The Least, First

Monte Asbury's blog

Other thoughts: the middle voice

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Last Sunday, Pastor Sharon reminded me of discussion we had a few years back.

We had both read Eugene Peterson’s rich and quiet book The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction. We had both been amazed by views of God we hadn’t been able to express before.

In particular, Peterson tells about learning Greek’s “middle voice.”

English, as he tells it, uses active voice (“I initiate an action that goes someplace else: ‘I counsel my friend.'”) and passive voice (“I receive the action another initiates: ‘I am counseled by my friend.'”). Greek has another: the middle voice, in which “I actively participate in the results of an action another initiates: ‘I take counsel.'”)

His grammar book adds: “The middle voice is that use of the verb which describes the subjects as participating in the results of the action.” And Peterson writes: “I read that now, and it seems like a description of Christian prayer … I do not control the action; that is a pagan concept of prayer, putting the gods to work by my incantations or rituals. I am not controlled by the action; that is a Hindu concept of prayer in which I slump passively into the impersonal and fated wills of gods and goddesses. I enter into the action begun by another, my creating and saving Lord, and find myself participating in the results of the action. I neither do it, nor have it done to me; I will to participate in what is willed. … Prayer takes place in the middle voice.”

Now the shocker: Apparently, ancient Greek – in contrast to our English – had no passive voice. There was no way to express something that happened in which I was not a participant. Imagine!

My great temptation is to run about in active mode, stamping things “Done!” on my internal to-do. Then things happen in my life which I don’t notice (being busy stamping) until they grow large. I call these things that “happen” to me – passive things.

But in those times when I quiet myself, I see another dimension of activity. I see – just a little – that what’s happening today is part of something much larger, and much more beautiful, than the invidual events alone. I see that the tasks on the “to-do” have differents ranks than I thought (I am struggling with this right now). Some of them will, perhaps, help me make a life that fits into what I really want life to be. Others won’t matter much. Some will leave me with a clearer mind, some with a cluttered one. Some will leave me freer to delight in loving – others will leave me merely scrambling. Which do I will this afternoon?

O God, I pray you would fit me in to what you are doing today: doing in me, doing around me, doing with me (amazing, arrogant idea!). Give me quietness of mind sufficient to enjoy you and people and all creation, and confidence to know that what can be done is part of something much larger. Give me courage to reject the merely active, mistrust the passive, and delight in this participatory pilgrimage.


Written by Monte

February 7, 2006 at 2:24 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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