The photographs on this post are ones snapped early this morning in the course of one of my other jobs – helping to moor ships at a nearby NATO fuel storage depot. In many ways it is a strange job for me- dealing with military and quasi-military oil guzzlers, not to mention the fact that I have worked in offices for most of my life, so this kind of work is a real departure. I do it because my friend and neighbour, whose working boat I help to crew, asked me to, and also because I love being outdoors, even at all hours and in all weathers. I also love being so close to these marine steel monsters.
In this photograph, we have just taken lines from the ship to small platforms known as ‘dolphins’ (for reasons unknown to me) and now the winches on the tanker are taking in tension. It is a moment of transition, in which the ships normal habitat – the open sea – is replaced by a half-way place, tethered to the shore.
It is a tenuous link, but I was reminded once again this morning, of the nature of liminality.
Liminality is a state of transition between one stage and the next, especially between major stages in one’s life or during a rite of passage.
The concept of liminality was first developed and is used most often in the science of anthropology (the study of human origins, behavior, and culture). In a general sense, liminality is an in-between period, typically marked by uncertainty.
Liminal spaces remind us of our impermanence and the proximity of a close state of ‘otherness’. That is why many of us feel the spiritual urgency of cliff edges, of shorelines, of boundaries of all kinds. Authentic spirituality is often concerned not with the peaceful here and now as we might have hoped and expected it to, but rather with the process of change, which happens constantly, whether we like it or not.
I would go further than this and suggest that we also mistakenly equate spirituality with self-improvement or self-actualisation, and as such the change we hope and expect is centred on our own achievments or ego strengths. Whilst these might well be a useful by-product, I do not think that they should ever be our primary goal- certainly not for the Jesus kind of Spirituality, which calls us towards the other, particularly the weak and the broken. Consider the ‘gifts of the Spirit’ which Paul talks about in Corinthians, which are all about relationality. Or the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ in the letter to Galatians, which are again prmarily understood in the way we connect with the other…
But back to this liminality thing and hopefully how it might to connect to the hopefulness of Advent.
I mentioned in an earlier post my mothers health. She is now in a nursing home recieving palliative care in the last period of her life. You could say that she is in the most liminal state possible to imagine. We talk about this, she and I. I ask her if she is frightened, and mostly she is not. We talk about the firm belief she has that death is about transition, not termination. She is ill and weary and ready for the next, most of the time. At other times, she feels drawn back and held in the place by all those lines tied to her own ‘dolphins’.
We are not only this.
We have no proof of this, of course. Those who have tried to objectively prove God or the Great Beyond have always failed. However, perhaps we do have some clues that pose intriguing questions that are not easy to dismiss. A few months ago, I listened to this. Subsequently I read this book;
I don’t want to say too much about what I encountered in listening to the podcast/reading the book, except to say that it has changed something in me. Perhaps I am particularly receptive given my mothers situation, not to mention the recent death of my sister, but I challenge you to listen to the podcast yourself.
One thing is certain, in this season of waiting, change will unfold all around us. Eventually we too will face our own ultimate transition.
Between here and there, may you know peace.