What I learnt about what goes on at funerals from Victor Turner

Nigel Rooms is the Leader of Partnership for Missional Church UK, Church Mission Society; Associate Priest at St. Peter’s, Braunstone Park, Leicester; Editor of Practical Theology and Co-Editor of Ecclesial Futures; freelance researcher, consultant, facilitator, author, editor and spiritual director. Correspond with Nigel at nigel@praxisworks.uk.

Interpreting behaviour and transforming practice at funerals with liminal theory by Rev Canon Nigel Rooms.

I am based in Leicester, UK and have been a Christian minister for thirty years. This short piece arose from experience I had many years ago when both beginning ordained ministry in the UK and first encountering liminal theory from reading Victor Turner and understanding about structure, anti-structure and liminal space alongside ritual theory. Its just that I never got around to writing it and, indeed I had no outlet for it. The writing of the book Crossing Thresholds on the Journey Faith: A Practical Theology of Liminality (Cambridge: Lutterworth, forthcoming 2020) and the creation of the Engaged Liminality blog prompted me to write and offered the right place for the reflection. Since it arose when I began ordained ministry it might be useful for those in that phase of life, but I expect ‘seasoned campaigners’ might usefully review their practice also. I hope for any others reading this it will be enlightening in understanding the funeral through the ‘liminal lens’.

A funeral is the culmination ritual of the whole ‘rite of passage’ for the death of a person. Whatever one believes about the afterlife (and this varies enormously even amongst Christians) it is clear that in any physical sense the person who was alive and with us is now not. A change in their state of being has occurred. They are dead. Ritual theory tells us that rituals exist to dramatize, in a focused microcosm what is happening in the overall rite of passage, which marks a status change. That is, we have to come to terms with the fact that ‘Dorothy’ was with us for 73 years and is now no more. So here is the first point of contact where we can learn. I suggest that the recent trend of conducting a funeral without the body physically present is a denial of death, of the reality of what has happened – and there are many other points in the ritual where denial can also manifest itself. We know that bereavement takes a very different course for those whose loved ones are lost at sea or who died in major explosions or other tragedies where the body is not recoverable.

A funeral, therefore dramatizes in a few hours the loss of a person – essentially, we start with the body and finish having disposed of it in some suitably reverent fashion. Thus, the process of a funeral is to dramatize progressively the ‘letting go’ of the person from us – to allow them to metaphorically die in our imaginations – such that, life may be taken up again – even though the illusive ‘closure’ may take years, or in fact never arrive (this is particularly the case for the loss of children, however old). So that’s how we’ll proceed in this piece – from the beginning of the ritual to the end.

I generally find, when visiting bereaved relatives for the first time, explaining this purpose of ‘letting go’ for the funeral, in everyday language, really helps them to ground what is going to happen. It also supports an explanation of the key moments in the funeral during the visit as we’ll see. Many, many people will tell of how in-between the person’s death and the funeral they feel ‘in limbo’, not really sure what is happening – they describe all the conditions of the liminal state and not to conduct the funeral rite would be to leave them stuck in this limbo. In terms of our theory which we explain in Crossing Thresholds they are placed at the bottom of the U (of Scharmer’s Theory U) until the ritual can happen. This again helps the explanation of why a funeral ‘must’ happen – the vast majority of people I have come across realise, deep down its fundamental necessity. It is not difficult therefore to reinforce this with simple explanations of what is happening and why.

Traditionally in the UK bodies were kept in an open coffin either at home and/or in church overnight before the funeral. My grandmother spoke of her and all her childhood siblings and friends taking a ‘peek’ into the coffin, looking at the latest person around them to die, in the early twentieth century. So, we start with the person – even though they are dead, we can still see them and interact with the body. The denial of death and consequent squeamishness about its presence has largely removed these actions as part of the contemporary rituals around death. However, I always encourage a visit by close family to say a final physical farewell to the person in the morgue if at all possible – it has to be a healthy thing to see the dead for the last time (unless, perhaps the body, for some reason is badly mutilated or has been donated to science etc.). 

One of the lovely micro or sub-rituals which used to happen in the fairly close community I worked in was that the funeral cortege would pick up the close family and, led by the hearse travelling at a relatively low and respectful speed would divert to the deceased’s home on the way to the place of the service or when going to the committal. Sometimes they may have lived in the same home for decades – the cars would arrive, slow right down, linger outside the home for a minute or so before moving off. Once again, the drama was saying this person was here and is no more.

