Living in Active Voice

Living in Active Voice

Today’s guest blogger, Joe McHugh, is a spiritual director, retreat leader, teacher, and writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the National Catholic Reporter. His book, Startled by God: Wisdom from Unexpected Places, will be published by Franciscan Media in October 2013. He can be contacted at

My mom’s high school graduation gift to me was a copy of The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. “Study this,” she told me, “and you’ll learn how to write.” Whether I ever learned how to write is still in dispute, but ever since she gave me that little book, I’ve studied it, taught it, and still regularly consult it.

“Use the active voice,” Strunk advises would-be writers. “The active voice is usually more direct than the passive.”

OK, quick grammar review. The subject of the sentence does something in the active voice: Ted read the Bible. But in the passive voice, the subject is acted upon: The Bible was read by Ted. As a tribute to Strunk’s influence, as soon as I typed this last sentence, Microsoft’s grammar police screamed at me by revising it to read, “Ted read the Bible.”

I’m afraid far too many of us—myself included—live and believe in the passive voice. I’m not talking about the action and passivity, giving and receiving, and action and contemplation that lie at the heart of all healthy relationships with others and with God. These are patterns of engagement.

Living in the passive voice is a fear-induced pattern of disengagement from life: just letting things happen to us, refusing to engage our personal power to make decisions and partner with God to let new life flourish.

Believing in the active voice means we engage the grace we’re offered to be more fully alive in God with Christ—in fidelity, graciousness, and courage.




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  • K. Clader

    As a former writing teacher, I appreciate the nod to Strunk and White. It’s an interesting, thought-provoking and (for me) “comfortable” analogy. It’s also a great starting point for further reflection. What came to mind after reading this entry was that the challenge of engaging with God in contemplative prayer is in learning how to actively quiet the mind, making it passive and less intrusive. There’s a paradox in that, I suppose, since we actively seek a “passive” openness to permit the Active Voice to be heard. I suppose that’s like saying we discover the active voice through the passive, at least in terms of prayer.

  • Davik Kay

    The discipline of a Samauri comes from years of practice. The purity of intention and honor are clear in Joe McHugh’s tale.
    There was a Viet Nam era t-shirt which read, “Kill ’em all and let God sort it out.” What if the warrior just wreaked his vengeance and ‘let God sort it out’?
    Pure intentions get tangled up in my trying to “kill two birds with one stone’. For example, I am reading about how to become more spiritual through fasting. How convenient to shed a few unwanted pounds in the process.
    How do I approach this once the weight loss “piggybacks” onto the fasting?
    Is it a temptation, a stupid guilt trip, or a blessing as a pleasant useful side effect of fasting?
    In any case, I like the honor element. Hope I’m not playing darts in a fencing match here.

  • Davik Kay

    The one thing a musician, any artist for that matter, has to learn is to practice. Pick up your instrument. Put your hands on the keys, strings, or your mouth on the mouthpiece. It’s not going to jump up there by itself.
    Practice, practice, years and years of it. Then, one day the music will just come to you. Do it, do it, do it. Don’t just wait for it to happen.
    Thanks, Joe McHugh.

  • Davik Kay

    Hmmmm-I did it vs I was moved to do it. God did it to me vs I was moved by God to do it. Yep, I ate vs She offered it to me, so I ate it.

  • Stephanie Smallwood Zajchowski

    “engaging the grace we are offered”……a beautiful message.

  • Bob Pierson

    Thanks, Joe. I have been living in the passive voice for a long time. It’s sometimes called religious life. When obedience becomes passivity, and I allow myself to be acted upon rather than making concrete choices, my life does not “speak” as clearly as when I actively choose to live the way I live. Bob Pierson OSB