“[W]hite is a colour. It is not a mere absence of colour; it is a shining and affirmative thing, as fierce as red, as definite as black. When, so to speak, your pencil grows red-hot, it draws roses; when it grows white-hot, it draws stars. And one of the two or three defiant verities of the best religious morality, of real Christianity, for example, is exactly this same thing; the chief assertion of religious morality is that white is a colour. Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is a vivid and separate thing, like pain or a particular smell. Mercy does not mean not being cruel, or sparing people revenge or punishment; it means a plain and positive thing like the sun, which one has either seen or not seen.
Chastity does not mean abstention from sexual wrong; it means something flaming, like Joan of Arc. In a word, God paints in many colours; but he never paints so gorgeously, I had almost said so gaudily, as when He paints in white.”
–G.K. Chesterton, from an article published for Daily News in 1905, “A Piece of Chalk”
Curfew here in LA County is 10 pm tonight instead of 6, as it has been for the previous four nights. Staying close to home hasn’t been a hardship for me.
Yesterday, the Gospel reading was “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Father Joe at Holy Family in South Pasadena gave a simple, beautiful homily at the 8:15 am Mass. He pointed out that Christ lived under a harsh and oppressive government and was thus between a rock and a hard place–counsel people not to pay their taxes and be labeled an insurgent; counsel people to pay their taxes and be labeled a traitor to his own kind.
He was in much the same position we find ourselves today in other words, I added to myself. He, Father Joe, went on to point out that Christ was not a member of a bipartisan political system and thus did not live out his convictions by voting a certain way. Instead, he always tried to do what was right.
Of course he was killed for it. But that was the code he lived by: He always tried to do what was right.
That’s an effort that for each individual leads into a thousand other questions, dilemmas, choices, decisions.
But I’ve thought often in recent days of the Sermon on the Mount: in particular–Blessed are the peacemakers.
We’re urged by certain voices to believe that our civic–and more disturbingly, increasingly our religious–“duty” consists in joining up with this side or that side so that we can then present a united front of hate against the other side.
This is a form of groupthink that, like all groupthink, is prima facie anti-Gospel, and that strikes me as abhorrent.
The peacemaker is not a milquetoast, a coward, a non-participant. The peacemaker feels the sorrow, the anger, the heartbreak, the injustice of “the system,” down to his her her bones–then consents to hold the tension without returning violence for violence.
This is no simple matter–anyone who’s tried it knows you flounder and teeter and fail, and that in many ways you ARE a coward. But I have never seen any form of violence in my own life-whether personal or political–accomplish one single enduring thing except to bring about more violence.
I’ve also been moved, in light of current events, to read up on the one unforgivable sin: blasphemy, which consists in attributing the works of Christ to the devil.
Equally blasphemous, it seems to me, would be the attempt to attribute the works of the devil to Christ.
20 Replies to “G.K. CHESTERTON ON THE COLOR WHITE”
Love it Heather, thank you
Hi there I normally love your column but not today. I think your choice of saying “ when God paints … gorgeous when he paints in white” at the time of the horrid death of George Floyd is easily misinterpreted
How beautiful!! Creator God’s colors deeply touch my heart!
I think your focus on white reminds us that ALL of creation is precious!
Thank you Heather. That is SO beautiful!!! I’ve always felt like Chesterton is so beyond my comprehension, but that was really beautiful!
I never thought of God as painting people in colors, I think God painted people in love. I think people see people in colors only because of the distortion in their upbringing from people who artificially distinguish the”other” by color or a whole host of categories that God never intended.
Yes, Dennis! Though if we’re talking about skin, if anything He clearly has a particular fondness for brown, yellow, bronze, olive, russet, black–so much richer and more depth than our feeble pale fleshly covering…read this Atlantic article–“History Will Judge the Complicit”–while in the dentist’s chair for 3 HOURs yesterday morning. You might enjoy…love to all!
Thanks so much, everybody. Wow–well this is exactly what I mean. It didn’t even occur to me to think of white in terms of the color of PEOPLE–good God. I’m so sorry a passage about art, beauty and the glory of matilija poppies was taken that way, and wishing all a good night–
“I’ve also been moved, in light of current events, to read up on the one unforgivable sin: blasphemy, which consists in attributing the works of Christ to the devil.
“Equally blasphemous, it seems to me, would be the attempt to attribute the works of the devil to Christ.”
This is disturbing to me. I would be interested in reading a post/article/essay from you elaborating this. The thought came to mind of Pope Francis’s remarks about how the Holy Spirit makes chaos in order to bring true harmony out of it – or something to that effect.