Possibly the most curious phenomenon when first encountering funeral ministry was the ‘gathering’ of mourners either at our church or at the crematorium before the hearse and the close family arrived (unless the family were very well known to me I usually did not accompany them from home or say any prayers there before they set off). Hardly anyone, gathering in the half-hour or so before the advertised time entered the building to prepare themselves, they would rather stand outside, perhaps having a last cigarette before the service, often conducting slightly awkward conversations with their fellow mourners. Often it felt like there was even something contagious about entering the building before time – as if death might be catching! If I wanted any last-minute stories about the deceased or simply to put myself about I needed to be out there and not inside the building. And then it clicked on reading Turner. The building is the liminal space equivalent to the circumcision camp in the bush for the village age-mate ritual. It is the place of chaos and awe, not to be entered without permission from the ritual elder (me) at the right time (when the coffin arrives). Here then was a lesson about how the church building (it is different inevitably for sole-use crematoria) is imagined in the lives of the average local mourner who does not attend regularly. For them the building is truly liminal space, mostly to be avoided as it requires the serious engagement and invitation to change that any rite of passage signifies. However, ‘other-worldly’ the regular week-by-week worship is for the churchgoers the building for them becomes more structure than anti-structure, in Turner’s terms. This does not preclude effective oscillation between worship and work (see chapters three and ten of Crossing Thresholds), but it does mean, I suggest that other liminal experiences are wisely built-in to the annual programme of local churches – pilgrimages, festivals and even the “week-end away”. The liminal nature of the building for the newcomer is yet another hurdle they need to clamber over if they are to join the regular worshippers. I wonder how many congregants realise this when inviting their friends and families to worship with them.

In the Church of England’s funeral rite, the service begins with the procession into the space where the ritual will take place, whether a church or chapel at the crematorium. The ritual priest (me) walks reverently in front of the coffin, the coffin bearers and the immediate family – followed by the rest of those mourners who were waiting for permission to get going. Thus, the priest creates the container for the rite of passage to be dramatized effectively throughout the funeral from the very first moment. Sentences of Scripture are provided for this procession – enough (at least seven – e.g. John 11: 25-6; Rom 8: 38-9; Lam 3: 22-3) for quite a long walk. I found myself, in time taking up my role as ritual leader by announcing these verses in as firm and commanding a voice as I could muster, making sure I heard the echo coming back from around the building.  

Crematoria are essentially technological solutions for the lack of physical grave space, at least in the western world where burial in the ground has traditionally been the norm. Their design and architecture vary enormously, some of which enhance the ‘flow’ of a funeral and some which definitely do not (one of my laments is their, often functional nature and lack of transcendence – and therefore the inability to provide sufficient containment). It seems to me interaction with the coffin, which is one removed from the deceased (yet we all know who is in there – it is rarely left open these days) is the point of a funeral.  If at all possible I would always place the coffin centrally in front of the mourners, yet some crematoria have it off in a corner out of their direct eyeline. In these cases, I would leave it out, with the permission of the family and have it placed on the ‘catafalque’ (from whence it will proceed to the furnaces after the service) just before the Commendation. More on that movement in a moment.

 I won’t say too much about the content of the funeral as practice varies a great deal. The key is that the celebrant holds the space for mourning and grief to happen – through their words and their silences. Eye contact, especially in music and hymns if there are any is key; humour and the right level of pathos also really help. Generally, I am looking for tears, for expressions of emotion, for grief to be demonstrated in physical ways within the overall containment. Standing quietly by a close friend or relative as they offer a tribute often is enough to hold them through that tremulous moment. Because the space is liminal space however the slightest disturbance will be attributed meaning by the mourners, for example a fly buzzed around me once at a profound and silent moment. Clearly ‘Arthur’ was not finished just yet, I was reliably informed afterwards.

 The next stage in the drama of the funeral is the enacting of the loss of the person, as the coffin is removed from us. It is a staged process which I think really helps lead the mourners to the heart of what needs to happen for them. Thus, the Commendation precedes the Farewell in the Committal and prepares the mourners for it – leading them gently to that moment which cannot be avoided. 

