Blue: Notes on the Color of a Receptive Mind

Whatever I might have known of this before (and I do recall reading this beautiful essay among others), I have just relearned it. Blue is the color of contemplation because it is “in effect looking at darkness through light, or (we could say) from the viewpoint of light” (39). This and much more are expounded in The Meaning of Blue: Recovering a Contemplative Spirit by Luke Bell, a Benedictine monk at Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight, off the south coast of England. The dark depths of outer space and of the sea are blue when viewed from a place filled with light.

We ourselves can be places filled with light as Christ teaches in Matthew 6:22. “The light of the body is the eye: if therefore your eye be single, your whole body will be full of light.” Likewise, the pure in heart see themselves upon the sapphire sea that stretches out before the throne of God (Matthew 5:8).

Homer has no word for blue, but the earliest Christians did and assigned profound meanings to it. For example, we read in The Skemmata of Evagrius Ponticus (AD 345 to 399):

If you wish to see the transparency of your own spirit you must rid yourself of all thoughts, and then you will see yourself looking like sapphire or the color of heaven.

Here is this same passage in another translation with a little more context:

If one wishes to see the state of the mind, let him deprive himself of all representations, and then he will see the mind appear similar to sapphire or the color of the sky. But to do that without being passionless is impossible, for one must have the assistance of God who breathes into him the kindred light.

…When the mind—after having stripped off the old man—has been reclothed in one who comes from grace, then it will see its state, at the moment of prayer, similar to sapphire or to the color of the sky. This is what Scripture describes as the place of God—what was seen by the ancients on Mount Sinai.

This significance of the color blue or azure is beautifully expounded by Fr. Sergius Bulgakov in a sermon for the Annunciation. He describes this as a day when the whole church is “clothed in light-blue vestments and human souls radiate azure, offering it at the feet of the Mother of God beneath her heavenly veil.” Giving the reasons for this, he says:

The Infinite cosmic space, manifesting with its emptiness that non-being out of which the world was called to being by the Omnipotent One, is suffused by His light to its very depths. The cosmic space receives into itself and preserves the coalescing light; the dark void of non-being is clothed in heavenly azure; colorlessness is clothed in color. The light-blue depths of the sky are a direct image of God’s creation; that which did not exist received the light of being, the creative Word; and this nothing became the world, the creation of God. And upon this creation reposes God’s love, and beams of grace flow into it. The light-blue sky is the image of the gracious illumination of the creature, of that deification by virtue of which the nothingness of the creature is clothed in the beauty of Divine Glory. And in this dense, coalesced azure, lights begin to shine which are ignited from the one Light of lights. The azure of the sky symbolizes God’s condescension toward the world, creation’s reception of God’s gifts, God’s meeting with the creature. (Cited in Churchly Joy: Orthodox Devotions for the Church Year.)

We see much of this also in The Meaning of Blue: Recovering a Contemplative Spirit by Luke Bell:

If you look at the sky overhead on a clear day, it is bright blue. This is because you are looking at darkness (the darkness of outer space) through the atmosphere illuminated by the sun. You are in effect looking at darkness through light, or (we could say) from the viewpoint of light.

Blue is dark seen from light. It is therefore the color of the light-filled, the spiritually realized.

…One who is light-filled contemplates darkness in peace. The light-bearer herself, Mary the Mother of God, is traditionally associated with blue. It is her color because she bears the light of the world in her, and in her there is no darkness.

Blue is the color of contemplation, of one who ponders in the heart what is heard and seen. It is the color of one who sees deeply, who looks into the water (as into the sky) and, from light, sees the darkness of its depth. It is the color of one who contemplates eternity. The sea, in its vast depth and breadth, is a symbol of eternity; according to an Arab proverb, looking at the sea is as good as praying. Its blue color reflects the gaze of one who looks toward God. The earth is largely blue when viewed from space. The color is  indicative of one who is receptive to the mystery of creation and  sees it (and its God-gifted meaning) whole. Blue is the color of one who is in no way benighted, who is light-filled, who sees everything in its totality.

If we consider blue now from the point of view of the color itself, rather than the one who sees it, we can see its aptness for symbolizing contemplation. It takes in rather than gives out, as a contemplative person will take in what is being said to him or her rather than  giving out opinions. Blue is a cool color, not just because water can be cool (it doesn’t need to be) but because in taking in rather than  giving out light it concomitantly takes in rather than gives out heat. The coolness is apt for contemplation: if you look at something  coolly, you are looking at it in a way that is not distorted by the heat  of passion. You are looking at it objectively, as it really is; you are  contemplating it. Blue is associated with purity undistorted by passion. “Unto the pure all things are pure.” Blue stands for truth and  the intellect (in the traditional sense explained above of the capacity  for spiritual vision and intuitive knowledge of God), as well as chastity, piety, and peace. Because the color of the sky is blue, it symbolizes the void: primal simplicity and infinite space, which, being empty, can contain everything. The one who contemplates is similarly empty of preconception and prejudice and, having no partiality, can see everything and take in the whole. Note that the  contemplated, the contemplator, and contemplation are, each of them, symbolized by the one color, blue, just as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Holy Trinity, is one God.

