Saturday, February 28, 2015


“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness ….” (Luke 4:1)

The forty days of Lent represents the time Jesus spent in the wilderness, enduring the temptation of Satan and preparing to begin his ministry. Lent invites us to enter into and explore the landscape of our own, spiritual wilderness. In this blog post, I would like to invite the reader to explore with me some ideas about what such a journey might look like, feel like, what tools we need before venturing into our own “wilderness,” and benefits of such a journey. (Note: a shortened version of this blog post appears HERE .)

(Christ in the Wilderness, Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)


First of all, when we talk about journeying into a “spiritual wilderness,” what do we mean? We know that the desert Jesus went into was rocky and arid. Very little would grow there. Jesus fasted. So, we know as Jesus went into his wilderness, he was experiencing deprivation, discomfort, hunger and thirst. My own wilderness, shaped as it were by my life in the southeastern United States, might also include fear of encounters with bears, snakes, or poison ivy.

What are the hungers and thirsts, the rocks, the bears, and the snakes of spiritual lives? Some items I can think of are insecurity, anxiety, unresolved grief, doubts, lack of faith, loneliness, despair, unhealthy prior responses to trauma, fears of all kinds, identity issues, chronic physical pain, anxieties of an existential nature. In the world that I live in, my sense of deprivation may be relative. Most of us have food and shelter. My daily physical needs tend to be met, but this plentitude of material things does not mean we are rich in spirit. Perhaps we yearn for companionship or deeper meaning, or perhaps we suffer from invisible scars that no one but we know about. No matter what it is that we may fear, when we journey into a wilderness, we journey to a place where we may encounter our deepest fears and darkest spiritual places.

A second aspect of a journey into a spiritual wilderness is that, just as Jesus was alone when he faced his temptors, ultimately each of us must do the same. It is in the private places of our own hearts that we each, individually must respond to the voices that challenge us.

A third aspect of this journey is the idea that when we do so, we place ourselves into a spiritual space that has been specifically set apart. A deliberate wasteland that we voluntarily enter?! I find this third aspect particularly intriguing. How do we set aside a spiritual space, and why is it important? This is really what I would like to blog about today, and to introduce (specifically) a concept of Lent as a Liminal Space.


A liminal space, a spiritual wilderness as it were, is a space of great ambiguity. It lies in between the space of the future (what could be, what may be, what we yearn for, or what we dread) and the space of the past (what was, what has been, what we loved, what we hated). When we journey into a liminal wilderness, we accept an invitation to place our daily world on hold (at least for a period of time each day) and so that we carve out the mental, spiritual and physical space to embrace ambiguity, to face fears, and to re-calibrate our lives. By getting in touch with our deepest fears, yearnings, desires, causes for sadness, we take an opportunity not just to ascertain what is most important to us, but also to restructure our lives so that we are guided by and aligned with the values we cherish.

Liminal space, in literature, is most often associated with grieving. A person who has lost a loved one is on a threshold. They long for a past they cannot recover and are facing a future that they may not want to go into. Grief can feel like a spiritual and mental wasteland, a place where we’re not quite “here” and yet also no longer “there.” When we grieve, we have left the tried and true, but we have not yet replaced it with anything else. A Liminal Space is somewhat like this. I am challenging each of us to use the liminality of Lent to examine where we are, to let go of the concrete and to step into the threshold between what was and what would be, but to engage in a conscious, deliberate process of using the ambiguity and undefined contours of our own wasteland to make more conscious, deliberate choices toward that which we most desire.

A liminal space is not a “comfortable” place to be in. In a seminal essay, "Betwixt and Between, the Liminal Period in Rites of Passage," anthropologist Victor Turner wrote that in times of liminality, the person's sense of identity dissolves to some extent, bringing about disorientation. But with this diorientation also comes the possibility of new perspectives. Carrying this thought further, in a spiritual sense, Christian theologian Richard Rohr urges us to honor our sacred time in liminal space.

Spiritually, Rohr points out, we are not only "betwixt and between" one stage of life and the next, but also in this twilight space we hover between the transcendent and spiritual versus the present and concrete. In this liminal space, Rohr suggests, God can do great work in us, precisely because we are so unsettled. For it is when there is an emptiness, as well as a space where everything is anguishingly topsy-turvy for us, that we are most open and vulnerable to the creative and re-creating work of the Holy Spirit.
  • Liminal space is the place where Jacob wrestled with the Angel
  • It is the place where Joseph was when he was in the pit. 
  • It is the place where Israel was when it was in the wilderness. 
  • It is the place where Jonah was when he was in the belly of the fish. 
  • It is the place where the three Marys were when they were tending the tomb.

Splitting of the Red Sea by Dr. Lidia Kozenitsky


Wilderness is a place where we are challenged to ask the hard questions.  Each person's questions will be different:
  • Who am I? 
  • Why am I here? 
  • What is the meaning of life? 
  • Why me? 
  • How can I recover from these scars? 
  • How can I reconnect with what I value? 
  • Where do I go from here? 
In this intense, uncomfortable space, every aspect of our lives is fair game for examination and questioning.  If anything holds us back from exploring the dark places of our soul, it may be the same impulse toward creativity, which also strikes within us the fear of chaos.  Indeed, liminality is such an emotionally chaotic and uncomfortable experience, that we cannot long bear this feeling of chaos, confusion, and disorientation. 