At the Commendation I normally move to the side of the coffin and gently place my hand lovingly upon the top-side of it. I am representing what the mourners would also wish to do (and may in fact be given permission for if there is time, but this does have risks in them becoming overly attached). It is perhaps the most poignant moment at which the ritual priest is at their most vulnerable as the creator for the containment of grief. I once had a hardened local publican who had lost the love of his life in her early thirties to a massive and sudden brain haemorrhage tell me some time later that he wanted to jump up and “brain” me at that very moment when I touched the coffin; ironic in the extreme. Yet here is the ‘letting go’ which has to happen, we cannot cling to the dead person, I must remove my hand and move to the Committal.

I have to say here, why I unequivocally prefer burial over cremation. As I often declare in the preparation meeting, ‘no-one would leave the coffin on the side of the grave and walk way’. Burial is clearly a final symbolic act – I hope that the mourners at my funeral will follow the beautiful African and African-Caribbean custom of filling in the grave before leaving the site, while many hymns are sung (and please no plastic grass to hide the earth mound!). Once the coffin is in the grave it is clear it is not coming out again. Death has been thoroughly and movingly dramatized, and physical energy has been expended in filling in the grave. And even if it isn’t filled in there is the chance to symbolize that by scattering some earth on the coffin. In fact, it is one of the moments I feel most connected when I take up a handful of earth before the Committal begins and drop it in the grave three times coinciding with the words, ‘earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust’. It resounds in the space of the grave on the coffin lid, my hand becomes soiled, the pages of the service book get grubby, bits of sand are left in its spine and death is real for me as well as the mourners. They in their turn sprinkle some earth on the coffin, perhaps throw in some flowers and take their time to leave.

Things are not the same in a crematorium. There are two main issues. First the burial has to be symbolically represented in the technology. Second it is not over when it’s over since mourners are left with what to do with the ashes – which prolongs the rite, often quite unhelpfully. Especially when the ashes are kept on a shelf in the garage for years afterwards, since no-one quite can bring themselves to dispose of them.

So, in a crematorium there is usually some ritual action which symbolises the lowering of the coffin into the grave. I have seen mainly curtains operated by the discreet pressing of a button, also gates closing (in some odd juxtaposition of the opening of the heavenly ones?) and in one case in a design from the 1930s an actual lowering of the coffin mechanically into the bowels of the crematorium (accompanied quite often by the clanking of the machinery). All of these methods seem to me overly melodramatic (though what alternative is there?) and families often baulk at them – asking for the curtains or gates to be left open, the coffin not to be dropped. This always seems to me highly unsatisfactory as it offers opportunity for denial. And here is where ritual theory can really help. Often, though not always, my explaining the function of the curtains goes some way to persuading the mourners that this is the moment of letting go – and ‘we wouldn’t leave a coffin on the side of a grave, would we?’

Time is what is required at this point particularly as there is no equivalent of the earth scattering on top of the coffin, though as indicated above there might be some limited interaction before the commendation. Music helps too I would suggest, as part of the containment and permission giving for grief.

I won’t say much more about ashes except to note that there is usually a great deal more of them than people expect and they tend to blow about in any kind of wind, and in the case of my father make a rather surprising and immediate white stain on the bed of his chosen river in Yorkshire.

And finally – the ‘wake’. The final piece of the ritual jigsaw which is saying life, not ‘must’, but in fact ‘will’ just go on, continue. Time will pass and we need to be together, this first time without ‘Delia’ for all the times that will come when she won’t be with us; In this first year at Christmas and on her birthday, Mothers’ day etc and then in the second year too… Yes, at the wake we can continue to tell stories of her, share photos and memories, but this is now about the future – about re-aggregation and returning to structure in Turner’s terms. And so, a final plea for the ritual priests reading this; do not avoid the wake! Do not make the excuse of being too ‘busy’ to attend (what a terrible word for spiritual leaders to utter). The ritual is not over by any means at the graveside, it only concludes afterwards as people gather in a wholly different, more ‘normal’ space. The presence of the priest at the wake – and it only really requires presence, a drink or two and a bite to eat – gives unspoken permission for some sense of normality to return. If things go on for a long time and become a bit raucous there is no harm in slipping away, but not to be there at all, I would suggest is a heinous sin of omission.

Liminal theory, understanding ritual for what it is strengthens the container we can create when conducting funerals which makes them more meaningful and effective as rituals. We ignore its wisdom at our peril.

