It seems like, at least some years here in Tennessee, we go along, and it’s summer way past the end of summer. I don’t know about you, but at that first cold snap I run into my closet and pull out flannels and cozy sweaters, and put the kettle on for a cup of hot chocolate. And then summer comes back for another two months. Then, overnight, it goes from 90s during the hottest part of the day to 30s and 40s at night. Tennessee is not a land of happy mediums when it comes to weather.
Pagans observe what we call the Wheel of the Year. In some parts of the year, the wheel turns slowly, but this year it seemed like we turned that eighth-turn from Mabon to Samhain all in one go. But with it getting darker earlier, and the leaves swirling around you, and the chill in the air, and the storm clouds, you can definitely feel it turning, can’t you?
In pagan tradition we consider Samhain the end of the year, which, because the cycle is a wheel, means it is also the beginning of the year. The Wheel has eight pagan sabbath or holidays — Yule and Litha at the solstices, Mabon and Ostara at the equinoxes. Pagans also observe four cross-quarter holidays at the midpoint between each solstice and equinox. Samhain is one of those cross-quarter holidays in Celtic tradition, between Mabon and Yule.
Because these traditions come from agricultural societies, the observance of each of the festivals is closely tied to what is happening in the natural world at that time of year. They’d celebrate the planting at Beltane, the first harvest at Lughnasa. Samhain is the last of the harvest, when everything is dying on the vine, and people made some careful decisions about which parts of their herds to cull so that they could survive through the difficult winter.
Samhain and Halloween have always been associated with death. As people considered the plants and animals nearing the ends of the cycles of their lives, they naturally thought about the cycle of their own lives. It was believed that at this time of year, the veil between this world and the world of the dead was thinner, and therefore ghosts could cross over, or you could speak with your ancestors. Many traditions practice dumb suppers in which they set places of food and feasted with their dead.
When Christiansen converted Celtic peoples, they moved All Saints or All Hallows’ Day from May to the first of November so that it could coincide with the celebrations the pagan people were already doing, so Christian tradition honors November 1 with consideration of those who have gone before us, too.
This year, I want to expand a little bit on the meaning of Samhain or Halloween in a way that it could apply to our lives, not as a holiday or Pagan observance or even necessarily a time to honor our dead.
Samhain is often described as a liminal time, or liminal space. Liminal is defined in the dictionary as “relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process,” or “occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.” The term comes from the Latin word limens, or threshold. In anthropology, the term is defined like this: “the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete.” This is according to Victor Turner, who studied rites of passage among African societies. So liminal space is a little limbo, a pause between what has passed away and what is yet to be.
How does this time of year fit that definition? This idea of thinning threshold between the world of the living and dying, that is liminal it’s. In practical and agricultural terms, we are at a transition between the plenty of summer and a difficult winter, a time when we honor what is gone and think about an unknown future and how we might plan for it. People at this time of year will often put on costumes and blur their identity or experiment with the idea of being someone else. That, too, is liminality. These portrayals sometimes represent the deepest-seated fears of our species.
Sometimes in meditation we’re asked to pay attention to the space between our breaths. It’s a little bit of a challenge, because we don’t often acknowledge a space between our breaths at all. But if you’ll follow your breath for a moment, you’ll notice that at the peak of each in breath and before each out-breath, there’s the tiniest gap. Sometimes, this gap is bigger. Imagine someone surprises you, and you gasp. Humor me for a second, pretend that Bigfoot just walked in the door and give me a good gasp.
You notice how big the pause is after that sharp breath? You’ve sucked in enough air to fill your lungs for fight or flight, but you haven’t quite figured out what to do with that lungful of air. It’s liminal. And, naturally, since this is a UU church, what we’d do next is welcome Bigfoot and offer him refreshments.
Sometimes, liminal spaces happen in our lives like that. Sometimes the unthinkable happens. We lose a job we were depending on, a long-term relationship ends, we lose someone very dear to us in death, we receive a serious diagnosis, we find out we’re going to be parents. The shock of these things is like that GASP — What now? We have no idea. We know things are never going to be the same, but we have no idea what comes next. Your very sense of identity feels uncertain. If I’m not a husband anymore, who am I? If I’m not a pharmacist, what’s the next step? If I’m not childless, how do I keep this very big, very important role of Parent from eclipsing all of the other roles that are still important to me?
In these liminal spaces, the moment between then and now, between teh past and the not yet, we are NOT comfortable. Franciscan friar Richard Rohr says, “It is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run… anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing.”
But sometimes these moments in our lives are the defining ones. Sometimes we see with the perspective of years that we could not have become who we are now without these crises, and the liminal moments that followed, the times when we did not know what was next and we had no choice but to wait and see what the Universe was going to bring us.
Each week we recite together our mission statement, and one very important facet of it is Spiritual Growth. It’s also the third principle of Unitarian Universalist, “encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.” We’re not talking about religious doctrine when we say that, we’re not talking about learning some fact that will make us better Unitarian Universalists, and it’s not some kind of mystical revelation. And it’s a simple truth that if we aspire to spiritual growth — then by definition we have to outgrow our comfort zones. You might realize that your beliefs about yourself or about how the world works are not true, or not in line with the person you want to be. It’s a little shocking sometimes. *GASP*! Well, if this isn’t who I want to be, who do I want to be? What’s the next step? Liminal space.
And if we don’t develop the capacity to, in Richard Rohr’s words, live with that ambiguity, hold that discomfort, and just sit for a time and see what develops, then we missed an opportunity. We can run back to the last phase of spiritual comfort. We have probably all done that, like toddlers exploring and suddenly realizing that we’re far from mom and running back, not quite ready for the next phase. That’s okay. But growth demands uncertainty sometimes. It demands anxiety. It demands letting go of what’s behind.
“More often than not,” says Irish poet John O’Donohue, “the reason you cannot return to where you were is that you have changed; you are no longer the one who crossed over.” He says threshold is a better word than transition for the changes we endure. Threshold is related to the word thresh, which was the separation of grain from husk. It includes notions of entrance, crossing, border, beginning. To cross a threshold is to leave behind the husk and arrive at the grain (ah, another reference to our time of year).
In this essay in To Bless the Space Between Us [Liminal!], O’Donohue goes on to say that our culture has little to offer us for crossings; we have “ritual poverty.” “Many people are left stranded in a chasm of emptiness and doubt; without rituals to recognize, celebrate, or negotiate the vital thresholds of people’s lives, the key crossings pass by, undistinguished from the mundane, everyday rituals of life.”
So here, in this safe space among friends, we can practice sitting with ambiguity. We can practice letting go. We do this at our Burning Bowl ritual at the beginning of the calendar year. Samhain is another good time to do it.
So I invite you to the space between breaths with me. Take a moment, ground yourself with your feet on the ground, turn your palms up in a receptive gesture, and notice for a few moments the tiny pause at the top of the inhale and at the end of the exhale. At Samhain and Halloween, we hold sacred these in-betweens, these thresholds. We honor what has gone before and allow it to pass on.We honor those who have preceded us in crossing death’s threshold, and hold their memories gently and tenderly.