New Year’s Eve has us standing at yet another threshold. The two-faced Roman god Janus, for whom January is named, was appropriately named for the doorway (Latin: janua) in which he stood. He looked back, and he looked ahead. Or was he looking inward and pointing himself outward? Perhaps we can attribute to him something a little more contemplative as we recognize the importance of liminal spaces in our lives.
Liminal Spaces Looking Back and Forward
Liminal spaces and times (Latin limen = threshold) hold those opportunities that have reflection deeply rooted at their core. Reflection, the word so aptly partnered with meditation and contemplative practice, is literally a turning back. A variation on the theme of introspection, looking within. Every one of these words is steeped in Latin roots that elevate the practices of taking time to stop, take stock, ponder. With liminal spaces, however, and thresholds and Janus himself, there is more than one direction. We are prompted not just to turn back or turn inward, but to look ahead. We turn back but we look intentionally forward as well.
Celtic Samhuinn as a Threshold
Different traditions offer us quite a number of these opportunities to stand at the threshold throughout the year.
In the cooling days of autumn, the Celtic tradition offers the celebration of Samhuinn, a time when the veil between the worlds is thin. It is the threshold
between the old year and the new year
between summer and winter
between growing/harvesting and storing/preserving
between outside and inside
between now and then
between heaven and earth
between life and death
between humanity and the spirit world
between this side of the door and the other
During Samhuinn celebrations, we look with gratitude at what has passed, but stand alert to recognize what is on the other side of the veil.
Threshold Moments in Other Traditions
In Jewish tradition, the high holy days of Rosh Hashanah, the head of the year, and Yom Kippur allow us to take stock of the relationships in our lives as we make amends. And the intention is a renewal of what is made right. Sealed in the Book of Life for another year, we move forward, forgiven, washed clean, aware of how to live our lives until the moons bring us back to this threshold again. Traditions of atonement and prayerful days of fasting and repentance in the Islamic tradition of Ramadan and the Christian observance of Lent are also threshold times, marked by looking back and also pointing forward.
Lunar New Year as a Threshold
Tết, the Vietnamese celebration of the Lunar New Year, is marked by Buddhist followers of Thich Nhat Hanh in Plum Village with a time of deep reflection and mindful breathing. Even in a tradition that focuses with such awareness on the present moment, there is in this new year celebration an element of honoring the ancestors. Forgiving those who have brought suffering in the past year. And stepping forward into the new year with intention and renewal. When Thay died days before Tết this past January, followers continued his tradition of offering parallel verses for the new year celebration. The parallel verses are often hung in doorways on diamond-shaped pieces of paper. In the comings and goings, as the year turns new, they are a reminder to embrace the threshold moment.
Sitting in freedom on this sacred land
Walking in peace everywhere on earth
Embed from Getty Images: a woman lighting incense sticks at the Tu Hieu pagoda, home to Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, in Hue
What Then Is the Significance of New Year’s Day
How do these threshold days so richly rooted in spiritual traditions compare to our New Year’s celebrations? The time when many make resolutions, start new practices, re-align with former, healthier habits. We approach the turning of the year in our Western, Christian-rooted calendar. January 1, 2023. And the significance of the date feels weak at best. Janus so aptly represented this threshold month with his faces pointed to both sides of the doorway, but January wasn’t even the first month of the year for the Romans using the pre-Julian calendar. March, the namesake of the god of war Mars, marked the Roman new year. In like a lion. The Romans lunged into their new year with dancing priests, the Salii, in full armor. They renewed the sacred fire of Rome. With Julius Caesar’s adjustments of the calendar, and a new month to mark the beginning of the year, Janus turned out to be a rather appropriate figure for the start of a new year. And still today, with a nod and a wink to the god of thresholds, we put great significance for a liminal moment on our New Year’s Eve celebrations, when in actuality, there are many traditions that offer meaningful threshold celebrations throughout the year.
Brigid, Keeper of the Threshold
Brigid of Kildaire, the Celtic saint who lived around 500 ce, was a great proponent of reaching beyond one’s own traditional spiritual understandings. J.P Newell writes that she was born in the doorway of her house to a Christian mother and Druid father. Born in the liminal light of early morning. Brigid urged us to stand with courage at the thresholds that we come upon in our lives. For there is the place where we open ourselves to suffering with one another. There we find a heart of compassion. She understood that we are stronger when we open ourselves to one another’s practices. Perhaps as you find yourself in a liminal space, whether this new year’s eve or at some other moment of significant transition in your life, you might remember the doorway. Perhaps it is looking back or pointing you forward or holding you right there in the present moment. But maybe its greatest gift is just in remaining open.
As in John’s revelation, writing to the angel of the church in Philadelphia, I have set before you an open door which no one can shut. (Rev. 3:8)