Veils, Loops and Paradox: The Nature of the Liminal Domain

(This post was first published at TheLiminalityProject.org on June 17, 2020)

While some attempt has been made to describe the experience of liminality, we are often left with a list of what it is not: it is not familiar structure, it is not rational, it is not linear. The ambiguity and confusion we experience in this phase of the passage is often described by contrast, according to what it is not. That is understandable. It is much easier to describe the concrete than the abstract. And yet, a description of the liminal is very often what people desire most.

Before attempting to describe the subjective experience of liminal time and space, I want to have some conversations with a few physicists, mathematicians and philosophers.  If we are going to be talking about the disruption of our familiar order of life, the crossing of a threshold out of structure into antistructure, whether prescribed or imposed upon us, we need to explore the ground we supposedly stand upon.

When the late physicist Bernard d’Espagnat described reality, he spoke in terms of its veiling; ordinary observable reality – let’s call it the realm of Newtonian cause and effect – acts as a surface or veil for what is hidden beneath it.[1] If a theologian were saying the same thing the language might be “things visible and invisible,” a sacramental way of describing reality. Regardless, the reality we perceive is the surface of the pond, not the pond in all its depths.

We suppose this surface to be reliable and solid, something dependable and predictable. And to be sure, it often is. That’s how we can calculate that we are about out of milk, need to make a trip to the store, know a pathway there, remember transactions that will obtain the milk, and return home to drink it. Usually that is the case, but not always.

To make life easier our brains and social structures have created maps of predictability to keep this cause and effect surface easy to navigate. When people deviate from the pattern they are corrected. Mechanisms in our worldview keep the ball bouncing. Until it doesn’t anymore. Then, if we were a quantum physicist and not a Newtonian, we might say that it was only time until the house of cards fell, that we could only maintain this illusion for so long.

That, by the way, is exactly what most of the world religions have said for millennia, that what seems to be real is indeed illusion, that nothing is permanent save what buoys it up from beneath, that there is a difference between the essence of things and the form it takes in history. Or, returning to the physicists, that there is energy on one side of the equation and everything else on the other side.

So, there is only so much that can be known on a plane that is so unpredictable. For example, as every freshman physics major knows from Heisenberg and his Uncertainty Principle, one cannot know the velocity of a particle and its location as the same time. To know one is to not know the other.

All said differently, a mathematician-philosopher like Ludwig Wittgenstein would say that there is a difference between a mathematical proposition and reality as it actually is.[2] Propositions only resemble reality to a greater or lesser degree, and in every case, theory is not entirely equivalent to reality. The finitude of the human mind cannot exhaust the complexity and unpredictability of reality.

Though much is known, much more is unknown. And what is known is often the reflection of a surface which conceals more.

Douglas Hofstadter says nearly the same thing about those things which live beneath the surface, but with an intriguing analysis.[3] He says that the mind itself contains an amazing self-referential feedback loop – one that is paralleled by phenomena in the natural world and quantum realm. In his study of the mathematician Gödel, he found something reminiscent of Wittgenstein, namely, an Incompleteness Theorem in which all axioms include undecidable propositions. Neither a system nor absolute boundaries exist, except those which are humanly constructed in order to operate. Like the art of M.C. Escher with its paradoxical patterns, finitude and infinity are allowed to coexist, the known and unknown overlapping in intersecting planes. The loop is created by means of a pattern that has a beginning and an ending, yet no beginning and ending. It is at once finite and infinite.

All of this is to say that what we take for what seems to be obvious structure is but the appearance of the surface. When unveiled the undercroft contains deep patterns which unfold, replicate, and determine the shape of the visible by action of the invisible. What is revealed is an intertwining reality that holds the rational and irrational, finite and infinite, seen and unseen, structural and novel, conscious and unconscious.

Taken together, these insights shape our view of the Rites of Passage, and in particular our perception of the difference between structure and antistructure, the pre-liminal and the liminal.

Because the liminal domain is characterized by the lack of structural foundations we once experienced on the surface, our movement through that space does not follow a linear pathway. The passage is often irrational and populated by strange coordinates, exhibiting paradox, shifting identity, and the fluidity and looping of time itself. The conscious gives way to the unconscious.

By way of encounter with this strange reality beneath the surface a new reality is created. It is not the same as the previous reality, though it may share some of the same previous form. The post-liminal state is shaped by the shattering of illusion, through everything that has been discovered in the liminal dark interval. And so, societies and individuals may be transformed. The spiritual depths inform the material world. Through many veils, loops and paradoxes we have already come. And old worlds die even as new ones are born.

