Indeed, I have become everything in turn to men of every sort, so that in one way or another I may save some.”1
I am a collector of words. They are like gems to me, the kind you could buy at roadside shops when I was a child, three for a dollar, tumbled and polished until they were smoothed and rounded and bright. When I find a word I haven’t seen before or heard pronounced, I play with it like playing with gemstones in the hand, turning it over and over, bearing down on one syllable and then the other, elongating the vowels and listening to the sound of it against my teeth and tongue. I carry it with me for a few days, taking it out to marvel at its sound and color. I drop it into a sentence, building the sentence like a house. Place it on the back porch, move it around to the front step, inside to the kitchen at the heart of the house, and carry it to the window in the study at the top of the stairs.
Years ago, I found a word in The Ritual Process, a book by the anthropologist Victor Turner. The book was far beyond my comprehension or interest at the time, but in the riverbed of its narrative, gleaming under the surface of the stream, was this word ‘liminal.’ Turner described it as an experience in which we leave our old identity behind and enter through a ritual process into a new state of being. On this threshold we are between the old and the new, the tried and the untested. We are poised, not grounded, in a transition of ambiguity, openness, and indeterminacy.
I liked the sound of it, ‘LIM-i-nal’, and went around saying it to myself for several days. The idea of a threshold upon which we linger opens possibilities.
There is that moment before the diver parts the air, before the singer draws a breath, the artist lifts the brush, the dancer rises en pointe. The potential! Every moment of preparation for this has been gathered and held. There is nothing we can’t imagine; we have only to release it.
The liminal makes our past present to us and our future too. Broader than a knife-edge, the present as threshold gives us a platform before the plunge. With care, we can regard the past with forgiveness, while not forgetting where we put a foot wrong, where attention was not paid. There were seasons of light and goodness also, some remaining. These are provisions for the future.
Jane Hirshfield is an American poet, essayist, and translator. Her book of essays, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, lifts up the liminal in her final chapter on “Writing and the Threshold Life.” Threshold persons are “betwixt and between.” They lose their name, their identity, their standing in the community. They are being prepared for a wilderness experience, in which they undergo a transformation. “A person who steps outside her usual position falls away from any singular relationship to others and into oneness with the community as a whole.”2
Hirshfield regards the poet—and all writers who are willing—as this liminal figure who returns from the wilderness to speak and write from the margins of society. Such people become conduits for messages that could not be heard any other way; they are willing to leave “the trail of convention and norm, whether in the city or the wild.”3 There is a hunger for what lies beyond the visible and the mundane. “It is the task of the writer,” she suggests, “to become that permeable and transparent; to become, in the words of Henry James, a person on whom nothing is lost.”4
As I read and reflected on this it struck me that these experiences also parallel the descriptions of prophets, whether they be from seventh-century Israel or twenty-first century America. More particularly, this person of liminal transformation looks a lot like Saint Paul.
However we might explain the cataclysmic experience on the road to Damascus, it completely upended his life. His license was to capture new Christians and return them to Jerusalem for a quick trial and death. He was, you might say, a religious terrorist. The confrontation on the road with the being of Christ stripped him of his name, his power, and his status. Blind as a newborn kitten, he was at the mercy of those whom he had hunted.
He became Paul, shedding Saul in the process. Possessed of boundless confidence and a stern temper, he learned the way of humility. He spent fourteen years in the wilderness, known then as “Arabia,” years about which he is silent, before devoting his life to becoming Christ’s peripatetic messenger of grace. His wilderness time steadied him, deepened his compassion, and radicalized him.
When he returns, the risen Christ becomes his lodestar. Paul is tough, persuasive, independent, and resourceful. He holds his views strongly, sometimes defiantly, and he’s not ashamed to say he has the mind of Christ.
As a liminal person, he forms communities wherever he goes—and he sustains and nurtures them through his writing. Granted, his writing is sometimes dense (Peter diplomatically refers to it in one place as “obscure”). It is often contentious: Paul complains that the Corinthians forced him into speaking harshly to them because of their undisciplined actions. But when his game is on and he is inspired, his poetry cannot be matched. The thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians stands as a sublime work of art in any literature.
There are other striking parallels between Paul and Hirshfield’s liminal poets and writers. He, and they, see through the haze of murky distractions to the clear essentials of meaning. Paul most often speaks about them directly: being faithful, living the truth, showing courage, exercising self-control and humility. The poets gesture with these obliquely, tracing their patterns lightly, alluding to their beauty rather than asserting their authority.
Hirshfield writes, “In the work of such a person, what lies beyond the conventional, simplified, and ‘authorized’ versions of a culture’s narratives can find voice. A newly broadened conception of being is made available to us all.”5
The poet realizes, ‘makes real,’ the boundless complexity of human experience by offering us the profoundly simple in a line of words, the magnificence of the common. Paul, as earthy as he is visionary, comes to the Christians at Corinth “weak, nervous, and shaking with fear,” yet speaks “God’s hidden wisdom, his secret purpose framed from the very beginning to bring us to our full glory.”6
The liminal person — on the threshold — speaks to the individual and the community, in fact, becomes a conduit between the two. Through the poet/writer, those who read and listen find a community of fellow singulars. Language creates worlds that stand in opposition to the corrupted present.
In a society split vertically and horizontally by cultural prejudice and gender oppression, Paul boldly offers a prophetic alternative: “There is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and freeman, male and female,” he says, “for you are all one person in Christ Jesus.”7
“More is changed during this threshold period than simply the understanding of self,” says Hirshfield. “Free of all usual roles, a person experiences community differently as well. The liminal is not opposite to, but the necessary companion of, identity and particularity—a person who steps outside her usual position falls away from any singular relationship to others and into oneness with the community as a whole.”8
Paul — imprisoned, shipwrecked, harassed, and beaten — bears in his own body the scars of proclaiming a new message of freedom. When he claims, “I am a free man and own no master; but I have made myself every man’s servant, to win over as many as possible,” he is not exaggerating.
“We stand with” is a phrase that corporations hastily add to their websites to show their efforts at racial equality. But Paul bears the burdens of those whom he is with. With the Jews, he follows the religious laws that the Jews observe; with the Gentiles, he puts himself under their cultural restrictions as well. “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. Indeed, I have become everything in turn to men of every sort, so that in one way or another I may save some.”9
Has he lost himself in all this? Has he become a shape-shifter, a person who, like water, assumes the contours of whatever vessel he finds himself in? “Your life lies hidden with Christ in God,” he writes to the band of Christians in Colossae.10 So strong is his identification, that he is willing, like Christ, to suffer the consequences of speaking truth to power.
We find ourselves entangled on every side today by our own history, by our interpretation of other people’s history, by our need to find a balance between an upsetting truth-telling and the preserving of our social comity. Many of our prophets and our poets, like Paul, come down on the side of truth-telling, no matter the personal consequences of revealing the skewing of power and the pain it causes. Their identity forms like a pearl around the sand-grain of truth. Perhaps they live without illusions whatsoever. They speak, they act, they bear the blowback. But they also speak of newness of life, of an oasis in the desert, of the flowering of beauty in the midst of desolation. And they do not desert their own.