Saturday, April 11, 2020

COVID-19, Liminality, and Easter Weekend

[Note: at this point, most of the States in the U.S., and a significant majority of the countries of the world, are under "shelter at home" orders. In some places, like Jordan, there is a government-enforced curfew. There are 1.7 million cases in the world, and over 528,000 in the U.S., with both numbers rising daily.]

I will always think of our Spring 2020 Middle East Studies Program semester as the "COVID-19 Semester," or the "Semester of Uncertainty." The story of how COVID-19 moved from a distant storm on the far horizon, to a wave that broke on us, forcing change after change over a period of two weeks in March, cultiminating in our finding out on March 14 that the Jordanian government was going to shut the airport on the 17th, and our students therefore had to scramble to get tickets to leave before then - that story is one for another time.

At this point let me just say that one interesting aspect of the COVID-19 spread and impact was an overlap with themes of intercultural growth and development that we are always emphasizing with our students. One of those themes is liminality, dealing with liminal space and time. 

Here are some quotes from Richard Rohr ("Everything Belongs") on Liminal space / liminality, that we uses with our MESP students, followed by a bit of reflection:

"...we have to allow ourselves to be drawn into sacred space, into liminality. All transformation takes place there. We have to move out of 'business as usual' and remain on the 'threshold' (limen, in Latin) where we are betwixt and between. There, the old world is left behind, but we're not sure of the new one yet. That's a good space. There there often and stay as long as you can by whatever means possible. It's the realm where God can best get at us because we are out of the way. In sacred space the old world is able to fall apart, and the new world is able to be revealed. If we don't find liminal space in our lives, we start idolizing normalcy. We end up believing it's the only reality, and our lives shrivel.

"If we bring to a retreat [or to an experience like being on lockdown because of COVID-19] all the baggage and mentality of business as usual, we aren't really making a 'retreat'. So nothing new or transformative can happen. I've given lots of retreats. Certain people come to hear what they already know. If I say something they don't know, I can see their arms cross and they mentally pack up and leave. But if we hear only what we already know, we simply cannot learn or grow.

"Liminal space induces a type of inner crisis to help us make a needed transition. In brief, it should wake us up a bit. That's what is meant by a liminal experience."

Reflection on these quote:
On MESP, we talk with our students a lot about embracing their semester in the Middle East as "liminal space" / "liminality" - leaving normal life, being in a place of openness with the possibility of having new experiences, seeing things from new perspectives, experiencing transformation. (They do!)

It strikes me that this whole worldwide COVID-19 phenomenon is an experience of all of us (across countries, around the world) being forced into a liminal time and space (a space and time where life is not in our control). Many people I know seek times of retreat, solitude and silence, to get "out of normal life" for reflection, for growth. Now with COVID-19, isolation, with some degree of solitude and stillness (lack of ability to move about, and to do all the things we normally do), even silence, has come to us, been thrust upon us. The question is, will we embrace this as an opportunity for growth - for stepping back, slowing down, reflecting on life, our values, how we live, what we normally run after, our motivations and goals, etc.? If we do, this time might not only not be wasted, but could be very beneficial.

May this COVID-19 time be (as Rohr says) "sacred space" for us.

Another point of connection is that today - Holy Saturday or "Saturday of Light" as they call it in the Middle East - is another liminal space and time, as we remember the world, humanity, waiting in the darkness and uncertainty between the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. What an unprecedented opportunity we have to walk through these days while living in our own times of uncertainty, looking for hope, looking for light at the end of the tunnel.

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