Thanks, Paul. With respect to blasphemy, I was thinking in an immediate sense of Trump’s photo-op with the Bible on the steps of the church near the White House. I’ve also been thinking of something that bears a full essay but in brief re the Church scandals. I’m horrified, saddened, shaken by priestly abuse of children. But everybody at least agrees on the fact that corruption of that kind is hideously wrong, the gravest kind of offense against innocence. The behavior is an offense against innocence, not against truth. What scandalizes me is the instruction by certain Church leaders to vote for a political candidate, specifically Trump. on the basis of the the fact that he is “pro-life”–when he is so clearly anti-life, on every level, in any meaningful sense. To reduce our duty of intellectual discernment and ongoing examination of conscience to one “issue,” however important the issue, seems to me an actual doctrinal error. For whatever it’s worth, this is from someone who has had abortions, will suffer the wound all my life (while also taking full responsibility for it), and have written a 10,00-word book-length essay about my own experience with healing.
Absolutely, Robert. I would have hoped that all my work, my twelve books, my weekly column, ten years of posts, and for those who know me personally, my life and heart, would have established beyond all doubt that I abhor violence of all kinds (while meanwhile accusing myself all too often of same), that I believe the murder of George Floyd to be a hideous wrong, that I stand with all who decry and weep over racial inequality and violence.
This blog, for example, to which I’ve devoted thousands of hours of labor, energy and heart, and that I offer to the world at no cost, I hope is emblematic an entire existence devoted to bringing all people together, fostering and nurturing all, promoting beauty, truth, goodness, peace, and life in all forms and all its fullness. I’m off to a live Mass, for the first time in two and a half months, but will perhaps want to add a bit later. Thank you and God bless you!
Hi again, Robert and all:
Mass was so beautiful. A banner on the door: “Welcome Home.”
I will just add this:
As a result of my writing, I have many many people come to me for various reasons, wanting and needing various things. Perhaps the person wants to share a story. Perhaps the person wants to run a momentous decision by me: should I join the convent? Should I come out to my parents? How can I stop trolling for anonymous S-M sex? I’m a priest and I’m an alcoholic, or a porn addict. Perhaps the person wants spiritual direction of some kind. Perhaps the person has just discovered her husband has molested their son. Do I only offer myself to people with the same political leanings that I have? Do I shun the Dennis Prager devotee (or if you’re coming from the other side, the Rachel Maddow devotee) whose heart is hemorrhaging—or do I open my own heart, realizing one more time that we are all like sheep without a shepherd?
It’s a strange little vocation and to try to stay true to it while foregoing a tribe (as opposed to a fellowship, a community, or the Mystical Body) is to voluntarily forego a certain level of security, comfort, ease. It is a form of voluntary poverty. It leaves me without cushioning cartilage when misunderstood, unfairly accused or attacked.
So be it. But let’s try to look for the goodness in each other, not for ugliness and darkness where none exist.
I would like to hear more about why you think it is a doctrinal error. I like so many other people of faith struggle with how this President who has stood up for the unborn could otherwise seem so morally blind. I think of him as being anti-abortion, rather than pro-life. I don’t know if that make sense to you. If I am being really honest my heart breaks when I talk with really solid and kind Christians that defend him to the bitter end. At the best of times I can only pray for him instead of getting caught up in the chaos that seems to surround him and our country. Thank you for your thoughtful essays. Praying you continue to have strength to carry on your unique ministry.
Barbara, hi, and yes–anti-abortion as opposed to pro-life to me makes perfect sense.
To answer your question more fully, I guess I would say that to suggest a follower of Christ should vote for a political candidate on the sole basis that he or she claims to be “pro-life” is an error against the doctrines of truth, conscience, and simple common sense.
This is from Pope St John Paul II, from The Holy Father’s 9th in a series of Addresses to the United States Bishops on the occasion of their Ad limina visit on June 27, 1998, entitled “Consciences Must Be Formed to Discern the Objective Moral Law.”
“At its roots, the contemporary crisis of moral culture is a crisis of understanding of the nature of the human person. As pastors and teachers of the Church of Christ, you remind people that the greatness of human beings is founded precisely in their being creatures of a loving God, who gave them the capacity to know the good and to choose it, and who sent his Son to be the final and unsurpassable witness to the truth about the human condition: “In Christ and through Christ, God has revealed himself fully to mankind and has definitively drawn close to it; at the same time, in Christ and through Christ man has acquired full awareness of his dignity, of the heights to which he is raised, of the surpassing worth of his own humanity, and of the meaning of his existence” (Redemptor hominis, n. II). In Christ, we know that “the good of the person lies in being in the Truth and doing the Truth” (Address to the International Congress of Moral Theology, 10 April 1986, n. 1).
