If you don’t remember high school English, the active voice and the passive voice are two ways we relate verbs (or actions) to their subjects. If I say “the cat ate the mouse,” the word “ate” is in the active voice. But if I say “the mouse was eaten by the cat,” “was eaten” is in the passive voice. The active voice is active: with it, you act, and you are not acted upon. But the passive voice is passive, connected with things that are acted upon.: “you are mocked,” “you are helped,” etc.
However, the middle voice describes a verb that makes its subject both active and passive at the same time. English doesn’t have a middle voice, but Biblical Hebrew and New Testament Greek do, as do Albanian, Sanskrit, Icelandic, Swedish, and a few other languages. An example of the middle voice would be something like “The boy washes,” when it’s understood that the boy is washing himself. In English, you’d ask “Who is the boy washing? His dog? His feet? His car?” But the object of the sentence is the subject. “The boy washes.” Period. Full Stop. Who washes? The boy! Who is washed? The same boy!
This bizarre situation is, nevertheless, commonplace. We encounter it every day. I will give two examples of places where we encounter the middle voice: touch and prayer. In a sense, they are both the same thing, but we will only come to that point slowly.
When we touch another person, whether in a handshake, a pat on the back, or an embrace, we simultaneously are touched. Active and passive together. The Middle Voice. This seems pretty straightforward, right? But it has profound consequences. Take trauma, for example. The thesis I have been writing in my grad program is about trauma and how people deal with it, specifically in art and literature. And in my survey of the topic, I noticed some fascinating things. People suffering from PTSD withdraw from the world with their bodies. Their muscles tighten. They exhibit more-or-less constant fight-or-flight responses. They have declared the world an enemy. They cannot relax. This is a regrettable situation, one not unlike the autism spectrum disorder I suffer from. But touch therapy is amazingly helpful.
I have a friend who suffers from PTSD. She has a friend who is a massage therapist. When she finally volunteered for touch therapy, she initially resisted the presence of the other person’s touch. In a sense, she touched the other person with her skin, but she would not let herself be touched. She was not vulnerable. But when she relaxed, when she let in the pressure and felt safe doing so, when she let herself be touched, she began to weep. And she didn’t stop crying for three hours. A burden was lifted in a way nothing else could do.
When we are traumatized we cannot have both self and other at the same time. I cannot let you in. To the traumatized mind, it’s not safe enough. PTSD, in this sense, is a radical distrust of being. One touches, perhaps, and others can touch you, but never together. One is always on alert: like a startled cat, your shoulders are arched and your eyes are wide open, albeit constantly. All of life is life-or-death, or at least it seems that way. The traumatized person, therefore, needs to feel safe. That’s what PTSD therapy seeks to do. Mindfulness helps with this. So does art. And as I mentioned, so does touch. Each of these, to my mind, are ways of acting in the middle voice. When we are mindful of our fear, we both watch and are watched. When we represent our pain through art, we are both the painter and the subject of the painting. And in touch we are vulnerable, both the toucher and the one touched.
Prayer is like this. In it, I become naked before God. I tell him all my fears and insecurities. I speak out my anxiety, my depression, and my self-hatred to an empty room, and suddenly an inexplicable “something” comes into my heart not unlike the effect of a hug or a tender hand on a shoulder. I begin to empty myself of myself, to loosen my muscles. I lose my fear. For, like touch, prayer can make me feel safe. When I pray, just as in touch, I feel myself on both sides of a barrier. I loosen my shoulders. I relax, perhaps weep. I feel I could walk into a battlefield and be completely safe. That I am “encircled about eternally in the arms of his love,” to quote Lehi.
Prayer is this eternal embrace. It is the act where God and the soul touch, where something invisible yet very present is exchanged. Sometimes it’s illumination. Sometimes it’s comfort. Sometimes it’s a voice of warning. But is this illumination your thoughts? Your feelings? That’s the wrong way of looking at it. It is not active self-suggestion, and it’s not passive ecstasy, any more than touch is exclusively active or passive. You speak, and then you listen. You act, and then you receive. But in the best prayer, you enter the middle voice, and these acts become one. Acting is receiving. This can work on a small scale, when you ask for a small blessing and it comes, albeit without heavenly trumpets, or on a large scale, as when Enos had a “mighty wrestle before God” for his own soul and the welfare of his Lamanite brothers and sisters.
But sometimes this doesn’t happen. Sometimes prayer is awkward. Sometimes nothing happens. May I suggest for those in this state that action is and can be a kind of prayer. So if the heavens are quiet, if nothing moves, realize that your works themselves can be the answer to your prayer. Go and act in the way you think God would have you act. Make your acts of service a psalm. Offer up your voice in your deeds. And then, perhaps, inexplicably, you’ll discover that God was guiding you invisibly the whole time. This is familiar to writers who, when writing a rough draft, discover gems in the text that they did not expect or intend. Anyone who’s borne a testimony and found themselves compelled to speak words greater than their own knows this lesson. You are more than you. Your activity is also a passivity. You works are a grace.
My girlfriend wrote a poem expressing this point. I consider it inspired. An excerpt from it reads
If you want to hear the chorus of angels,
You just need to sing.”
How do you bring God into the world when he is absent? Pray, yes. But don’t forget to act. Have confidence that your actions, guided by your conscience, mean more than you think they do. They are full of significance that you can’t anticipate. You act, and so you are acted upon. The best prayer, and the best thought, is both action and passivity at once. You don’t look back. You only look ever forward.
I bear you my testimony that God lives, that you can reach him through prayer. You are safe. You are listened to. You are loved.
I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, His Son.