reflectionary: divine liminality

Updated: Jan 23

written for a chime interfaith service delivered on 1/16/22

welcome to the divine in-between, to the holy holding, to the liminal space that’s “no longer here but not quite there”. it’s a space of power; it’s a place of uncertainty; it’s a realm of becoming that sometimes exacts a high price of passage and always asks us to be courageous. we remember, stepping from solid land on to swinging rope bridge, that courage doesn’t mean absence of fear; rather, courage requires fear. to be courageous is to allow the power of the heart, in french le coeur, to push through the fear and help us navigate to the other side. liminal spaces require boldness. transformation is fraught.

it is a mistake, in my opinion, to treat liminal spaces as empty and perfunctory doorways between place A and place B--between what-has-been and what-will-be. think of it less as a liminal space and more of a liminal span, a bridge strung between two bodies of land. you make the choice to step off of one side and hold in your heart the goal of arriving at the other, but please don’t make the mistake of closing your eyes and running, or of pretending that the distance isn’t so far or that the journey doesn’t require care. the liminal span is a world of its own, and it has unique merits apart from its role as a connector. it’s a place that offers deep wisdom to those who can cultivate enough presence to notice the creaky and weatherworn boards underfoot, to feel the frayed rope handrails, and to appreciate the vast expanse of mystery below, even if the height makes you a bit itchy or lightheaded.

liminal spans are the ultimate request from the universe to stay present, to avoid sacrificing the now in favor of the future that you can see ahead—that second land mass that promises stability and a continued overland journey. liminality says "be here now"—be here on the bridge—yes, this scary bridge. be here. step forward. you can do it.

in my work as a midwife, i’m honored to be invited in as a companion to one of the most transformative experiences that a human body can have. you could think of the entirety of labor as a liminal experience, an expanse that connects pregnancy to new parenthood, but the wisdom of labor holds, within the event itself, its own kind of liminal span. a span within a span. i’d like to take you for a tour.

in early labor, a birthing person is firmly planted on one side of a wide canyon, milling around and taking in the sights with firm earth under their feet, bag packed for a journey. they tend to be able to go about their day, simply noticing those short and easy early contractions, which some of my clients prefer to call “surges”. if it’s a first baby and the labor starts at night, they might have a rather sleepless night, but it tends to be more about excitement than intensity. as sensations increase and the person moves into active labor, surges become longer, stronger, and closer together. they make the person stop talking, then they require breathing through, then they take all of someone’s focus entirely. early and active labor take a body from zero to about 8 centimeters of dilation, as the body softens and opens. they constitute what we call the “first stage” of labor. the “second stage” of labor is when the birthing person can add to the surges and boldly push their babies down and out, but that’s the other side of the canyon—and to get there, we still have to cross the bridge.

labor’s liminal span is aptly named “transition”. clinically, it only takes a person from 8 to 10 centimeters of dilation, but spiritually, it’s the mother/father of all ordeals. it’s the ultimate test. stepping into transition is stepping onto the rope bridge without possibility of turning back. it’s completely unfamiliar territory—it feels nothing like the solid ground that you remember from before. clinically, it involves a massive surge of adrenaline that spurs on the positive feedback system of birth. intensity begets intensity, begets intensity, begets baby. to the person deep in the process of becoming, it often feels like complete panic. this is when clients “change their minds”, “don’t want to do this”, say “i think i’m dying”, and generally want to flee. they do this from a mental space we call “labor land”, in which a person seems simultaneously completely gone and intensely present. divine possession.

it’s during transition that midwives become chaplains. “you ARE doing it.” “you’ve got this.” “stay with it—i’m right here with you and you’re safe.” “slow deep breaths and let your whole body be soft.” in this courageous space, the person has to choose to trust and surrender to themselves, to their own power, to the process of becoming. i can’t do it for them, but i can do it with them. it’s the reason that i don’t use the word “delivery”. to say that i deliver babies would imply that i’m carrying them across the bridge. as a midwife, i’m the worry stone in their pocket, i’m the memory of the reassuring warmth of their grandmother’s hands, i’m the voice of their own innate wisdom en-“couraging” them on, i’m the reminder that their ancestors have their back. i’m many things, but i’m not making the journey for them.

step by step, one foot in front of the other, the span is traversed. one step. “good.” another step. “yes, that's the way.” another. “you never have to do THAT contraction again.” and again another. “you’re amazing—don’t run from it—stay in it, stay with it.” again. “no way out but through.”

and then “whack”—a foot lands on solid ground--the other side of the canyon. the person opens their eyes, and i see them come out of laborland and back to themselves. the intensity dials back. they take a breath. sometimes they take a tiny nap. the other side of the canyon is new territory--it’s soon going to be time to push, but for many people, that feels like a productive and grounded part of the process. for now, it’s sitting a spell on solid earth for what we like to call the “rest and be thankful” phase that people often get to enjoy as part of unmedicated birth.

transition is by far the most intense span within the span that is labor. it requires trust and letting go. it requires giving in and going with the flow, even when the flow looks more like whitewater. it’s the part that people say was the “absolute worst” in retrospect. but it’s also the span whose crossing leaves the impression that insurmountable tasks simply no longer exist. transition very often inspires people to share an “if i can do that, i and do ANYTHING” mentality. there’s pride, self-esteem, and power for the taking in that crossing, and what a gift I’ve been given to be able to witness that again and again and again.

i’m curious, what liminal span stretches out before you in this moment? what in your life teeters on the edge of transition, asking for you to give in to the current? what far shore calls to you, if only you could cross the bridge? my invitation to you, in this seeking, is not to close your eyes and run to what’s ahead. savor the bridge—one foot in front of the other. rub your worry stone, remember your grandmother’s hands, find your wise inner-knowing, call upon your ancestors. you’re amazing—don’t run from it—stay in it, stay with it. no way out but through.

opportunity for reflection in the comments below: what bridge are you on right now, and what gifts does it have to offer?

abby hall luca

the hearth chaplain

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