[1] D’Espagnat, Bernard. Veiled Reality: An Analysis of Present- Day Quantum Mechanical Concepts

(CRC Press, 2019)

[2] Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

[3] Hofstadter, Douglas. I am a Strange Loop (Basic Books, 2008)

Masked and Unmasked

If there is one thing that has become emblematic of this season of pandemic, it is the mask. We are masked, we mask ourselves, we sell and buy masks, we scramble for masks, we resent having to wear masks. Public spaces contain masked people scattering to and fro. We notice who is and who isn’t masked and have feelings about them. In the realm of online commerce, producers of masks compete for the position of most trendy, least expensive, or most effective.

We are masked.

And yet ironically, at the same time, in the liminal space beyond the threshold of what might have been normal, much is being unmasked.

What is mostly being unmasked are the stories we tell ourselves. Back in the old world these stories propped up the way things were, kept us striving after the next shiny thing, and even defined who should stay where and how. Some stories made more than a few of us hyper religious. Other stories provided ways we should be patriotic. But mostly the stories we were told and continue to tell ourselves defined a world. This is how we see and understand things. At least in the old world we did.

Surprisingly, this same time and space that has required we wear masks is now methodically exposing and unmasking us in other ways. These painful revelations of the in-between include the ways that aspects of our true selves have been covered by false stories. And the ways our false stories have created pain and suffering for those around us.

Of the many Biblical water stories, two are conspicuous in the way they unmask us.

The first is the flood story which, if read with its full narrative power, won’t leave one of us back in the old broken down life before the waters lifted the ark off the ground. The past and its ways are washed away and an interim community of hope floats toward the future. Somewhere on the other side chaos a new world rises up like a dove flying over Atlantis. If we don’t see rainbows we should.

But then there is the water that provided the supposed escape route for Jonah. This is no moral example tale, this prophet running from destiny. But his story does cast a light on our own cowardice, our unwillingness to move forward when it is hard, our reluctance to let go of fear and hate and become more of what we are meant to be. Jonah is washed away by another flood – a storm – though his transportation is by submarine. His ark is a big fish, and it serves as his temple, womb, transforming container, and way out all in one. When he is spewed out on land at the very place he first departed, the circle is connected: Jonah is conspicuously unmasked, shown for who he is, even as he is given a second, quite imperfect run at it.

In both stories the truth about the world and our human nature is unmasked in unavoidable ways. Deep calls to deep. It echoes off the betwixt and between canyon walls of our existence. All that is hidden is revealed.

All that is to say that this liminal interlude represents more than a regrouping, timeout, or waiting room to get back to normal. It is more than that. In the fullness of time we swim in a tsunami of history. The flood has washed away the old world, and no matter how reluctant we are, the only way forward is forward. Even if we attempt to batten down the hatches on the old world, a big fish is sending us where the work really needs to begin.

This is the gift from the time of masks, to be unmasked so.

And yet, there is another sort of mask, a future, transcendent mask, that arrives for an altogether different reason. We are told that after Moses descended from the holy mountain his face was so luminous that he had to wear a veil to spare the eyes of all those who beheld him. Such is the mystery of the new world on the other side of the flood, a hoped for, future world of the most sacred imagination, a mount of transfiguration where the face of the holy shines like the sun and a bright cloud of presence consumes the need for every mask that ever was or ever will be.

Cure for Despondency (The Problem of Time and Eternity) with Nicole Roccas

By: Deb Gregory

Dr. Nicole Roccas joins me to talk about the problem of time and eternity. She suggests three ancient cures for despondency that still work today.

Nicole is a historian and adjunct faculty member at the Orthodox School of Theology at Trinity College in Toronto. She is the author of the books Time and Despondency: Regaining the Present in Faith and Life, Under the Laurel Tree: Grieving Infertility with Saints Joachim and Anna, and A Journal of Thanksgiving: Record Three Years of Gratitude in a Sentence a Day.

Nicole is the host of the Time Eternal podcast and co-hosts the Help My Unbelief Podcast. with her husband Basil.

