White Chalk

Michael Metzger

G. K. Chesterton believed white chalk reveals the wonders of chastity.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton was born in 1874. He was raised Unitarian but credited his wife Frances with moving him to Anglicanism. It wasn’t until 1908—the year Chesterton published Orthodoxy—that he confessed to being a Christian. For the next 14 years he would wrestle with the damage done by modernity. [If you’re unfamiliar with the term modernity, watch this three-and-a-half-minute video.]

Chesterton began to assess the damage in his 1909 book, Tremendous Trifles. The title is taken from sacramental traditions where God is present in everything. What appears to be a trifle is actually tremendous. In this collection of essays, Chesterton crystallized the damage in a sentence that would go on to be inscribed on buildings and quoted by popes: “The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.”[1]

One of the wonders is abstinence. Chesterton highlights this in an essay titled “A Piece of Chalk.” Having gone to art school, he describes setting out to do some drawing with his chalks only to find he’d forgotten his white chalk. White is essential. White is a color. It is not merely the absence of color. It is “a shining and affirmative thing.” As white is to art, so is virtue to religion. Virtue is a positive thing; not merely “the absence of dangers or the avoidance of moral dangers…Chastity does not mean abstention from sexual wrong; it means something flaming, like Joan of Arc.”

Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. Earlier in life she had taken a vow of chastity. Chesterton wrote about her in Orthodoxy. He said it was impossible to think about Joan of Arc’s faith without realizing “perhaps some secret of moral unity has been lost.” The secret? The moral unity of abstinence, knowing what we abstain from as well as what we’re wondrously saved for.

I didn’t know about this wondrous unity for most of my 50 years as a Christian. I assumed abstinence was merely the absence of sex before marriage. Yes, we talked a bit about the affirmative aspects—preventing affairs, divorce, more fulfilling marital sex. Then I began reading behavioral studies of Christians who were abstinent before marriage. The picture is not pretty. I began to wonder what we’d lost in promoting abstinence as we do.

I found out a few years later. I attended a Theology of the Body course led by Christopher West. Christopher is popularizing Pope John 11’s 1970s addresses on the topic of why do we have a body? The pope’s teaching is based on 2,000 years of theological reflection on this question. In this course I discovered what we’re missing: white chalk. Abstinence is not merely saving you from sex before marriage, it is saving you for something flaming, the best sex ever. It can be here and now in marriage (if the Lord wills) but it is also in eternity with Christ our husband as we prepare to be presented to him a pure virgin (II Cor.11:2). Preparation is seeing the moral unity of abstinence, what we abstain from… and the wonder of what we abstain for. I discovered the world will never starve for want of this wonder.

I don’t know if Chesterton discovered any of this during his 14 years of wrestling with modernity. I do know Pope Benedict XV canonized Joan of Arc in 1920. Chesterton converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism in 1922. I suspect it was in part because Catholicism did a better job of wrestling with modernity than Anglicanism. But it could also be the result of pondering a seemingly small trifle: white chalk.

Not so small after all.


[1] Gilbert K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles (Indo-European Publishing, 2018), 7.


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