The following passages are excerpted from Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, a “non-memoir” by Lauren Winner. © 2012 by Lauren Winner. Reprinted by permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Middles might be said to be under-theorized. There is an abundance of work on opening and closure, but very little discussion of…what comes in between. This is obviously because the theory of the middle is taken simply to be the theory of the work as a whole. Beginnings and endings are marked points within the work, but the middle is just the work itself with those points lopped off…. There is however perhaps more to be said.
HERE AT WHAT I think is the beginning of the middle of my spiritual life, I begin to notice that middle rarely denotes something good. Middle school—when girls turn mean, and all kids turn miserable—is that “wasteland of our primary and secondary landscape,” the “crack” between grammar school and high school. And middles are often defined by what they are not: the space, the years in between that which is no longer what came before and that which is not yet what will come later. The Middle Ages are those centuries after antiquity and before modernity—and while somewhat more neutral than the baldly pejorative “Dark Ages,” the term “Middle Ages” implies that the stretch of time under consideration is less interesting than the exaltations of classical grandeur or the wonders of today.
I am not thrilled by the idea that I am entering a vague in-between, after the intensity of conversion and before the calm wisdom of cronehood. I don’t like to think that I am embarking on an extended sojourn into the spiritual equivalent of middle school, all insecurity and queen bee alpha girls. I begin to look for other middles, middles with more specificity, more grist.
My friend Samuel, who is a chess player, tells me about the middle game, how in chess the middle game is not merely whatever happens between the opening and the endgame. The middle game is where players stake out their strategies. There is a standard repertoire of openings in chess, only so many plausible ways to start a game—the Queen’s Gambit, the Ruy Lopez. But in the middle game, very little is scripted. The middle game is where creativity begins, where tactical daring and subtlety take over. In the middle game, everything is open.
There are middles in architecture and design, too. I learn that churches of the fourteenth-century middle-point style were characterized by lots and lots of windows, whole cathedral walls given over to stained glass and tracery, trifoliate windows insistent with light.
One morning I am reading the journal of an eighteenth-century English minister. He describes hauling barley to something called a middlestead, which turns out to be the threshing floor of a barn, where the inedible hull of the wheat is loosened and removed. It is as if John the Baptist has called down to my library carrel, telling me the same thing about Jesus that he told his original audience two thousand years ago: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into his barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” The middle of the spiritual life may have many windows, and lots and lots of light, but it will also be a season of winnowing.
I remain on the lookout for other middles.
Few areas of grammar are as poorly understood as those characterized by the old term “middle voice.”
Students are wandering, in a daze, out of a Greek class. They are stumped by the middle voice. “I just don’t get it. I just don’t see the need,” says a girl in a purple skirt. I, too, have never been sure I understand the grammatical middle—the middle voice, which we don’t have in English, but which you find in ancient Greek and also in Tamil, in Sanskrit, in Creek, in Old Norse. The middle voice darts back and forth between the active and the passive. When you are somewhere between the agent and the one acted upon. When you have something done to you. I will have myself carried. I will have myself saved.
Many languages that don’t have a full-fledged middle voice still have what linguists call “middle markers.” Begin listening closely for hints of the middle in English and you will hear That scotch drank smoothly; politicians bribe easily. I like these English almost-middles; their sentences wink and allure; I like to picture the sense they make. Middles imply an agent who, while not identified in the sentence, is necessary (someone is quaffing that scotch; someone is waving an envelope of cash under your senator’s nose). Middles are also known by how their subject behaves. One old definition—it has fallen out of favor with some linguists, who say the many middles of the world’s tongues demand more nuance, but I find it helpful nonetheless—is that the middle is used when a subject is affected by the action of the verb; when the verb somehow transforms, reshapes the subject.
Beyond that, you use the middle voice when the subject has some characteristic, some quality, that makes it partially responsible for whatever has happened in the sentence. So the middle is used in those sentences in which the subject is changed by the action of the sentence, but the subject is not just being passively acted upon; something in its own qualities, its own characteristics, is necessary for the action, too—if the scotch weren’t smooth, it wouldn’t drink well; if the senator weren’t corrupt, she wouldn’t bribe easily.