Note: Originally posted on betwixtpodcast.com

Welcome to the In-Between

By: Tamisha A. Tyler

This poem was written in acknowledgement of the various stages we find ourselves in, and how art is always present…

The stage is dark
The rhythmic clanging of your heel against the floor resonates
It is nostalgic and hollow
Miles away a 12 year old hangs onto her cello and bows
Hands still shaking
As she manages to offer a weak smile to her enthusiastic parents

Less than 5 feet away stands her teacher and conductor
Who also bows smiles and shakes
And wonders if his condition will steal this moment
In the same way it has stolen his art

Further away still a couple slowly dances in their living room
Her head leaned back and nestled into his neck
His hands wrapped around her from behind
Resting on her belly
The three of them awaiting the moment that changes everything

Next door sits a man with dementia
Who every year paints a picture of himself
In an attempt to capture a fading reality
Or perhaps challenge it

In the next state over a woman finds herself face to face
With a rope dyed scarlet
It is never-ending as it snakes itself around the room
In it she sees her bondage
In it she finds her freedom

Whether near or far
In a state of finding ourselves or losing

We wait

I am just not sure what else we should be doing

Note: Originally posted on tamishatyler.com

Liminality in a time of Pandemic

(This blog post from Timothy Carson previously ran on TheLiminalityProject.org)

As I opened up a small tutorial class in the Honors College of the University of Missouri this week, I checked in with students, asking them how they were doing. It was more than rhetorical; I really wanted to know, considering the big changes unfolding around us. Following a short silence one of the students simply said, “Every day just gets stranger and stranger.” That pretty well summed it up. He didn’t have to delve into the various layers of emotion. The rest of us could fill in the blanks.

It could be said that most everyone affected by the current rising pandemic is sensing something similar, that things are getting stranger and stranger. Oh, yes, the emotional underlay might be fear, or anger, or a sense of helplessness, but the overwhelming sensation is one of strangeness. I don’t think that is so unusual. In fact, when whole societies cross certain thresholds that separate them from what was their familiar way of life and plunges them into a whole new way of things, we say that they have plunged into a state of social liminality, betwixt and between, an ambiguous, undifferentiated state in which familiar and even taken for granted landmarks are absent.

In a larger sense, the Corona virus pandemic belongs to a family of related pandemics throughout history, pandemics that all brought about severe social disruption. And pandemics belong to the even larger category of disasters – fire, war, earthquake, flood, hurricane, tsunami, drought, exile and migration, explosions, and revolutions. All of these chaos events cast whole groups of people into a new state of things. They often necessitate great efforts at survival. Organizational structures are shaken and reorganized. Some things later return to their former state of being before the disaster and some do not.

In Rebecca Solnit’s in-depth study of disasters entitled A Paradise Built in Hell she identified dozens of social disasters of various kinds and analyzed their impacts, aftermath and communal responses. Her conclusions are very interesting as they stand in some sharp contrast to prevailing assumptions about what disasters yield. In fact, many of the researchers who specialize in disasters in the aggregate or in particular disasters cite the same difference between popular assumptions and reality.

One of the assumptions about large chaos events is that the society will devolve into anarchy, rioting, and violence. Though that occurs in some measure, the opposite is most usually the case. What normally occurs is a gathering of the tribe for mutual survival. Class distinctions are often set aside. Individuals and sub-groups self-organize for the public good – like providing shelter, food, water and medical attention. In liminal studies we say that such groups facing similar challenges experience Victor Turner’s now famous coined term, communitas – a special community of the in-between.

In many cases governmental structures can be helpful – if they are already effective and serving the interest of the people. When they are not they often only protect their self-interest, even worsening the aftermath of disasters by enforcing unnecessary marital law, applying violence where it is unnecessary and impeding recovery rather than facilitating it. That was conspicuously in play in the immediate aftermath of Katrina.

One of the key findings of disaster studies is the relationship between disasters and revolutions. In almost every case that governmental structures were either the cause of enormous human suffering or were incompetent, the disaster shook loose the hold of that government on its own power. Revealed for what they were or were not, governments fell from the raw power of disasters, losing their mandate and position as a result. The people not only welcomed the fall but worked to make it so. A sweeping disaster can either start or complete a process of social transformation, thrusting the society into liminal chaos until it reconstitutes itself. This can take place quickly or stretch into a rather indefinite process.

