Monday Over Coffee: "Liminal"

Published September 18, 2023 by Greg Funderburk


Johannes Vermeer is most well-known for his beautiful painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring, but he painted another called, Girl Asleep at a Table, which can be seen at the Met in New York. A young woman is sitting in a chair at a table off to one side of the canvas, dozing on her hand, her elbow on the table. There is a large overturned drinking glass on the table and, nearer to the girl, there’s a more delicate, upright, wine glass. Behind her, there’s an open door, and through the door, there’s nothing, just a small side table against the far wall, part of a window, and a mirror above the table. The painting is dark, still somehow full of deep, rich colors, but it’s hard to know what to make of it.

X-rays have been taken of the painting which show that originally there was a man standing in the doorway. Vermeer later apparently decided to paint him out. With the man in the doorway, we have one painting. With just the girl alone, we certainly have a whole different painting. The one we see remains pensive but vague in terms of meaning—just a girl dreaming of something—we don't know what; at a table where something has just happened—who knows what. We’re left to speculate on all of it.

When we lose someone or something, we have to acknowledge that we’re in a different painting than we were before. The new picture might remain fuzzy, dark, dreamy, vague, and unclear for a time. When you find yourself in such a liminal space, an in-between, a middle place like this, trying to figure out those feelings and the contours of the new story you’re in, you just have to be patient as the new picture begins to come to light.

I was able to barely hang in there for a couple of years of junior high band, but even I know what a fermata is—the mark that looks like a bird’s eye that tells you to hold a note out. I recently learned though that composers sometimes put fermatas not just over notes, but over rests in the music, as well. In fact, in some of his most famous sonatas, Beethoven ended many of his movements with a fermata over the final rest. With this notation, he created an extended period of silence between where one movement ended and another began. How long a fermata is held over a rest depends on a lot of factors, but—most music experts agree—it should be held for such a time that a kind of reframing occurs. That is, the silence should continue to abide until all the listener just heard up to that time has settled into their ears such that they are now more ‘experientially’ prepared for what’s coming next.

If you’re not sure about tomorrow, about what’s next, or unsure of what your story, your painting, ought to look like now, then hold the rest out, claim this liminal space, this in-between time, as an extended fermata between the movements in your life. 

There’s a powerful moment near the end of the book of Deuteronomy, when Moses places the people he has led for over a generation under the care of his successor, Joshua, where Moses says to Joshua:

Be strong. Take courage. You will enter the land with this people, this land God promised their ancestors. You will make them the proud possessors of it. God is striding ahead of you. He’s right there with you. He won’t let you down. He won’t leave you. Don’t be intimidated. Don’t worry. (Deuteronomy 31:7—8, emphasis added)

It’s a recurring motif in these first few books of the Bible—God going out ahead of the people. For me, it brings to mind, the picture of a mother with her child at the threshold of a dark room, the child hesitant, frightened, afraid to go in. The mother says, “I’ll go in ahead of you and make sure it’s safe.” But what’s most interesting and compelling about the words of Moses here is not the “striding ahead” but the next line about God being right there with us also. It all begs the question, how can God be striding into our unknown future ahead of us, and also right with us in this liminal space now at the same time?

Really, I don’t know, but I do know this: God can do things like this. 

God, calm my mind and heart in this liminal space. Stride ahead of me, but also—don’t leave me. I don’t know how You do it, but I’m thankful You do. Amen.