Last weekend I noticed myself feeling itchy-irritable. Smoke from the fires in Napa (north) and Santa Cruz (south) settled thick on our slice of the San Francisco Bay Area; if the measure of unhealthy air quality starts at a score of 150, our air measured at a ridiculous 1100+. We couldn’t open the windows, we certainly couldn’t be outside. Add a record-breaking heat wave and no air conditioning and, yah, I did not feel like a happy gal.
We’ve been waiting for the heat to break. We’ve been waiting for the fires to be extinguished. We’ve been waiting for the air to clear. We’ve been waiting for months for the pandemic to end (remember when we thought we’d be home for two to three weeks?), or a proven-safe vaccine to become available. And through most of the summer I sat on my ever-expanding rear waiting for an injury to heal.
Waiting, waiting, so much waiting. It’s felt heavy, disorienting.
Did you know there’s a spiritual term for that waiting? It’s called liminal space, from the Latin word for threshold. We’ve left normal behind and, though we throw around the term new normal like children playing Hot Potato, we haven’t actually entered that new normal yet. We’re in between. We’re standing in the doorway. We’re waiting.
Most of us don’t like to wait. We get restless, we want to move on. Blaise Pascal, writing in the 1600s, offered wisdom: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone” (do women sit easier? Let’s assume he meant to include everyone). Anyway, that seems a quarantine-worthy quote if I’ve seen one.
Flip those words around: we could solve all of humanity’s problems if we could teach all of humanity to sit quietly alone. Lofty goal for sure, but we can start with ourselves. Right now, when we have been asked – for the greater good and health of humankind – to stay mostly at home by ourselves, we can begin with God’s help to untangle some of our own problems.
Rather than feeling irritable and restless, we can choose to rest. Rather than fighting what we cannot change, we can accept this liminal space as it is and seek to receive the gifts it holds for us.
I’m finding it helpful to imagine a circle drawn on the ground around my house. This is my liminal space, this is my liminal time, and in this sacred space and time God is doing a new thing.
Despite Modern English singing on the soundtrack of my youth, I’ll stop the world and melt with you, we didn’t stop the world, the COVID-19 pandemic did. We didn’t will this change, yet here we are. This in-between time, so outside our common experience, feels dislocating, off-kilter. So let’s just go with it already. Let’s find a new perspective, looking at the contents of our lives from this different angle.
It seems like a good time to reevaluate our priorities:
* What did we do before that we want to keep doing? And what no longer serves us? (I’m thinking of all those who have realized they can ditch the commute and work from home just as well).
* How – or where – do we want to live?
* Among our many acquaintances and friends, who remains in our inner circle?
Tough questions, worthy of time alone in your room to think and pray deeply.
Already the smoke has cleared and the heat wave has broken. A safe vaccine will be found and made available eventually. This waiting time will end, we believe, and the world will have changed. We don’t yet know what those changes will entail, but we can rest in God’s loving work in us and in our midst.
One more thought: in his book Everything Belongs, theologian Richard Rohr recommends making liminal space a regular practice. “Get there often and stay as long as you can by whatever means possible….If we don’t find liminal space in our lives, we start idolizing normalcy.” Let’s topple normalcy from its throne and trust that God knows what He’s doing, even when we don’t.