Minister’s Reflection: ‘On Liminal Spaces and Living In Between’ – extracts from the service on 25th July 2021

This is not the kind of service I anticipated. I was hopeful with the lifting of covid restrictions, that we could celebrate – all of us gathered in one space – marking the end of the pandemic. Sadly, that is not to be; despite the lifting of official restrictions on Monday, we’re not out the woods yet, and as covid numbers still rise we find ourselves in a strange time of ‘in-between-ness’. In April last year, at my service on ‘Rainbows and Silver Linings’, I told the story of Noah from the Hebrew bible. I had no idea back then the pandemic would drag on this long. I likened lockdown to being in the safety of ark – as we waited for the waters to subside and the danger to pass. 16 months on, some of us are finally out of the ark. Some intrepid folk gladly dispensed with masks and celebrated ‘Freedom Day’, with parties and raves. Yet this only tells one side of the story.  For many, the flood waters have not yet subsided; those who are vulnerable – even more scared to leave their homes, as others throw caution to the wind. With freedom comes responsibility and many of us are mindful of difficult decisions to be made in the coming days – to keep ourselves and others safe.  The flood has not yet subsided for exhausted health-care workers bracing themselves for the next covid surge. The waters of grief are still high for those who have lost loved ones to, or during covid, and those who’s physical or mental health has been impacted. And of course, quite literally, we hold in our hearts, those living with covid and the devastating impact of floods in Germany, Belgium, China and India. For some, not all – there is a sense of relief; those who wish to, can return to the shops, eat in their favourite restaurant, go to the theatre, book a holiday. But it’s hardly ‘business as usual’. And even if ‘out of the ark’, the freedoms are bitter-sweet.  I read that Boris Johnson thought of making ‘Freedom Day’ a VE type event – with speeches in the style of Churchill. I’m glad he was talked out of it! Whilst VE day marked a defining moment – the end of the war in Europe – covid has not yet been defeated and we it seems we must learn to live with this unseen enemy – perhaps make our peace with it long-term.

This transitional space we find ourselves in, some might liken it to being stuck in ‘limbo’. But   a more helpful way to view this time, is as a ’liminal’ place.  The word ‘liminal’ means “on the threshold” – from the Latin līmen.  It can refer to the disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage, when you’ve left behind one identity, but not yet transitioned to a new way of being. Liminal experiences are sometimes connected to loss, death, or disaster – but they can also be precursors of transformation; think of the chrysalis waiting to emerge as a butterfly. Liminality can also refer to ‘thin places’ between worlds, where we apprehend a different reality and sense the presence of a greater mystery – and in mythology a liminal deity presided over thresholds, gates, or doorways.


In planning this service I came across the blog of minister colleague Daniel Costley’s service from last Sunday, who had spoken on a similar theme. Daniel included a reading by Vanessa Rush Southern, which speaks of liminality. I include an extract: “I was in Northern California on my college campus in 1989 when an earthquake shook our world. It registered 6.9 on the Richter Scale – no small event. We all walked around in a daze afterward, blinking in disbelief…. At the time my roommates and I lived in a trailer park which had been erected as ‘temporary’ housing on campus twenty years prior. It turned out to be one of the safer places to be. Its aluminium sides shook but rarely broke; so, once the gas connections were checked for leaks, we were cleared to return. And soon our floors were covered with homeless friends and their belongings in one big post-disaster sleepover that lasted for weeks. Immediately after the quake, we had no idea what would follow, and we could do nothing but wait and see how things settled out… Moreover, in the midst of this waiting an unsettling number of aftershocks continued for days; mild, unpredictable bouts of quaking would send us looking for someplace to stand… It is hard to live life amidst all that – ready to dash to safety, living (and sleeping even) as if on your toes – and harder still when you have no clear place to run to where you know you will be safe. We were told at the time to stand in the doorways. This, they said, was the best and safest place to ride out the shaking. When you think about it, it is such a great metaphor, the commandment to stand in the threshold. In our lives we often stand in just that place. In the aftermath of some massive personal or collective upheaval, we stand at the doorway to who knows what, hanging on to the frame of that threshold until the world stops shaking and we have our new-world legs under us. There we stand uncertain, waiting, hoping, and wondering what we will find when all the dust settles, preparing to step through to whatever survival demands of us…”  (‘Threshold Places’ by Vanessa Rush Southern from her book ‘Miles of Dream’)

