Ever since I was introduced to the word “liminal,” I have claimed it as my own. This word describes a threshold or a transitional position — a balancing point between two states of being. For many years I have felt poised on the threshold between two totally different ways of viewing the world. One is scientific and rational. The other is a place where angels materialize and shake your hand, where dreams have meaning, where God’s words come out of men’s mouths when they lay their hands on your head. Many members of the Church seem easily able to slip between both of these worlds. But I see a fundamental difference between the two world views. In the naturalistic view of the universe, events do not violate natural laws and are subject to the principles of empirical investigation. In the mystical view, divine intervention is possible outside of natural law.
Striving to make sense of my world has been like trying to ride two donkeys with one ass. I often feel quite schizophrenic for even making the attempt. I do it because I feel like both paradigms are equally valid and I can’t imagine jumping off on one side or the other and excising a vital part of my being. But living a double life makes me feel uncomfortable around everyone. For example, when I am with a certain group of Mormons I can’t fathom why they don’t realize that the founder of their Church took the temple ceremony largely from Masonry, a tradition whose roots are not as ancient as some suppose. Then when I am with another group of my LDS friends I feel equally out of place because I recognize some sort of cosmic connection to the Infinite which occurs at these mystical points of ascent.
Liminality in my life is reading the RS/PH handbook at home and critiquing it from a secular/humanist perspective; then later in Church giving that same lesson from a mystical worldview, and feeling some Greater Power assisting me to articulate the principles. Afterwards I feel dizzy and disoriented. Am I leading people astray? Was that a real experience or just my emotions or hormones coming into play?
This week’s SS lesson is centered around the heart; and the story of Saul, Israel’s proto-monarch, is a perfect place to start for someone who is not quite sure of the state of hers.
To begin with, it is possible that in the course of Biblical transmission, Saul’s birth narrative was dispossessed by another. Biblical scholars have noted that the wordplay in 1 Samuel 1 works best when applied to Saul’s name, but this has been replaced by Samuel. In Hebrew, “Saul” can mean “petition,” “request,” or “thing given.” Thus verse 20 may have originally read:
And she named him Saul, saying, “Because I have ‘sauled’ him (requested him) from YHWH.
The etymology is carried through in verses 17, 20, 27, and 28. But for a variety of reasons, the birth narrative has been transferred to the prophet Samuel. Was it Saul, rather than Samuel, who was dedicated to the Lord by his mother? Was it Saul who was divinely appointed and raised?
The reader next encounters Saul in a narrative of spiritual rebirth. Saul is searching for lost donkeys, and ends up visiting Samuel. This prophet anoints Saul and tells him that the Lord’s Spirit shall come upon him, he shall prophesy, and he will be “turned into another man.” That day, “God gave him another heart.” The significance of this regeneration which seems so obvious when reading chapter 10 is actually hotly debated in Christian circles.
“Was Saul saved?” evangelicals wonder. They point to later actions and speculate whether his heart had really been changed. I confess that Saul’s actions at Gilgal seem defensible to me. The Lord had commanded that burnt offerings be made before going into battle. Saul had gathered his army and the Philistines were threatening. Saul waited the agreed-upon seven days for Samuel, but he didn’t show. The Israelite army was beginning to scatter. So Saul went ahead and performed the sacrifice. What a conundrum he faced! Should he wait for Samuel, and lose his army? Should he go into battle without performing the sacrifice? Or should he offer the sacrifice himself, without the necessary authority? Doubtless I would have made the same choice Saul did. But we are told that his heart was in the wrong place — that “obedience is better than sacrifice” — and that at this point his kingdom was lost and given to another.
This was a pivotal moment for Saul, and through the rest of his life he wavered between acts of anger and rebellion, and heartfelt repentance. The mental distress he experienced is anguishing.
Saul strikes me as a man trying to ride two donkeys, and I have the greatest compassion for him. I’d like to end this post with a poem by John Donne which I can envision coming from my mouth, and from Saul’s. It’s a lament from a soul which recognizes the pull of the profane and natural man, yet longs for a mystical union with the Divine.
Holy Sonnet XIV
Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee,’and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
Labour to’admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely’I love you,’and would be loved faine,
But am betroth’d unto your enemie:
Divorce mee,’untie, or breake that knot againe;
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you’enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.