Linguists say it is hard to generalize about the many languages with middles; it is hard to categorize the many different kinds of verbs that seem to call for the middle voice in Old Norse, in Greek. Yet students of the middle voice will allow that certain situations take the middle in language after language: emotion verbs, like grieve and mourn, seem to want the middle voice; so do verbs that describe moving your body without changing your overall position (turn, but not run; bow, but not dive) and verbs that name a change in bodily posture but not much motion (lie down, kneel). Also, the middle likes actions that are necessarily mutual, necessarily reciprocal (embrace, greet, converse), verbs for speech actions with emotional overtones (confess), verbs of cognition (think), and verbs of spontaneous happening (grow, become, change), as well as verbs that capture a person caring for her own body (washing one’s hands).
These middle verbs, it seems to me, are religious; they are the very actions that constitute a religious life: to forgive, to imagine, to grow, to yearn, to lament, to meet, to kneel. To have one’s body doused in the waters of baptism. To ponder.
All of which suggests to me that the middle is the language of spirituality, of devotion, the language of religious choreography. 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.
If English had a middle voice, I would use it to speak of prayer: I would let the middle remind me that I am changed by this action, by these words, this supplicant’s posture; I would let the middle tell me, too, how there is something about me that allows the action to take place—my desire, my endless need. And I would let the middle bespeak the hidden agent, the One who animates my prayer, though undisclosed, though sometimes even forgotten. If I could make English speak a middle voice, I would use it to tell you what little I know about belief, about worship, about impatience, about love. If I could make English speak middle, I would use it to say this: I wait; I doubt; as the deer yearns for a drink of water, so I yearn. I long. I praise.
[U]pon the strength of the middle tint depends, in a great measure, the general look of the picture. By the middle tint is meant the medium between the extreme dark and extreme light….The management of light and shade, as relates to a whole, ought to be always present in the student’s mind, as it is from inattention to this alone that a work is often destroyed in its progress.
———————————————————-—John Burnet, Practical Essays on Art, 1830
At the Cape Ann Museum in Gloucester, Massachusetts, looking at Fitz Lane’s The Western Shore with Norman’s Woe, an 1862 oil painting of a cove, water, a few clouds, a boat. It is distinguished by its palette, by what critics in the nineteenth century would have called middle tint—that is, the grays, the browns and blues and dull brick reds, not bright; the colors that do not sing out for your attention; the colors you might not notice if you are not looking for them. They are the gray curve of Lane’s rocks, the enormous expanse of ochre sky. They are the putty of buildings that dominate a canvas but do not draw the eye. Middle tint makes the shadows in your painting; without it, your canvas would look flat. Standing here in this museum before Lane’s great landscape, you might not linger on the middle tint, but without it, you would not be able to see the bright sharp clouds, the curve of stark black earth that holds your eye.
John Ruskin, the nineteenth-century art critic, said that the truly skilled painter devoted most of his canvas to middle tint. In a great landscape, there is “excessively small quantity, both of extreme light and extreme shade, all the mass of the picture being graduated and delicate middle tint…. The middle tint is laid before the dark colors, and before the lights.” The painter should follow nature, said Ruskin; nature’s landscapes are mostly all “middle tint, in which she will have as many gradations as you please” and only there in those miles of humble, sleeping green and brown does nature “touch her extreme lights, and extreme darks, isolated and sharp, so that the eye goes to them directly, and feels them to be key-notes of the whole composition.”
Perhaps middle tint is the palette of faithfulness. Middle tint is going to church each week, opening the prayer book each day. This 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.
Maybe now in the middle, after the conversion, after ten years, on into twenty years, faithfulness is about recognizing that most of my hours will be devoted to painting the middle tint, the sky, the hillside on which no one will comment, the hillside that no one, really, will see. Maybe this is prayer most of the time, for most of my life; I will barely notice it; you will barely notice it; against this landscape of subtle grays, occasionally I will speak in tongues, occasionally I will hear an annunciation.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.