Grieving as Sacred Space: How These Anxious and Ambiguous Days Might Offer Up the Most Holy of Gifts. (Soul Searching)

Article excerpt

"They sat there on the ground beside him for seven days and seven nights. To Job they never spoke a word, so sad a sight he made."

--Job 2:13

In recent studies of initiation rites, which seem to have been strategic for human survival in most of human history, I have discovered from Victor Turner the concept of "liminal space." He says that it is very hard to come by in the modern and now post-modern world. We are now too strategic, functional, and hurried to easily seek what the ancients sought above all else. Only pain is now strong enough to lead us into this unique place "where all significant transformation happens."

I suspect America is in a unique liminal space right now. Our attitudes are numbed, absolute, and strange. The old constituencies are unpredictable and misshapen. There is something new afoot, not only politically but also somehow archetypally and on the level of the psyche and soul. We are tipping on the balance, and usually God is an opportunist in such situations--waiting at the bottom of the slide.

Let me first explain what I mean by liminal or sacred space (I will use the terms almost interchangeably). "Limina" is the Latin word for threshold, the space betwixt and between. Liminal space, therefore, 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 in between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. It is no fun. Think of Israel in the desert, Joseph in the pit, Jonah in the belly, the three Marys tending the tomb.

IF YOU ARE NOT trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait--you will run--or more likely you will "explain." Not necessarily a true explanation, but any explanation is better than scary liminal space. Anything to flee from this terrible "cloud of unknowing." Those of a more fear-based nature will run back to the old explanations. Those who love risk or hate thought will often quickly construct a new explanation where they can feel special and again in control. Few of us know how to stay on the threshold. You just feel stupid there--and we are all trying to say something profound these days.

Everything genuinely new emerges in some kind of liminal space. No knee-jerk patriotism here, and no knee-jerk pacifism either. Only a holy aimlessness: "Which group do I belong to? What side do I take in the cocktail party conversation?" One risks looking not just stupid but actually uncaring or unaware if one does not take sides. One should have a meaningful place to stand, after all. It does settle a bit of the dust, the floating dust of fear and anxiety. I wonder if this is actually what Jesus meant when he said that he had "no place to lay his head" (Matthew 8:20). It is a hard place to be--a narrow road that few walk. It is so humiliating and unsettling these days to neither wave the unifying flag nor have a clear answer either--even about the flag waving. One feels like Job and his friends sitting for seven days and seven nights in silence, feeling anything but heroic.

Mircea Eliade presents a parallel idea when he speaks of "sacred space." He says that we largely live in profane space now, and the best we can do is create "ceremonies" that give the appearance of sacred space but not the reality. Ceremony would be more "liminoid"--a false sacred--than liminal. It apes the sacred by sentiment, scale, and heroic language, but there are three clear differences between the ceremonies of profane space and true sacred space: 1) Profane space has no absolute center, but rather many centers that periodically take their turn. 2) Profane space always reflects the dominant consciousness because it knows no alternative. 3) Profane space never allows the appearance of the shadow. …