Covid-19: Our Liminal Wilderness Time and Place

by Narelle Coetzee
5th May 2020

In these COVID-19 times, the imagery of wilderness and its associated meaning of liminality echoes deeply. Could our 2020 experience of separation, isolation and uncertainty, be our modern-day liminal wilderness?

A key literary association of wilderness within the biblical text is that of wilderness being a liminal space; a space and time that is ‘betwixt and between’. The bible uses the wilderness setting to describe the liminal experiences of Moses, David, John the Baptist, Jesus, Paul, and Israel’s sojourn after the exodus.[1] The basis for understanding ‘liminality’ comes from the discipline of ritual studies, where a rite of passage usually involves (1) a time of separation, (2) the transition or limen stage and (3) a re-negotiation of a new status back into society.[2] It is viewed that within the liminal phase profound change and experiences occur.

For us in 2020, these stages sound all too familiar, as we face an enforced time of ‘separation’ from each other and our normal patterns of life due to COVID-19. Our familiar routines, spaces and times have all been rearranged. Moreover, as some of the lockdown restrictions begin to be lifted, we begin to anticipate a ‘re-negotiation’ into society and envision a ‘new normal’. But what of the liminal phase? Can we glean insights as to how this phase could speak to us today?

First, it is helpful to understand the characteristics that mark the wilderness as a liminal place, as Cohn articulates:

The combination of positive and negative characteristics makes the wilderness period an ambiguous place and time, and it is precisely ambiguity that is typical of phenomena of transition, of threshold beings. The wilderness is “betwixt and between,” neither here not there, neither Egypt nor Canaan. It is outside of civilisation, remote, harbouring the scared both divine and demonic. Furthermore, the time spent in the wilderness is “a moment in and out of time.” The past is wholly cut off, and the future but faintly envisioned. Slavery is over but freedom is not yet. … The wilderness forms the setting for a trek through a time and space apart, ambiguous, liminal.[3]

The wilderness is thus, viewed as liminal due to its ambiguity of place, time and status.[4]

I would argue for us, likewise, it is the combination of positive and negative characteristics that are marking 2020 as a liminal wilderness time. An ambiguous time, that is both chaotic and peaceful, tiring and restful, engaged and withdrawn, a place of community but also soulful loneliness, a time of cancelled and postponed plans and unknown futures. We are in that place of transition — limen — of change and adaptation, both as individuals and a global community.

Yet, within this liminal space and time, of shattered dependencies, disrupted routines and ambiguity, the bible also portrays the liminal wilderness as a place of transformative experience of the Holy[5] or ‘critical encounter’. [6] This is because the wilderness as liminal time provides the ‘opportunity to have previous patterns of attitude and action deconstructed and disempowered so that one can more truly come to find God as the true and ultimate source of security and life’.[7] The paradox is, that in the transition period between leaving the old and entering the new, as well as accompanied by vast uncertainty and unfamiliarity, a new encounter with God occurs. In this way, the wilderness in the biblical tradition becomes more than a location but ‘a symbol of formative events’.[8]

Similarly, for us, the suspension of normal times and spaces created by the ‘COVID-19 wilderness’, may likewise provide an opportunity for a ‘critical encounter’ with God. So that this liminal COVID-19 period becomes a symbol of formation and transition in our lives. Indeed, for me, as I reflect on these themes, I am in the time betwixt and between Ascension and Pentecost. As such, I am drawn to the portrayal of the disciples ‘isolated’ in Jerusalem waiting in uncertainty, praying, grieving and expecting ‘the promise of the Father’ (Acts 1:4). Choosing to pray and wait, like them, and maybe to encounter the Spirit in a deep and fresh way, in this unique and transformative, liminal wilderness time and space.

About the author:  Rev. Dr. Narelle Coetzee is Director of Learning and Teaching and Lecturer in Old Testament Studies at Alphacrucis College.

[1] See for example Exod 2:16-4:20; 1 Sam 21-23; Matt 3:1; Matt 4:1-11; Gal 1:15-18; Exod 14-40.

[2] For more information, see: Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Co., 1969); Arnold van Gennep, The Rites of Passage (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960).

[3] Robert L. Cohn, The Shape of Sacred Space: Four Biblical Studies, American Academy of Religion Studies in Religion 23 (Chicago: Scholars Press, 1981), 14.

[4] Within the OT, the predominant liminal time is Israel’s separation from Egypt and crossing into the Promised Land. Israel is depicted via the threshold of liminal wilderness, in transition from being slaves to becoming God’s people, or transition from a negative setting (bondage, exile) to a positive setting (promised land). Specifically, Cohn details that the Israelites passed through the three rites of passage within the wilderness tradition: ‘(1) separation, the exodus from Egypt in which the crossing of the Red Sea marks the final break … ; (2) limen, the transitional period of wandering for forty years; (3) reincorporation, the crossing of the Jordan river, conquest, and settlement in the new land’ (Ibid., 13). In this rite of passage for Israel, the wilderness is the transition threshold or limen that (re)forms Israel into a new phase. Thus, the wilderness in the exodus tradition ‘is a launching pad for God-Israel transactions in an environment of acute risk and deep jeopardy’ (Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination, 1st ed. [Louisville  Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003], 59).

[5] Kip Redick, “Wilderness as Axis Mundi: Spiritual Journeys on the Appalachian Trail,” in Symbolic Landscapes, ed. Gary Backhaus and John Murungi (New York: Springer, 2008), 70.

[6] See Chapter 5 ‘Critical Encounter in the Wilderness’, Leal, Wilderness in the Bible, 72:97–134.

[7] Anne Franks and John Meteyard, “Liminality: The Transforming Grace of In-between Places,” The Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling 61, no. 3 (2007): 219.

[8] Lynne Wall, “Finding Identity in the Wilderness,” in Wilderness: Essays in Honour of Frances Young, ed. R.S. Sugirtharajah (London; New York: T & T Clark International, 2005), 67.