The Common Good
January-February 2002

Grieving as Sacred Space

by Richard Rohr | January-February 2002

How these anxious and ambiguous days might offer up the most holy of gifts.

"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 [post-Sept. 11]. 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. It would be far too threatening.

This makes me wonder how often I have actually been in true sacred space. Most liturgies I have attended, and even most political rallies, have been mere ceremony by this definition. Profane space, pretending to present an alternative world. A hall of revolving mirrors, largely reflecting our momentary selves. No wonder there is so little real renewal or regeneration. No wonder that a true Baptist prayer meeting can have more transformative and long-lasting effect than a politically correct social action committee.

True sacred space grounds us around one undeniable Reference Point that is bigger and beyond any of us. It is the "tree of life" that connects heaven with earth, the axis mundi of all primitive peoples. We believers would call it "God." This magnetic north is never doubted in sacred space, even if it cannot always be named, accessed, or even understood. Such alignment situates us correctly in the universe—with a clear reference point outside the individual ego, the cultural mood, and one's passing feelings. An Archimedean point from which we can move away from ourselves and into the world securely and with truthful perspective.

Sacred space is by definition liminal space. Because we are not in control and not the center, something genuinely new can happen. Here we are capable of seeing something beyond self-interest, self-will, and security concerns. True sacred space allows an alternative consciousness to emerge.

All the exorcism stories of the gospels tell us that "the only cure for possession is possession." If one is captured by a positive Spirit, one can recognize, reveal, and let go of smaller and negative spirits without much fear or humiliation. You have something better to hold you and to hold onto. Inside of sacred space, you can reveal the shadow and not fall apart. You are contained and safe. Sacred space allows you to live with paradox, mystery, and even evil, although now you will have the power to stand against it properly. When Jesus enters the scene as the absolute and loving possessor of the soul, the possessed ones are rightly freed from their own false burdens and loyalties. My concern today is that many are trying to exorcise the demons of terrorism and the demons of fear without any positive re-possession! I can say for sure that there will be no exorcism. Only an exchange of demons.

INSIDE OF SACRED SPACE you are indestructible, even though you feel quite vulnerable and unsure of yourself in many ways. Inside of sacred space you can love America and critique America at the same time. Inside of sacred space you can weep for the bigger evil of which both sides are victims. Inside of sacred space you can imagine an alternative universe because you have now been there yourself. Inside of sacred space you can—if you can dare imagine it—hear God. Inside of sacred space you can see things in utterly new ways. Ways that seem foreign and even dangerous to those trapped inside of the closed system.

When you emerge from sacred space and try to speak to the profane world, "the whole world will hate you" (Luke 21:17). Now you please neither side of anything. No wonder so few go there. Ceremonies are much nicer. But the liminoid is almost worse than the profane. The false sacred inoculates you against the ongoing journey toward the True Sacred. Thus the danger of both cheap religion and romanticized patriotism.

The images we now possess since Sept. 11 are archetypal and unforgettable to the psyche no matter how you interpret them: Towers of Babel. The Titanic that could not be destroyed. David against Goliath (a Fifth World country successfully attacking Numero Uno). The implicit connotation of the "destruction of the temple," where 25 percent of the world's financial institutions were represented in one place. The "Frankenstein syndrome," where something you have created comes back to attack you. Rene Girard's scapegoat mechanism in full array. The only remaining superpower playing the victim. Whether we want to admit it or not, a war of religion, at least from the terrorist side.

This is global and instantaneous theater of the first order. We are all in a common drama like never before. Our moral compass is spinning and seeking resolution—any resolution just to stop the spin and to stop the pain.

In the months preceding the tragedy, I heard President Bush use an interesting phrase. When he was rejecting our continued participation in past treaties and promises, he said that we would make our decisions "at a time convenient for America." I was teaching in Europe and heard the audible and disbelieving gasp from the group: "He did not really say that, did he?" I am afraid that he did, without apparent shame. Now the "convenient time" (2 Corinthians 6:2) has indeed come. Not convenient in the ways that Bush thought, but he did speak prophetically because it is a time "convenient" for our own conversion. Remember, God is an opportunist.

This tragedy [quickly] produc[ed] both understandable jingoism and non-understandable holiness on a massive scale. The convenient time [became] liminal space. And we are in it. It is the cauldron of transformation, the belly of Jonah's whale. We are being chewed up and spit out on new shores.

It seems that pain is the only thing strong enough to destabilize the imperial ego and the cultural certitudes. When it comes, most of us will flee to quick formulas to avoid that destabilization. Suffering is, I am sorry to say, the most efficient means of transformation, and God makes full use of it whenever God can. Grief, especially shared grief like we are experiencing now, has unparalleled power to open our eyes and open our heart, but only over the patient long haul—which is why many call it "grief work."

We must teach people not to get rid of the pain until we have learned what it has to teach us. Not what it has to teach others! This is liminal and transformative space. Much of our understandable anger is actually disguised and denied sadness. Life should not be this way, but it always has been for most of humanity. Now this absurdity, this paschal mystery, has reached the shores of North America. This is a teachable moment, par excellence.

THE PREFERRED LANGUAGE of both the Christian and the Muslim mystics is the language of darkness. They are most at home in the realm of not-knowing. Often, therefore, it was called "luminous darkness." In such darkness, things are more spacious, freer, and more open to creative response. God has a much better chance of getting in. Listen, for example, to Hafiz, the Persian poet mystic:

Don't surrender your loneliness
So quickly.
Let it cut more deep.

Let it ferment and season you
As few human
Or even divine ingredients can.

Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft,
My voice
So tender,

My need of God
Absolutely
Clear.

This is most difficult to teach after centuries of a Catholic and Protestant spirituality of "light." We have become a people who demand—and even expect—answers and explanations. There is a proper technique, a formula, and a certitude for every occasion. We priests and ministers are trained to give people these answers, even though Jesus seldom gave into the same temptation. "Who made me the arbiter of your cause?" (Luke 12:14), he says to problem solvers. Instead of giving people answers, he instead leads them into the dilemmas of life—and leaves them there too.

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. I am told that he 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 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. Walter Wink would call it "the third way." I would call it "the contemplative stance." Jesus would just go into the daring desert.

For the Catholic community, Saint Thomas Aquinas was always presented as the paragon of intelligence and wisdom. His Summa was considered the summit of Catholic reason and faith. Yet what is seldom pointed out is that he begins the whole thing with an overarching humility and silence: "Because we are not capable of knowing what God is but only what God is not, we cannot contemplate how God is but only how God is not." Then he goes on to write 20 volumes about God! But in the midst of it, he repeats his principle, "This is the ultimate knowledge of God, to know that we do not know." He then ends his career by refusing to write any more, because "it is all straw!"

Post-moderns would be pleasantly surprised but also shocked to see such brilliant knowing combined with such humble not-knowing. There is an essential connection between the two that is seldom understood today, even by believers who should know better.

This is where we need to be, and where we have always been anyway. It is a good place.

Richard Rohr, OFM, was founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when this article appeared.

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Related Stories

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)