HE IMPORTANCE of the liturgical color white is perhaps something which we too often overlook. After all, white is quite an uninteresting color that, if we even give it a first glance, merely serves as a canvas upon which our eyes can feast on the far more vibrant colors that are on offer. We do this so often that on feasts such as today’s celebration of All Saints, we find that we need to use chasubles which are adorned with gold brocade or fringes or tassels — all in an effort to make up for the seeming ordinariness of the color white.
Now, I am by no means disparaging the use of gold or silver, which are always options according to the general instruction on the missal, but rather simply remarking that of all of the colors, it is white that represents the Saints and the highest feasts of our liturgical year. How “ordinary”.
It was in this light that I was profoundly moved by a passage from Chesterton on the subject of nothing more than a simple piece of chalk:
“But as I sat scrawling these silly figures on the brown paper, it began to dawn on me, to my great disgust, that I had left one chalk, and that a most exquisite and essential chalk, behind. I searched all my pockets, but I could not find any white chalk. Now, those who are acquainted with all the philosophy (nay, religion) which is typified in the art of drawing on brown paper, know that white is positive and essential. I cannot avoid remarking here upon a moral significance. One of the wise and awful truths which this brown-paper art reveals, is this, that white 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 abstinence 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 gaudily, as when He paints in white. In a sense our age has realized this fact, and expressed it in our sullen costume. For if it were really true that white was a blank and colourless thing, negative and non-commital, then white would be used instead of black and grey for the funeral dress of this pessimistic period. We should see city gentlemen in frock coats of spotless silver satin, with top hats as white as wonderful arum lilies. Which is not the case…”
[From GK Chesterton’s “A Piece of Chalk” (click here for full text)]
The image which Chesterton paints here is one of “fire” — indeed, as he points out, the hottest fires don’t burn red and orange, but white as a star. He describes white as a thing that is full of vitality: a brightness that, in the lives of the Saints, comes from the perfection of virtue that they attained to through the sight of God, and where they now participate in the eternal liturgy of the wedding feast of the lamb.
In truth, there can be no color less ordinary than white; and so consequently, there can be no color that is more appropriate with which to celebrate this great feast. Perhaps, then, through our participation in today’s feast of All Saints, we might have enflamed in hearts an even greater desire for the whiteness that the Saints already possess through a life lived in virtue and in perfection of charity.
Omnes Sancti et Sanctae Dei, intercedite pro nobis!
After this I saw a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and tribes, and peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne, and in sight of the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands: And they cried with a loud voice, saying: Salvation to our God, who sitteth upon the throne, and to the Lamb. i> [Rev 7: 9-10]
We hope you enjoyed this guest article by Christopher Owens.
Artwork courtesy of Orbis Catholicus.