn’t understand why Jesus placed them at right angles to each other in the form of a cross. Mary’s look of sadness confirmed Joseph’s bewilderment. Through the workshop’s open door are the rolling hills of Galilee where Jesus eventually carried out his ministry.
Jesus spent at least three years with his band of disciples near and around the Sea of Galilee. He taught, healed and fed the crowds then traveled to Jerusalem and his death on the wooden Cross of Calvary. But first Jesus had to enter into a time of anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane, a time where he prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” A time when he realized that his death was inevitable.
Anthropologists describe this state as a liminal space. According to the Rev. Richard Rohr, an international speaker and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, a liminal space is “the place of transition, waiting, and not knowing, is a unique spiritual position where human beings hate to be but where the biblical God is always leading them. It is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are finally out of the way. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait —you will run, do anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing.”
As Christians and people of faith we began a journey on Ash Wednesday, one on which we face the reality of earthly life, knowing it will one day end; knowing that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Life is filled with thresholds, transitions and change; some of our own doing and some not within our control. The Garden of Gethsemane is, among other things, liminal space, a time of uncontrolled transition. The Rev. Ronald Rolheiser, a community builder, lecturer and writer says, “We are born alone, without possessing anything: clothing, a language, the capacity to take care of ourselves, achievements, trophies, degrees, security, a family, a spouse, a friend, a reputation, a job, a house, a soul mate. When we exit the planet, we will be like that again, alone and naked. But it’s precisely that nakedness, helplessness, and vulnerability that makes for liminal space, space within which God can give us something new, beyond what we already have.”
Our journey through Lent — leading to that place of not knowing, that place of transition, that time of change, that place of newness — applies to each one of us as an individual, as a family, and as a community of believers. If God is leading us, we are assured that he is leading us to a Resurrection and New Life. But we must go through life with the emotional and spiritual agony of the Garden.
As I continued to gaze on that painting of the Holy Family I noticed a Dove in flight in the bottom left hand corner. Was that family in a liminal space? A place of transition, waiting, and not knowing? A unique spiritual position where God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, was leading them?
We approach Gethsemane and the Cross that leads to a life in the Resurrection.
God bless you this Easter.