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GROWING UP CATHOLIC | The importance of chalk

G.K. Chesterton once wrote an entire essay about a piece of chalk. Maybe I’m setting myself up for failure as writer, but I would like to do the same.

Really, chalk is fascinating. I promise. Chesterton begins by describing how, on a hot summer day, he was wilted by the heat and wasn’t doing much in particular. He decided to rouse himself from his over-heated stupor by going for a walk, taking along a sheet of brown butcher paper and a few pieces of chalk. He thought he might become motivated enough to sit on a rock and work on some rough sketches. Because he was a terrible artist, he says he moved beyond representative depictions of nature and instead drew “the soul of a cow.” Soon enough, though, he realized he’d forgotten the piece of white chalk and, without it, could not complete his masterpiece. He was upset and, as he sat on a rock ruminating, began thinking of how many of us experience the frustration of our greatest plans come to ruin.

Suddenly, Chesterton stood up, laughing. He had remembered he was sitting on a rock in southern England. Beneath the turf, literally everything was chalk, every rock as white as the cliffs of Dover. Breaking a piece off the nearest rock peaking out from the soil, he happily used it to complete his sketch.

The point is, the entire world is a possible place of encounter with God. We are standing in the midst of a universe that God has made to reveal himself to us, and even the smallest actions of our daily lives are chalk, the stuff from which we might sketch a masterpiece.

Chalk has long been important in Church tradition. Each year as a parish priest, I bless chalk for the Solemnity of the Epiphany and hand it out for the parishioners to bless their homes. It’s a simple matter to come to church, get a piece of chalk, and mark the blessing over your door. It’s a simple action, but it matters.

Here’s how you do it. The blessing changes slightly each year. For this year, it will be 20 + C + B + M + 21. The number is the year itself split into two parts. The letters in between stand for the names of the three Wise Men who followed the star - Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. The letters are also an acronym for the Latin phrase Christus mansionem benedicat, which means, “May Christ bless this house.” The “+” signs represent the cross, which is the source of the blessing.

The blessing is a sign that God is guards your coming and going, His presence lingers over the threshold and He’s watching over your family in every aspect. It’s a sign that God cares about everything, absolutely everything, that happens in that house. He watches over the wonderful, momentous events down to the smallest chores of family life.

It’s all chalk. The question is — What are you going to draw?

Father Rennier is pastor of Epiphany of Our Lord Parish in St. Louis. A former Anglican priest, he was ordained in 2016 under a pastoral provision for the reception of Anglicans and Episcopalians into full communion with the Catholic Church. He and his wife, Amber, have six children.

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