By Father Myron J. Pereira
(UCA News) — You’ve often heard that “change is the only constant” when it comes to contemporary civilization. This means that, unlike ancient times, which were famous for their stability and grounding, modern times are defined by change – abrupt and hectic change, in almost every area of life.
The study of change and of society therefore introduces us to the idea of ”liminality” (from the Latin word threshold i.e. threshold, and therefore by extension, ‘a border’, ‘on the edge’, ‘on the margins’) a quality of ambiguity, which occurs in a transition from one state to another .
Every human being undergoes liminal changes. The simplest example is adolescence, the transition from childhood to adulthood, a commonly experienced rite of passage.
Adolescence encompasses physical, psychological and social changes. It is generally a time of turbulence and disorientation, not only for the individuals undergoing these changes, but also for their social groups.
For a short time, adolescents become “liminal people” – on the threshold, on the fringes – until they transition into a more stable and stable way of being, as adults.
But even older people have “liminal spaces” in their lives, spaces of waiting for what might happen, spaces of waiting and fear.
Divorce is one of those spaces. It breaks the lasting relationship of marriage and creates conflicting feelings. Something similar happens when children leave home.
Sometimes we are suddenly thrown “on the brink” – because of a traumatic injury or the discovery of a fatal disease. The death of a close friend or relative is another. Our world suddenly seems much poorer.
These are all rites of passage, thresholds into normal life.
More recently, the use of the term has expanded to also describe political and cultural changes.
During liminal periods, social hierarchies may be reversed or temporarily dissolved, the continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be in doubt.
The dissolution of order during liminality creates a fluid and malleable situation that allows new institutions and customs to take hold.
Are we going through a period of liminality in the Church today? Very probable.
The liminal space is an intermediate space. It is the space where you are “on the verge” of something new, between “what was” and “what will be”.
A Church in transition is also a Church in transformation. It has the potential to become something new, something different from what it was. But there is also strong resistance to change.
A simple cursory look at the Church today reveals various characteristics of liminality, both in positive and negative forms.
A major change that took place about 60 years ago was related to the liturgy. Catholics went from stuffy Latin rubrics to a wonderful efflorescence in the local language, which completely transformed the way people prayed and worshipped.
And yet, unfortunately, the fondness for the old system persists.
Look at what is happening to the government of the Church today. For millennia, the hierarchy and clergy ruled the laity and exploited them with a sense of entitlement. Not anymore.
The laity, especially women, are demanding their rightful place in the government of the Church…
However, even clergymen unite to sabotage the new ways, exaggerating their fears of celibacy and their distrust of women.
At the same time, there has been a virtual explosion of voluntary groups dedicated to serving the poor and homeless, experiments with new forms of prayer, ecumenical and interreligious collaboration, which bypass all old forms of religious life.
The famous Franciscan theologian Richard Rohr says it well: “Liminality is a form of maintaining the tension between one space and another. It is in these transitional moments in our lives that authentic transformation can occur.
It is a space full of conflicting emotions. The liminal space is full of possibility, potential and renewal as we await what is to come.
Perhaps the metaphor of “pilgrimage” can illustrate more clearly what liminality is.
Regardless of religion, pilgrimages are popular. Their attraction touches all kinds, all classes.
When we go on a pilgrimage, we generally do not know what we are expecting. We usually join a larger group and share the fun and tension that traveling together always entails. (from Chaucer Canterbury Tales are a good example.)
At the same time, pilgrims are intensely seeking some kind of spiritual good — one prays for something specific, one thanks the saint for favors received, one makes vows and promises, one indulges in extravagant acts of piety — think of the young Inigo on standby before the Virgin at Monserrat, abandoning all his knightly vestments and weapons, as he begins a new life.
“It is at these transitional moments in our lives that authentic transformation can occur,” says Rohr.
And so it is in the Church today. Pope Francis has already set the Church on an unusual path, a “synodal” path. The “man from a distant land” who addresses the Church “on the margins” has already placed the Church “on the threshold” of something new and different.
Whatever happens over the next few years, we already feel that there can be no turning back.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.
*Mumbai-based Jesuit Father Myron J. Pereira has spent more than five decades as an academic, journalist, editor and fiction writer. He regularly contributes to UCA News on religious and socio-cultural topics.