Upon the Threshold

Inside the doorway is a space betwixt and between.

It is the threshold, the architecture of identity transformation.

Over 100 years ago, when sociologist Arnold Van Gennep coined the term “rite of passage”, he crafted a metaphor that has remained at the core of ritual studies to this day: Rituals are like passageways, openings in otherwise impenetrable barriers that exist between different aspects of ourselves.

threshold of mysteryIn this metaphor, identities are like rooms within the larger constructions of ourselves, and rituals are the doorways between these rooms. Van Gennep developed another key term to describe the conditions within these doorways: The adjective “liminal”. This term is derived from the Latin word “limen”, the word for threshold, the piece of wood or stone that rests at the base of a doorway, giving it dimension.

Van Gennep’s brilliant insight was to perceive that doorways are not the 2-dimensional openings that we ordinarily consider them to be. They have depth as well as height and width. Although thresholds are not rooms, they are spaces unto themselves, with properties of their own. In the ritual-as-doorway metaphor, the liminal space that exists for as long as a ritual is taking place enables us to experience the temporary condition of having no identity at all.

So long as we linger in the threshold, we are betwixt and between identities, in a position of choice and transformation where the solid rules of life that ordinarily restrict us do not apply. Within the liminal sphere of ritual, we become fluid, capable of being cast into new shapes when the ritual is complete.