I don’t want to lessen the terrible impact of those who have lived through and lost loved ones to a real  earthquake, but the analogy has merit for the earth-shaking events of this past year. After the 1st tremor have come the aftershocks – the 2nd and 3rd waves of covid – and with it the loss of our sense of security. And some of us may have had other personal traumas – bereavement, illness, the loss of a job or relationship – which has caused the collapse of our known world and left us looking for a safe place to stand. Vanessa Rush Southern was told the doorway is the safest place during an earthquake – who’d have thought it? Well, I googled it – and found this advice is no longer recommended – at least not in modern buildings! It seems to be an urban myth, based on the fact in unreinforced masonry structures the door frame was sometimes the only thing left standing after a quake. But even if not literally true – metaphorically it holds weight. In times of transition, we can do worse than pause at the threshold; take a breather – give ourselves time to adjust -not rush forward too quickly …


We may find ourselves in liminal places for long periods. In Hebrew scripture the Israelites after escaping from slavery in Egypt wandered in the wilderness for 40 years – which in biblical terms simply means ‘a very long time’. Grumbling, they yearned for the security of what they’d left behind. Not ready themselves to enter the ‘Promised Land’ – it was left to the next generation. Some of us may feel as though we’re wandering in the wilderness – wanting to move on from the ‘captivity’ of the past year, but seemingly far from the promised land. The wilderness is a disorientating place, yet in scripture we read the Israelites were not alone; a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night guided their way – a constant reminder of God’s presence.  So too, however alone we may feel in the ‘wilderness’ of our lives, there is guidance available to us. Again, in Christian scripture, Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness – a liminal place – being prepared for his ministry – tempted by the devil, but also attended by angels. So too in the wilderness places of our lives, we have to battle our inner ‘demons,’ but may also receive solace from something greater than ourselves – as we are strengthened for the next part of our journey.

Sometimes there is a clear transition from one stage to another, a defining moment – a ‘before’ and an ‘after’. But often, life transitions are more confusing, nuanced – so we can’t quite see where something ended, and something begins. Like the changing seasons; we know spring begins on 21st March because the calendar tells us, but wintry weather may continue long after, or warm weather arrive long before. It feels like we’re in a muddle of seasons right now; on one level signs of new beginnings and buds of hope, yet in other ways the winter of our discontent continues. ‘Betweenness’ is a reality of life, and we must learn to hold ‘this and that’, ‘dark and light’, ‘life and death’, ‘celebration and mourning’ in balance. Our resolve may be wearing thin. We may be sick (some quite literally) of Covid 19 – and all the other bad news stories – raging conflicts, racial injustice, the plight of refugees, the climate crisis. The old world seems all but destroyed. But as we stand in this collective liminal space, perhaps humanity is being invited to awaken to new ways of being. We know we can’t go back to the old ‘normal’ but we’ve not yet found our footing on the path to something new. In this time of transition comes the potential for growth. As Jacqueline Woodman writes:

“In this very strange time of a global pandemic, our individual lives, our society, our economy, our political landscape have all been upended. This past year can almost be compared to the state that teenagers inhabit between the certainties of a childhood that’s gone and the uncertainties of adulthood yet to come. Ever thought about the past year as just one big angst-ridden hormonal teenager? It is an unstable space within which the child/ adult may oscillate between old child-like certainties and emergent, but not quite fully formed adult understanding. In the past year both child-like and adult like reactions have been widespread.  The child cries “Why is this happening… it’s not fair!” The adult counters “We just need to be patient, there’s a vaccine… we’ll all be back to normal soon…. During liminal periods of all kinds, social hierarchies may be reversed or temporarily dissolved and future outcomes once taken for granted, overthrown in the blink of an eye. But this is not a bad thing as there are things in the world that need a bit of overthrowing. This very time that we’re living through could be seen as a time of scrutiny of our values and the axioms of our culture…. While the ice caps melt… and our weather patterns change… can we still truly ignore what we’ve done to the natural world? When we allow our global population to encroach so disastrously upon the habitats of other species that we share this planet with, why are we so surprised that a virus does what it has done for millennia. Perhaps it takes a global pandemic with its chaos and cruelty to tell us something… Out of this fluidity and uncertainty, ideas and practices can emerge that can lead to social change that makes the future a better place for everyone.” (from ‘Living in a Liminal Space’ – The Inquirer 8012 – 29th May 2021)

 Jacqueline refers to faith traditions where rites of passage help us transition into maturity and asks how our Unitarian communities might create meaningful rituals to help us negotiate the pre to post COVID era. In this time – with the ground swept from under us – we have a choice; we can hark back to the past – to a world that is no more – and feel regret, or we can commit ourselves towards shaping a better future. This decision to move forward must be made again and again at each threshold we find ourselves on. And as we stand on the cusp of something new – after this collective pause – let us we take a breath and entrust ourselves to the God of the threshold as we take a step forward…

In Faith and Hope, Sheena