Liminality: Life on the Edge

A Prescription for 2022 and Beyond

January 14, 2022 by

A Country Lane. Artwork by Ken Alexander.

In Latin, limen means “threshold.” Like entering a new day or embarking on a new relationship with another soul, or with God, each New Year is a threshold – as we hear repeatedly at the close of one year and the start of another.

But what if we lived at a threshold all year long? Better yet, what if we based our very lives, every day, on the foundation of liminality – what Richard Rohr in Adam’s Return calls “an inner state and sometimes an outer situation where people can begin to think and act in genuinely new ways. It is when we are betwixt and between, have left one room but not yet entered the next room….”

To be human is to crave certainty and to build as much of it into our lives as possible. Most of us hate those surprises life can throw at us that fundamentally disrupt and alter all we’ve so painstakingly constructed. To build one’s life on the foundation of liminality sounds risky, even bizarre. Isn’t a solid foundation the only basis for a responsible, constructive, contributing life, not to mention the flourishing of human society?

This question deserves a deeper dive. Rohr describes liminality as “that graced time when we are not certain or in control, when something genuinely new can happen. We are empty, receptive, an erased tablet waiting for new words.” 

How does this play out in human life? Inarguably the “limens” of our earthly existence are birth and death; you could certainly describe these as times of not feeling at all certain or in control. Though birth and death are accompanied by very real pain, agony, and suffering – often ugly and hard – they are not defined by them. Nor are these physical realities all that is present, particularly when God is prayerfully invited into the experience. Did I not feel “something in the room” when my wife gave birth? And was it not similar when my mom took her final breath?

Stepping back from the two primary thresholds of human existence, anyone who has spent considerable time in nature will understand the meaning of “the edge.” It’s an ecological term describing the place where two distinct ecosystems meet, like the edge of a forest glade. There is life in both forest and glade, of course, but nothing comparable to what is present where the two intersect. My favorite “edge” is the shore, where water meets the sand and burgeoning life is evident in every direction.

Contrasting this area teeming with life, Rohr contends, “Nothing fresh or creative will normally happen when we are inside our self-constructed comfort zones, only more of the same. Nothing original emerges from business as usual.” Why would anyone want to be part of such a mundane picture? But if we are honest, isn’t that where most of us spend our lives?

Nothing opened my eyes more dramatically, and removed me from “business as usual” more effectively, than assuming the role of a chaplain during the Black Summer bushfires in Australia. Each one-week deployment was an entirely blank slate, from the start of each day to its conclusion. There was no certainty, no being in control of anything, no ready explanation for the random way in which a fire can take out one house and leave another only meters away completely untouched, its lovely flower garden intact.

It was a confronting experience in liminal space. As Rohr puts it: “Much of the work of the biblical God and human destiny itself is to get people into liminal space and to keep them there long enough to learn something essential and genuinely new. It is the ultimate teachable space. In some sense, it is the only teachable space.” I have wondered, why not view every day with that liminal sense of a day of chaplaincy? Is there such a thing as normal, and why return to it when we can make the daily choice not to?

For the believer, a new year can be a threshold to rediscovering what discipleship is all about. Recently reading a new collection Henri Nouwen’s writings, I was struck by his definition of discipline, from which the word discipleship is derived. He writes that discipline is not about exerting some measure of control over ourselves, others, or a body of knowledge. Rather, it is “‘the effort to create some space in which God can act.’ Discipline means to prevent everything in your life from being filled up. Discipline means that somewhere you’re not occupied, and certainly not preoccupied. In the spiritual life, discipline means to create that space in which something can happen that you hadn’t planned or counted on.”

What a great description of liminality, and what an opportunity we have to make space for God as we enter the threshold of 2022. The year is young!

Are we ready, then, to live in the space between? To confront our preoccupations, to take concrete steps to counter the many distractions that a smartphone puts within easy reach, to deal with the fact that we’ve voluntarily chosen to fill up every moment of the day? Are we willing to look at the structures and edifices – both internal and external – that we’ve labored on so long, with every good intention? Will we take the disciplined action of removing the physical, mental, and spiritual clutter?

The gospel calls us to nothing short of this. God wants us to make space for him every day. And it surely is good news when we no longer desire a return to the certainty of normalcy and its false sense of security. We’ll have new ears to hear Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount about doing what he tells us to do.

Living on the edge means praying for a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and actually expecting God to act in the space that we’ve opened up for him. After all, by definition we are living betwixt and between the first and second coming of Jesus. There is much to do in the short time each of us has, but what an exciting time to be alive!


About the author

photograph of Bill and Grace Wiser

Bill Wiser

Bill Wiser lives at Danthonia, a Bruderhof in New South Wales. His daily activities include teaching and pastoral work...

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