Thursday, May 31, 2012


What follows is a small section out of my manuscript called “The Molten Chalice” in which, roughly, the chalice is the structure, the container, and communitas is the fiery wine.  It owes a great deal to another one of my key resource books, “The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure,” by Victor Turner.  In case you should think this is some left over “trip” from seminary, consider that old age can be very much a liminal time, without roles or obligations prescribed by society unless one is embedded in a family,  which I am not.  “Liminal” means a special sort of state that is undefined.  At 73 I am neither frail nor robust.  My income puts me right at the poverty line.   I am at the margins, beneath consciousness.   I was a little startled to attend a Jack Gladstone benefit concert and have it interpreted as an “agenda.”  
As Victor Turner works it out in “The Ritual Process, Structure and Anti-Structure” (1969), there are two interacting forces in human society, in tension but always co-existing.  One is the tendency to want to organize and codify experience, to guarantee predictability and justice by passing rules and requiring certain practices, to assign status and require duties.  (This can be either “right wing” or “left wing.”)  The other is what can exist during liminality: the suspension of all the social structure so that compassion and equality join everyone in openness and trust.  I take liturgy to be a way of guiding a group, or possibly an individual, between chaos and paralysis.  
The liturgist guides the congregation into liminal space either to reconsider oppressive structure as a communitas OR to reconfirm necessary order.  Since this concept developed from observing rites of passage, it may seem a little over-dramatic for regular Sunday services.  Nevertheless, it is a useful way to think and even done subtly it is effective.
Much of the trouble in the world about religion is not about this level of what we might call spirituality, but rather about the dogmatic institutions that have claimed territory through history, often the same territory.  If one can go to the deeper levels of meaning through liturgy, it might help to reach back to the time before the schism arose and find the human commonality before the competition for resources, power, and identity ever arose in the first place.  At that level contradictions between church and state also dissolve, because they are again institutional, not spiritual.
But Victor Turner’s idea of liminality does not oppose structure.  He says, “The moment a digging stick is set in the earth, a colt broken in, a pack of wolves defended against, or a human enemy set by his heels, we have the germs of a social structure.” 
Still, the structure is at interplay with liminal sources:  “Communitas breaks in through the interstices of structure, in liminality; at the edges of structure, in marginality; and from beneath structure, in inferiority.  it is almost everywhere held to be sacred or “holy,” possibly because it transgresses or dissolves the norms that govern structured and institutionalized relationships and is accompanied by experiences of unprecedented potency.  The processes of “leveling” and “stripping” to which Goffman has drawn our attention, often appear to flood their subjects with affect.”
This part is in the blog but not the manuscript:
Some people have taken “Lord of the Flies” to be an account of the failure of structure.  I would rather interpret it as an account of boys thrown into a state of liminality -- plane wrecked on an island -- and the struggle between their impulses to form communitas and their impulses to replicate what they knew back in England.  In the process they discard the humanities (Piggy) and go to the military for their model.  The only way they could be rescued then was through military means.  This is an indictment of England and their elite schools.
Contrast the older boys of the Andean plane crash where it became necessary to resort to cannibalism.  They used their poetic understanding of Christianity -- the images and devotions -- to maintain hope and order.  In the end they saved themselves through their own extraordinary exertions.
Resolving structure versus communitas often seems to be a male problem.  Military, governmental, corporation, industrial agriculture and resource development are necessarily so structured that only exceptional circumstances allow the communitas to break through.  Some male roles -- the artist, the poet, the monk, the sex worker --  must invent their own internal structure.  They are exposed more intensely to poverty, other humans in need, and their own internal life.  They may form their own structured community, like a monastic order, or ghetto gangs.  Turner suggests Hell’s Angels, who embrace their outcast stigma and use the power of being liminal and therefore scary.  He has many other anthropological examples from India and Africa that are not known to many of us.
But he is not naive about how mainstream empowered structures will feel threatened by those who are low-prestige, such as the naked, the hippie, the folk-singer, the mendicant, the perennial student and will try to use them as scapegoats.  Or else, since they are not part of the buying and selling commodified world, simply let them die of want.  Authorities do not understand the power of solidarity with such outliers, and this is always the source of their eventual destruction, which is more likely to come from within -- the Pope’s butler -- than from without -- the Vatican’s bank examiners.
But it is possible to become so stuck in liminality, so fluid and disorganized, as to lose a grip on simple maintenance and slip outside sanity or even identity.  This is the Dionysian (we might say) that is so deranged as to tear apart the poets, the artists, in a rock-star mosh-pit frenzy.  The groups who are portrayed as doing this in the originating myths are usually women, often drunk.  A cult.  I think of the watchdog women around the nation who pursue like Maenads whomever they think has not told them the truth or complied with their standards, like the supposedly educated and liberal women who demand all books be absolutely true and all animals be treated like human children.
My interest in liturgy is on one level the belief that properly conducted liturgy is an aid to sanity, bringing balance to communitas versus structure.  I feel it is one of the uses of old age.

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