 What is there to keep us safe in this chaos? What can save us from sailing over the edge of our fears into the abyss? 

Harry Clark, Descent Into The Maelstrom (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Just as one does not go into the wilderness without proper tools for survival, one should not embark on a spiritual journey into a liminal space without spiritual compass and guide. While the goal of venturing into wilderness may be to confront the monsters that lurk under our beds, so to speak, an equally important goal is not to be eaten by them! We want to put temptations behind us, as Jesus did, not succumb to them.

The blessing that is inherent in every true, sacred space is that there is something which anchors us with one, particular, and undeniable reference point. For the Christian, that reference point is God as revealed through all the ways that God speaks to us. It is promised in Acts 17 that God is never far from any one of us. For "in him we live and move and have our being." In the darkness of our liminal space, we must listen for God. For God is the anchor that will keep us from sliding over the edge of the abyss, even during our darkest hour. Scripture, hymns and sacred music, pastors and trusted Christian friends, these are the compass and the roadmap that keep us anchored spiritually during the anguishing self-examination of liminality.

What is the alternative, if it is a hard struggle to find the anchoring presence of God? One temptation, Rohr warns, is to attempt to flee from this dark, uncomfortable place. We perceive our liminal space – the space where we confront our deepest fears and anxieties -- as a place where nothing is comfortable or familiar, and everything is unknown. We would prefer for everything to be settled. We'd prefer for it to be as it was. We'd prefer to have answers. It's tempting, in response, to fill our time with activities and things to do. We create distractions so that we never have to face that dark and loneliness. If we do this, we may as well never have sought to enter a spiritual wild space, because we leave before the spiritual work is done.

Another risk is that we cut our time short by jumping to ill-considered or false conclusions. If we give in to anxiety and seek answers too soon, we may in our haste construct a man-made Tower, rather than the new structure God would have us build. We must be patient, with God and with ourselves. As uncomfortable as it feels to us, it is the very emptiness itself -- the chaos and confusion of our liminality -- that enables the re-shuffling and the making of a new creation.

Rohr goes so far as to assert that everything that is genuinely new and creative about us arises from this liminal space, from this sacred space. With so much at stake in terms of our authentic, God-led recreation, the words, "Be still and know that I am God" take on even more meaning. Wait upon God. Forty days is a long time. Forty days of fasting probably feels like even longer (I am not up to this!) However uncomfortable it may be for us, Jesus never leaves us alone. Even in a spiritual wasteland, where we ask the questions that make us feel as if we may be opening Pandora’s box, God is not only with us, but co-creating us, with us.

When unsettling thoughts and feelings emerge in our liminal time, it is important to be patient, discerning, and to seek the light of the One who inspired the psalmist to write, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.” As painful, uncomfortable as it may be, this process of questioning and co-creation is how God operates, to challenge us to find our own answers, from within.

Rohr writes:

Jesus knew how to create spiritual desire, how to foster a longing for God, how to make communion possible. He is a teacher of vulnerability, more than anything else. … [H]e only answered three out of 183 questions that were asked of him! He left us on the threshold where we are never in control. I [Rohr] am beginning to see where that leads: to participation. You see, the opposite of control is not non-control or giving up. The opposite of control is actually participation. Without our easy answers—and we have none now—we collapse into a deeper participation with the whole roller coaster of life and death. The suffered cycle of death and resurrection is itself the great teacher, and will in the long run produce the only wisdom that will get us through this dark time.


In my work as a mediator, I often encounter clients who just want to “settle” an issue. It can be tempting to respond only to the most pressing issue, the most painful symptom that made a conflict so unbearable that people seek outside help to resolve it. Often, however, the issue that brings people into conflict is just one symptom of something deeper. If parties are willing to confront and wrestle with these deeper challenges, the work is harder -- a bit like a deliberate entry into liminal space -- but in daily practice I witness this deeper reflection producing better and more sustainable results. When parties are willing to plow the soil deeply, addressing root causes and deepest feelings and needs, the result is a healthier plant and a better harvest. Delving into our deepest dreams and fears in the wilderness area of our prayer and spiritual life, similarly, yields deeper results.

The deeper we plow, the further we stretch ourselves in the wilderness of our prayer and spiritual lives, the greater the likelihood that the new self that results is a wiser self. A self that is more true to ourselves, and more true to our God. Jesus himself led by example, facing his temptations and putting them behind himself before embarking on his key ministry. Having encountered and grappled with our darkest fears in our liminal space, we become a new creation, able to move on in more positive ways, ready to embrace and more fully live into the joy and hope that is in the Easter to come.

I close with a poem by Barrie Shepherd, published just a few days ago in Presbyterian Outlook:

Lent is a time to give up time
in reaching for eternity,
to set aside the minutes and the hours
and make living space of time,
room for the hurt, neglect and fear
that crowd the days so near about us,
breathing room for reverie and solitude,
sufficient real estate to stake one’s life upon,
even make a claim on the frontiers of the beyond.
Lent is a time for mending time and shaping,
bending time toward the wilderness
whose questions clear a way for silence,
its severe awaiting void.

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