What’s in the Middle Matters

I learned something today.  There seems to me to be a universe out there of new stuff to learn.  What happened to all the knowledge I had when I was twenty-five?  Clearly a whole bunch of new stuff came to be during the time between then and now.  That is the only reasonable explanation.

As I was leaving the house this morning [yesterday] for a reading/reflection time at Cedarcrest, I picked up the latest issue of a Journal called Image.  I had gotten a very cheap introductory subscription some months ago but had not taken the time to do any more than glance at an article or two.  I was in need of some new material for reflection.  I sat in the van overlooking acres of thick grass bordered by forested rolling hills.  It is in those woods that I hiked almost daily in preparation for walking the Milford and Kepler Tracks on the South Island of New Zealand a little over a year ago.  I parked in the shade and opened the windows so that the strong, warm Kansas wind (wind advisory today) could carry the outside air across me as I read while holding the pages down.  The local NPR station was in its classical music programming schedule providing some graceful musical elements in concert with the sound the wind.

It is there that I learned a new way to frame my perspective on life.  The essay was titled “Middles.”  Excerpts from a book by Lauren Winner titled Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis were woven together to form the essay.  One commentator on the book from which the excerpts were taken notes that while there is much attention given to beginnings and endings, there is little discussion of what comes in between.

In the excerpted texts Winner mentions Middle School, the Middle Ages, the Middle Voice (one of the voices of a verb in some languages), and the Middle Tint in the visual arts.  As she describes them, she sets the stage for the discovery of a new way of looking at life.

I knew what she was talking about when she described the odd character of Middle School since it seems to be a passage between Elementary School and High School more than anything of its own.  I remember those days well.  The Middle Ages are sometimes called the Dark Ages.  While much happened then, the Renaissance is the Star to which the Middle ages led.

I’m not sure I can explain the Middle Voice with enough clarity to be useful.  Here is a feeble attempt.  There are the Active and Passive voices of verbs in English grammar.  The Middle Voice is precisely that, the Voice that describes a verb which acts upon the subject in front of it, e.g. that scotch drank smoothly, politicians bribe easily, the boy groomed himself, he perjured himself.   Winner contends that most of the verbs of Spiritual Formation are Middle Voice, verbs such as to forgive, to imagine, to grow, to yearn, to lament, to ponder, to meet, to kneel. She says, “It is the middle voice that captures the strange ways activity and passivity dance together in the religious life; it is the voice that tells you that I am changed when I do these things and that there is something about me that allows these happenings to happen; and yet it is the voice that insists that there is another agent at work, another agent always vivifying the action, even when unnamed.” 

The Middle Tint was especially intriguing to me.  I suppose any student of Art knows this.  I didn’t.  Middle Tint refers to the often lighter portions of a painting that provide the backdrop necessary to allow the eye to be drawn to the central content of the piece.

Winner says: “Perhaps middle tint is the palette of faithfulness.  Middle tint…is rote unshowy behavior, and you would not notice it if you weren’t looking for it, but it is necessary; it is most of the canvas; it is the palette that makes possible the gashes of white, the outlines of black; it is indeed that by which the painting will succeed or fail.”

My reflection on Winner’s insights is this:  The day to day life in which we do the work of living responsibly, performing the routine tasks that need to be done, being faithful to those we love, the ordinary stuff of life provides exactly what is needed so that when the times of dramatic growth and discovery come, those exhilarating moments will be bright and clear, our eyes and hearts and spirits drawn to them and we will be changed by them.  Living in the middle is noble work.   It is only boring if we allow it to become so.  Lived well, the middle of life is not only the palette that provides contrast drawing our eyes to the best of who we have become allowing it to shine through clearly, it is the Middle Voice that in some mysterious way makes the best of who we are becoming possible.

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