…Let the color blue stand for that peace and rapture that can characterize the sense of wholeness in which perception transcends the fragmentation of  individuality. This peace is an obscure glimpse of our ultimate home, paradise. Blue speaks of that home. As the color of the sky and of water, it is associated with what is far away, deep, transparent, and immaterial; it is therefore the color of God, who is Spirit, and of those who worship Him “in spirit and in truth.” It is the color of fidelity, since heaven, symbolized by the blue firmament, does not change.

I once memorized “The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe” by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1882) because I loved everything about it, and now it takes on even further meanings. This excerpt focuses on the way in which blue is the color of a sky that lets through all the colors of sunlight:

Again, look overhead
How air is azurèd;
O how! nay do but stand
Where you can lift your hand
Skywards: rich, rich it laps
Round the four fingergaps.
Yet such a sapphire-shot,
Charged, steepèd sky will not
Stain light. Yea, mark you this:
It does no prejudice.
The glass-blue days are those
When every colour glows,
Each shape and shadow shows.
Blue be it: this blue heaven
The seven or seven times seven
Hued sunbeam will transmit
Perfect, not alter it.
Or if there does some soft,
On things aloof, aloft,
Bloom breathe, that one breath more
Earth is the fairer for.

In speakings of earth’s beauty, the sky has a unique place as we see in landscape paintings and in the descriptions of creation’s beauty in “Glory to God for All Things: An Akathist of Thanksgiving” which was written in Russia by Metropolitan Tryphon of Turkestan (Prince Boris Petrovich Turkestanov) not long before his death in 1934 and during the height of communist persecution. The title comes from the last words of Saint John Chrysostom as he died in exile in 407, and this hymn was found among the belongings of Archpriest Gregory Petroff, who died in a Soviet prison camp in 1940:

O Lord, how lovely it is to be Your guest: breeze full of scents; mountains reaching to the skies; waters like boundless mirrors, reflecting the sun’s golden rays and the scudding clouds. All nature murmurs mysteriously, breathing the depth of tenderness. Birds and beasts of the forest bear the imprint of Your love. Blessed art you, mother earth, in your fleeting loveliness, which wakens our yearning for happiness that will last forever, in the land where, amid beauty that grows not old, the cry rings out: Alleluia!

You have brought me into life as into an enchanted paradise. We have seen the sky like a chalice of deepest blue, where, in the azure heights, the birds are singing. We have listened to the soothing murmur of the forest and the melodious music of the streams. We have tasted fruit of fine flavor and the sweet-scented honey. We can live very well on Your earth. It is a pleasure to be Your guest.

Finally, the color blue seemed to permeate the novel Kenogaia released by David Hart in December of last year. Here is an example from the opening chapter:

“Oh,” Michael gasped, for he had seen it now: very small and very bright, like a hard brilliant sapphire shining out from a sea of liquid turquoise. “It’s beautiful.”

…For fully five minutes, neither of them said anything. Michael continued to gaze at the exquisite bright blue splinter of light that should not have been there, unable to imagine what it might portend, simply caught up in the marvel of it. Finally, he drew back from the telescope, his mind quietly but quickly drifting down again into the world of tangible things.

Both the child from heaven, Oriens, and his guide have eyes of “luminous sapphire blue.” The entire world, also, is filled with references to blue as in this description of a scene in the evening under the light of Kenogaia’s two moons (78):

In the blended light of Aurea and Argentea, the uncropped grasses shone the color of jade, the scattered white wildflowers glittered like frost, and the tall white trunks and blue crowns of the marmorean trees on the far side, under the low ridge of the mountain, were like bright columns of alabaster rising into a huge enameled blue vault.

Light is clearly a primary interest of Hart throughout this story, as we see in this passage with its references, again, to turquoise and blue (117-118):

“What else is Kenogia itself, after all, other than a place of continual suffering?”

Now Michael turned his eyes to the river as well. Aurea and Argentea were both full and gradually ascending the sky, their reflections spread upon the water in narrow fans of sparkling gold and silver; and, where the fans converged and their facets intermingled on the waves, their blended light became the color of electrum and rippled and glittered all about the boat like flaming glass. The mouth of the river, issuing through the gleaming white and turquoise of the marmorean grove’s farthest southern margin, was now visible in the middle distance, and beyond it the broad shining breast of the Phlegethon, and beyond that the deep violet crest of the mountain that rose above the far shore and turned up toward the sable-blue sky and gem-bright stars. “No,” he said after several seconds: “there’s . . . so much beauty here too . . . so much goodness.”

“Yes,” said Oriens, “there truly is — and, like my sister, all of it is stolen . . . all of it in bondage.”

While we remain within a world in bondage, it is also true that a light has shone forth in our darkness. As we learn to see the world remade from within this light, we will find that we participate in the quiet work of the clear blue sky: “When every colour glows, / Each shape and shadow shows.”

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