In our world-wide pandemic many things will transpire as a result of a great disruption. The familiar and supposedly safe structures of life will give way to uncertainty. The time of chaos will reveal true resiliency among groups of people who will not only protect themselves, but come together in common cause. Ineffectual and self-serving government and its officials will be revealed for what they are and give way to forms more responsive to the people. Local and regional efforts will rise to the top as models of what the tribe may do on the front lines of challenge. And in the best case scenario we will discover what is needed to address the new normal, a way of necessity that is discovered in the midst of liminal time and space, positioning us individually and socially to move forward differently.

We shall be changed. Into what is yet to be determined. But the artists of the human spirit will be crafting new vehicles to take us there as they navigate that liminal dark energy that defies our every attempt to control it.

From: Plato, To: Activists for Love and Justice (Re: Covid-19)

By Michelle Trebilcock

18th May 2020

[These words have been written from my home on Wurundjeri Country of the Kulin Nations in the land called Melbourne, Australia. I pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging who are the continuing sovereign custodians of this land despite the crimes of colonisation.]

For those of us who have devoted ourselves to the work of love and justice, we sense the importance of this time of Covid-19. My Facebook feed (populated by likeminded justice activists and spiritual seekers) is balanced between the extremes of fear and hope: betwixt global social, economic and ecological collapse, and the birth of a new era for spiritually awake humanity.

As we move into the second, third or fourth month of pandemic response measures across the globe, we move beyond adrenalin fuelled adaptation to this crisis, to confront the possibility of ongoing vulnerabilities for ourselves and the people we care about. And, for those who care about love and justice, we know it is those with the least who are, as always, most at risk of both the illness and its economic impact. It is a deeply distressing time for those of us who care. But how do we plan, think, act, organise and lobby in order to make a difference? Be your sphere of activism politics, church or grassroots community, what does activism look like in the liminal space of global pandemic?

There are a group of Plato’s dialogues that are concerned with one or other of the ‘virtues’ of ancient Greek philosophy and end in what he called aporia. Each of these dialogues contains a stream of thinking that ends in puzzlement, perplexity and an impasse of understanding. Aporia is the intellectual state of perplexity, the learning edge. Plato is quite optimistic, even excited, about reaching this edge in a structured discourse of logical reasoning, for this is the edge of new ways of thinking and being in the world.

In the lived experience of our thinking and being systems, aporia can be a very difficult experience. For Plato and his peers, philosophy was a way of life with practical, ethical and social applications. When the stable and structured forms of thinking fall away, the human person (and the human community) is presented with a crisis of un-knowing. We must face the fact that the way we have existed in the world has passed. It is a kind of death and therefore is potentially a moment of profound, complex grief and loss.

“Now is the time to reimagine our communication – to integrate feeling, storytelling, art, movement, and non-binary thinking that persuades, stirs and energises new movements for old problems.”

It is in these times, Plato suggested, that the philosopher turns to poets and priests, who say there is a memory of perfect virtue contained in our human soul. Knowledge of virtue, and of other subjects of the soul, comes not through teaching, only through what Plato called a ‘recollection’ of the soul.  Soul, or psyche is the root of our word for psychology. Sidestepping all the conversations we could have about the obtuse meaning of the word ‘soul,’ we can add psychologists to Plato’s lists of resources for navigating through our present experience of aporia.

Psychologically, living and working through the coronavirus pandemic has the potential to be a dangerous moment of fear, despair, loss, and disorientation. For many it will challenge the balance of our mental health and wellbeing – not because we are weak but because we are human.

Activism frequently has the potential to take us into psychologically challenging spaces. Friends, family and colleagues are usually our primary sources of comfort and support, but at this point in time when we are all challenged by the coronavirus situation, you may find it useful to speak to a professional with whom there is no reciprocal obligation––your GP or an on-line counsellor are good places to start. Francis Weller, author of The Wild Edge of Sorrow describes grief as an apprentice for the work of love in the vocation of life. There is a rich purpose in courageously engaging with feelings that might arise at this time, rather than ignoring or sidelining them as insignificant. Let grief be your teacher.

Personally, I am needing to draw on all my psychological skills to stay present to what is here and now before me: but it is the only way to stay sane! So this is what I do:

Create a safe space – even if that’s in my head – for half a minute.
Take a slow, conscious breath.
Observe what is around me. Breathe.
Observe my body’s reaction. Breathe.
Practice deep acceptance and self compassion. Breathe.
Find a single, small next action. Breathe
Decide to move ahead with grace.
Take an intentional, determined breath. Re-engage with what is before me.

