We returned from Italy late Thursday night, and as you can imagine we visited a LOT of churches. It was also very crowded. Often we were with a local guide, walked the towns, got the history lecture as we went, spent 5-10 minutes inside a church to look around and take pictures that could never do justice to the enormity and beauty of these sanctuaries. This is the way it goes on a study tour in the height of tourist season. Now, it’s possible that I’m just weird, but I could’ve spent an hour or more in each place, not necessarily looking at statues and relics and paintings, but soaking in the spiritual energy accumulated over centuries of people worshiping and praying there.
(For the full audio version, click here.)
We had one exception to this rule… St. Paul’s Basilica, the second largest church in Italy, built on the site where his remains were buried. Perhaps because it was outside the city walls explained why it wasn’t very crowded at all – maybe two dozen people. And we actually were given 40 minutes in the church without having to be attached to an ear piece with someone explaining the history and art in the place! I wandered briefly and then just sat down, overwhelmed, and finally able to take the time to think, to absorb, to feel, to question, and to connect with the Divine.
I sat down in the last row of chairs in front of the main altar, and tried to simply be and to process and understand all the conflicting thoughts and feelings that flooded into me. Basically, I’m not a fan of spending tons of money on church buildings when people are hungry, homeless and struggling on the outside of the walls. And, I think Paul, Peter, Jesus and Mary would be appalled at the riches poured into these buildings when worship wasn’t at all close to their main message. However, as I opened myself up to the energy of the space, I could understand why places like this were so important to the people. I felt like I’d entered another world. The “real” world of worries, work, family, struggle, taxes, politics and fear felt so far away.
This space was a liminal space, a thin space (as the Celtics would say) between the ordinary and the Divine. It is a threshold where you are no longer in the place you were, but are not in the place you are going either. It is a place of transformation, transcendence, and change. The experience brought me back around to my center, and I’ve been holding it close ever since.
Paul and I seem to be getting very close, which is a bit unnerving because I still disagree with a whole bunch of his theology. But he seems to sum up my struggle with his line from Galatians 6:15:
“It means nothing whether one bothers with the externals of religion or not. All that matters is that one is created anew.”
A church space, wherever it is, is meant to be a liminal space, a boundary where the ordinary and the holy meet. A place where people can be transformed, given hope, given perspective as they touch something more. But instead of being asked to focus on this feeling, this light, this internal change and connection, people have been ingrained with the obligation to go to church, to behave certain ways and believe certain things.
Coming into this space should constantly remind us that we are not alone, that we are loved, that the core of our beings is light and love… and so is everyone else. We’ve just forgotten. And when we leave this space, we should carry just a bit of that with us so that we change the way we respond in the world and so slowly change the world.
When we make snap judgments against others, our liminal experience should help us to take a step back and say, “hang on, they are just like us deep inside… they can’t help the color of their skin, the religion they grew up with, their sexual orientation. What would it be like to be in their shoes with their experiences?”
When we jump to a place of frustration and impatience, remembering again the feeling, energy, and peace of the liminal sanctuary space can draw us back to a place of objectivity. The “real” world is not all there is.
When we find ourselves stuck in a rut, the liminal experience can give us courage to take the risks leading toward healing and wholeness.
When we beat ourselves up with guilt, regret and shame, this in-between place reminds us that we are MORE than that. It can help us to face our pasts, our brokenness and our baggage.
When we get caught up in complaining and negativity, remembering the feelings of the liminal space draws us back toward the positive, back toward hope, back toward loving oneself and others.
When we see injustice, the power of the liminal experience gives us the strength to stand up for others, to work for positive change.
The key to the liminal experience is that it helps create us anew. I know it is slow. I know we don’t necessarily trust it once we’re back in the “real” world… it feels too far away and maybe too magical to be true. But what if that liminal experience is more real and more true than what we think we perceive in our everyday lives? What if?
So, when you enter those liminal spaces, open your hands and feel the energy. Hug one another and feel the love. Let loose of your tight hold on the hurt that you think defines you and feel healing. Open your mouths in song and feel the oneness of voices blended in music and harmony. Expand your love to those around you and feel compassion expand your heart.
Be changed. Be made more whole. Be more loving, forgiving and compassionate. Be more joyful, hopeful and peaceful. Be who you were created to be… the beautiful, unique you. That’s what matters.