Liminality

I have found references in several places to an article written by a Franciscan friar in 2007 – The Life and Death of Religious Life by Benedict Groeschel C.F.R. I was particularly impressed by the notion of liminality. There are many explanations in terms of religious anthropology, which are not easy to follow. One meaning of liminality is the sacredness of a place like a church or a temple. It is sometimes called a twilight zone after a popular TV show. It can be a place or the state of a person who experiences the revelation of sacred knowledge or γνῶσις. It also describes the sacred nature of liturgical prayer and actions, and its power to transform and reintegrate the worshipper.

Fr Groeschel describes the notion of a liminal personality as in the saints and mystics of monastic and consecrated life.

Following the example of such saints as Anthony of Egypt, Paul the Hermit, and Pachomius, an ex-soldier of the Roman legions, men and women took up the pursuit of the vowed life. An important but frequently overlooked variable of that life is a quality known as liminality—the state of being an outsider to the establishment of any society, even one with strong religious characteristics and values.

Liminality derives from the Latin limen (which means threshold or edge) and refers in this case to people who live beyond the accepted norms of the establishment. Obviously chastity, poverty, and obedience to a spiritual master or superior take a person out of any establishment where family life and inheritance are the norm. Such people as St. Benedict, St. Francis, and, in our time, Mother Teresa of Calcutta are obvious examples of liminal personalities. In fact, Turner spends much time on the study of liminality in the early days of the Franciscan Order.

Liminal people stand in sharp contrast even to virtuous members of the establishment. This dichotomy is not a bad thing, although there must always be a degree of liminality in any follower of Christ. We see this in the saintly members of royal families: St. Louis IX of France and St. Elizabeth of Hungary, for example, who wore the Franciscan habit beneath their royal finery and served the poor with zeal and joy. Anyone familiar with religious life at the time of its collapse knows that liminality was almost entirely lost—and remains lost, except for the new communities and a few older ones that have remarkably held the line.

If we ask, “What could have gone so wrong and caused such a decline in religious life?” we realize that this is a dull tale extending over a period of more than forty years. Yet it comes as no surprise to anyone who knows church history and understands anthropology. You cannot go against the laws of human nature reflected in psychological anthropology—even laws such as liminality that apply only to a select few—without disastrous results. The current tampering with family life and marriage is another example of foolish intervention into the laws of anthropology. Such endeavors are like trying to grow figs from thistles.

The decline of liminality, the sense of the sacred as a partial explanation, is one reason why institutional Christianity is dying, why monasteries and friaries are dying and leaving their buildings to profane hands. Churches are turned into bureaucracies and administered in terms of corporate management. Originality of personality or so-called “eccentricity” is pushed aside and excluded. All that is left is something that costs a lot of money but has no purpose.

This subject strikes me in particular as I make progress with a new book loosely in the style of a Greek dialogue on utopianism and its expression in this term liminality which I have only just discovered. It is the condition of (some?) autistic people, of losing in social terms what is gained in personal and individual insight into the higher and metaphysical reality. I will include this subject in my work. It all begins with three men and their boats in a little creek up a river in Brittany. I will keep the title and plan secret for the time being.

In the end of the day, I wonder if we are simply talking about the Salt of the Earth

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1 Response to Liminality

  1. Stephen K says:

    Wow. This is definitely a concept that requires some reading and thinking about. I followed the link to liminality on Wikipedia. There are clearly many uses and applications of the concept. Indeed there appear to be so many that I hope it does not in the end prove meaningless. I need to learn about it. It may be that I might have to confine myself, to begin with, the spiritual aspect you touch on in your post. Liminality – borderliness, thresholdness, edgeness – invokes the idea of a status in relation to something that is not liminal (e.g. central). Perhaps not all liminality is good. Or perhaps it is. I am responsive to Father Groeschel’s statement that there must be a degree of liminality in any follower of Christ. Jesus certainly seems to have been liminal vis-à-vis contemporary Jewish religious expectations. What might be the implications vis-a-vis the exoteric, official corporation of a church? A Gothic cathedral is officially a sacred space, but if it is also a statement of the establishment, can it be in any sense a liminal place, except in relation to something outside that is even more established? We may be talking exclusively, or principally, of an interior liminality. There’s a lot in this idea, and I will have to spend some time with it. Thanks for introducing us to this subject.

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