by Kent Ira Groff
Liminality is a zone of ambivalence, ambiguity, even disorientation, as anthropologist Victor Turner’s pioneer research shows. But it’s simultaneously a “realm of pure possibility where novel configurations of ideas and relations may arise,” says Turner (The Forest of Symbols). That’s one value for practicing centering prayer, where you have no agenda except to empty the mind of thoughts, to cultivate liminal space that leaves you prepared for surprise.
“Love the questions… live the questions,” says the poet Rilke. How can we cultivate the value of questioning? By honest praying as in the Psalms: first, to develop genuine awareness of self, others and God; second, to claim vocational empowerment—to seek an invitation in the stress; and third, to practice compassion for self and others. In Kitchen Table Wisdom, Rachel Naomi Remen writes, “An unanswered question is a fine traveling companion. It sharpens your eye for the road.”
Among all four Gospels, Jesus is asked 183 questions, directly or indirectly. How many does he answer directly? Three! And Jesus asks 307 questions—often in response to another’s question: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asks, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” (see Luke 10:25-37). By giving questions back to people, by getting them buzzing with his own questions and Zen-like parables, Jesus creates liminal spaces for churning, ruminating, incubating.
Irritation to Invitation
I feel the barbs of this little irritation,
cycling round, coursing in my veins.
Ah, is there within the irritation
some invitation I might waste
if I suppress it—or in haste express it
raw? Or let it gnaw at my heart?
If I do nothing, it will do something
I do not intend. How can I take
this attitude of annoyance and let it
turn to gratitude and grace? I pray
for a middle way. Yet well I know that
I will come upon this neutral zone
in a dark wood of waiting….
There the way is incubating….
I’m advocating the use of questions for yourself as well as for others, and not only as a method of creativity, but as a prayer practice to keep your own heart open.
Most of you reading this spend time with friends and colleagues who turn to you for wisdom in work, in families, in board meetings, in one-to-one and community settings. By learning to convert an insight into a thoughtful question, you may offer everyone several priceless gifts.
You slow down the rapid pace of conversation. While you’re converting your insight into a question, you have to pause—a creative, prayerful space. When you give back another question to whomever you’re with, it creates a second pause within that person. You’ve practiced kenosis—empty space—not just for your own soul but also for the other’s soul. You’ve given the gift of liminal spaces.
Playing around with moment-by-moment emptiness can free my ego from the need to act smart. Alan Alda of TV’s M*A*S*H fame went on to host the PBS “Scientific American Frontiers” for over ten years, interviewing renowned scientists. Speaking at Chautauqua Institution, New York, Alda told how when he tried to act smart by asking brilliant questions, it didn’t work. The scientist would answer back with technical information, losing both the audience and Alda. He learned to ask dumb questions, in short, to practice “negative capability.” Experimenting with a “dumb question” frees me from needing to be the answer person by acting intelligent or by fixing my neighbor’s problems.