Embracing the opportunities of the pandemic’s disruption to business-as-usual may require new skills for thinking and action, as we navigate the liminal space of global uncertainty and insecurity. We know some things, we do not know others. Apart from our own health and wellbeing, meeting the psychological or spiritual (to use another of soul’s obtuse meanings) challenges is part of the work itself. We may need to form new relationships, experiment with new ways of relating, and be open to new and surprising alliances. Now is the time to reimagine our communication – to integrate feeling, storytelling, art, movement, and non-binary thinking that persuades, stirs and energises new movements for old problems.

All of these non-logical types of thinking require breathing space: the allocation of a safe space where we can stop, let go of what is not working, let go of trying to make it work, rest and then pick up – not from where we left off, but from some new insight gained in the midst of crisis. As Rumi, the thirteenth century Sufi mystic wrote, ‘Beyond right and wrong there is a field, I’ll meet you there.’

In the end, we are all human. It is the human to human connection that leads to lasting change. So, can we advocate with feeling, breath, humility and compassion to a whole sector of government and corporate decision makers who are equally struggling with this sense of aporia. Yes, there is huge opportunity for activists in this moment of crisis, but don’t underestimate the importance of taking a breath. Make space for unhurried reflection, connect to nature, let the silence and solitude of home be a teacher, let yourself feel the plight of the most vulnerable, and use the experiment of new communication technologies to deepen our intention to be in relationship with one other. 

Note: Originally published on liminaltheology.org

The Guild for Engaged Liminality: The Promise of “Perhaps”

By Jonathan L. Best

On May 1st, I had the opportunity to participate in the first ever Zoom Invitational Meeting for the newly formed Guild for Engaged Liminality (GEL). Over 20 participants joined across numerous time zones and continents. As a founding member of GEL, the creation of the guild was the culmination of a dream that began for me nearly 3 year ago. Newly formed friendships and partnerships brought to fruition something that previously felt impossible. And yet, on the first of May, the impossible became possible, which I think is a fitting analogy for liminality. The creation of GEL marks an important liminal threshold for me. One that marks both an ending and a beginning. The culmination of one dream and the beginning of another.

I consider this guild as a unique opportunity to explore transition and change in a variety of ways, which was reflected in the immense diversity that marked the first meeting of this guild. Speaking as a participant, I found it was truly remarkable and lifegiving. The meeting confirmed something I discovered long ago, there is amazing beauty and wonder within liminality. Particularly in the way liminality can bring together such a fantastic array of people passionate about encountering what’s in-between the known and the unknown.

I’m excited by exploring what occurs in-between the boundaries of the known and the unknown, especially with others who share the same passion. For liminality encourages me to continually practice radical openness toward others, toward other perspectives, and toward other ideas through engaging with and in-between ideas, spaces, peoples, and cultures. Together we’re responding to the call of the unconditional as theologian Paul Tillich put it, immersing ourselves into the liquid world described by sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, and living within what philosopher John Caputo often names as the flux.

Speaking of Caputo, another term that resonates with me is the idea of “perhaps.” I think it’s a helpful way to describe liminality and the future of the guild. The beauty of liminality is that the future isn’t prescribed. There is always something more going in liminality than we can possibly imagine. “Perhaps” encourages us to leave the safety of what we know, the nostalgia for a time or place we thought to be better, or the comfort of systems and precepts we desperately cling to. It’s a radical openness to the present, particularly to all the people, places, and ideas that we encounter in our daily lives. And it’s this radical openness that I envision for the guild. It’s a radical openness for one another, which encourages us to make room for the perpetual other. Each day we cross the threshold of “perhaps,” not knowing what the day will bring or who (or what) we might encounter.

Liminality, as I see it, is the embodiment of “perhaps.” Again, this radical opening to the present moment is exciting and even terrifying as we open ourselves to the unknown. Whether good or bad, liminality prompts our imaginations with a promise too alluring to ignore—there’s just something about liminality, its transition and change, its betweenness, which is enticing. For me, this enticement is the excitement of saying yes to the future. To conclude, it’s this saying yes to the future, of being open to “perhaps” and wherever that may lead us as a guild, that I find so infinitely fascinating and joy bringing.

Contact the guild: engagedliminality@gmail.com

Note: Originally posted on liminaltheology.org