In this Christian anthropology, the nobility of men and women lies, not simply in the capacity to choose, but in the capacity to choose wisely and to live according to that choice of what is good. In all of visible creation, only the human person chooses reflectively. Only the human person can discern between good and evil, and give reasons justifying that discernment. Only human beings can make sacrifices for what is good and true. That is why, throughout Christian history, the martyr remains the paradigm of discipleship: for the martyr lives out the relationship between truth, freedom and goodness in the most radical way.
The Church honours conscience as the “sanctuary” of the human person…: here, men and women are “alone with God”, whose voice echoes in the depths of their hearts, summoning them to love good and avoid evil (cf. Gaudium et spes, n. 16)….
Everyone must act in accordance with conscience…Thus it is precisely a defense of the dignity of conscience and of the human person to teach that consciences must be formed, so that they can discern what actually does or does not correspond to the “eternal, objective and universal divine law” which human intelligence is capable of discovering in the order of being (cf. Dignitatis humanae, n. 3; Veritatis splendor, n. 60).” [bold mine]
So I think if we apply our human conscience and intelligence we are obligated to consider the candidates’s stance on the whole spectrum of issues that touch on human life, and to consider that stance within the context of Christ’s teachings and his command to love our neighbor as ourselves. The Church, to cite just a very few examples, is for humanitarian treatment of the criminal, for the rights of immigrants and racial minorities, for caring for “our common home” against the depredations of climate change; against capital punishment, euthanasia, gun violence ; the monstrous evil of nuclear weapons, the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few while so many of our citizens go without food, shelter, health care and decent education. On a more general level, the Church is for sharing, not hoarding; on welcoming the widow, the orphan and the alien, not on shutting them out. To pluck a single issue out of all of those, again no matter how important the issue, and to vote accordingly while washing my hands of or turning a blind eye to the rest strikes me as a gross abdication of moral responsibility. That may leave us with NO-ONE to vote for. It may leave us voting for a candidate with whose stance we agree on most issues, but not all. If our informed conscience leads us to vote for a candidate solely on the basis that he or she wants to outlaw abortion, so be it. That is between you and God. My objection is to the line of thought that decrees that as followers of Christ we can ONLY in good conscience vote for the candidate who wants to outlaw abortion, completely apart from his or her stance on any other issue, and also of his or her quality as a human being; of basic decency. That would impose upon us a line of thinking and action that is simply absurd. And Christ never ever calls us to be absurd.
I hope that helps. The mandate, to my way of thinking, is to foster my mind, heart, speech, actions so as to help create a world where every child is welcomed, every mother thoroughly supported, the family fostered and encouraged and in which abortion would therefore be simply unthinkable.
Heather: I have been reading your blog regularly for the past 7-8 years… Feel like we know you and your heart… And did not interpret the Chesterton quote in any racial sense. It is Chesterton for goodness sake! Please do not worry or question your work or value… You are appreciated. God’s blessings to you.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart. These are days of deep pondering. I begin to better understand how Christ came to “know human nature well.” This is ever more a time to support one another in love and peace…please know that you are appreciated, too.
Robert, thank you so much! Apology accepted and we will think no more about it!
If some principle of fair play can be worked out here so another can thus be spared another from suffering, and so that peace and good will may spread out in some small way to the world, so much the better. Please know I’m deeply grateful for your support and readership.
I appreciate your detailed and sound theological answer to my inquiry. I will read it over and hopefully get my husband to look at it. I loved your last paragraph and give it a hearty amen.
I do hate that I feel my vote is wasted because I can’t in good conscience vote for someone who believes in abortion as a right for any reason at any stage of the pregnancy. I also can’t bring myself to vote for someone who is anti-abortion but not pro-life (as I see it) I have a hard time understanding that some of the people I really admire can’t see an unborn child as a person.
I like to “hoard” your blogs. That means I wait a week or two until I look.at your post, and then I spend a chunk of time reading them. It gives me something to look forward to.
Anyhow God Bless and keep plucking away.
Oh Barb, thank you so much. Right–the voting I always feel between a rock and a hard place. I think holding the tension, praying we’ve voted for the greater good for all, in every area, as best we can is part of the Cross. If only it were as easy as narrowing our decision down to a single issue while utterly ignoring the rest…I’m thinking of a photo I once saw of Dietrich Bonhoeffer with his family (who he would soon of course put in mortal peril, along with himself), and comparing it with a photo of Hitler. Hitler looked very very sure of himself, while Bonhoeffer looked exactly as you WOULD look if your convictions were very probably going to lead to your execution. Anyway, I’ve been “pondering these things” and many others in my heart these past couple of weeks. And it’s a huge consolation to know that the care I take in sometimes putting those thoughts to paper, and though I often misstep, is appreciated. You keep plucking away, too!
LA’s Archbishop Gomez referred this week to the BLASPHEMY of racial injustice, which is just the right word…thanks, Robert.