Custody of the Eyes
If you would keep your soul, keep your eyes
Images have a way of burning themselves
into remembrance. As one who has looked closely at a series of bright
images still sees them when his eyes are closed (a phenomenon called
“afterimage” or “image burn-in”) — long after we have seen things,
their image remains burned into memory — almost akin to a permanent
retinal scar from looking too long at the sun. Even as the thing seen
has either been removed from sight, or no longer exists, it still affects
our vision, distorts it, superimposes upon it something that was once
seen, is present no longer, but somehow cannot be unseen even as we
look upon other images.
The word “images” is particularly apropos of our discussion of Custody
of the Eyes because what we look most intently upon most often — are
other people; people who are created in imago Dei, in the image
of God. But it is precisely this image that we fail to see when we do
not exercise Custody of the Eyes; rather it is the flesh, the outward
appearance that conceals it and under which it lies unchanging even
as the veil of the flesh ages, withers, and dies. In a word, we
look upon bodies — and not just upon bodies, but upon bodies
to the exclusion of their souls — those visually inaccessible
images of God in which the substance of their created being unchangeably
exists, even as the physical habitat embodying it decays and disappears.
We cannot “unsee” what we have seen
If you consider this carefully,
it really is a very frightening realization. We cannot unmake, erase,
or otherwise expunge from memory the images that we have allowed our
eyes to see. We can suppress them, and even for a time forget them,
but they remain withal in that vast repository of experiences that is
summarized in what we call memory. It is a repository with locking gates
that open inwardly only and through which passage is always in
and never out; an almost inexhaustible deposit that is
ever accruing and from which nothing can be discarded, no matter how
useless or even harmful. Our eyes are those gates. Through them, what
we have seen enters and is kept for the rest of our lives. Once we have
carelessly allowed our eyes to see something, especially something of
our choosing — and most especially if we subsequently find it detrimental
to our happiness — we cannot open the gates to expel it, we cannot
choose to “unsee” it. This is precisely why we must keep custody of
our eyes. As our hands only touch what we will them to
touch, so our eyes only see what we will them to see.
I am not speaking, of course, of what we cannot avoid seeing, or what
we commonly see in our everyday activities: most of these are things
that we do not willfully choose to see, but come to us
in our everyday experiences: nature around us, structures built by men,
the furnishings that surround us in our homes or places of work. I am
speaking of what we choose to see — and linger upon;
in other words, the seeing that involves the conscious choice of the
There are two distinct categories to which we must pay careful attention
concerning the custody of our eyes. One leads to sin and
unhappiness, and one leads from sin to unhappiness. The
first involves the sin of lust, the second the sin of pride. Both are
deadly and both lead to unhappiness.
I. Avoiding the Occasion of the Sin of Lust
Well you know that of which I
speak: the glance that lingers for that fraction of a second longer
that separates a mere perception from a willful act; the glance that
passes from mere recognition to illicit interest; from acknowledgement
to invitation. The glance that is really the unstated question: “Are
you interested in me? You see that I am interested in you.” It is unmistakable
… and you know it! What is more the other knows it, too,
and will either recoil from you or cooperate with you. It transforms
a casual encounter into something briefly intimate, from the occasion
of sin to the invitation to sin. In an instant we communicate our willingness
to cooperate in sin with the other. Our imagination is stirred: "What
does her body look like beneath her clothing? Is she likely an adroit
lover?" The imagination leaves no part of her body unravished, untouched
… and in a split second you have already undressed her, explored her,
caressed her and had sex with her.
If one of them is virtuous (or simply not interested), they will deflect
the glance to something politely innocuous, or simply ignore it altogether.
The problem, however, is that we have already sinned! We know it. They
know it. Almighty God knows it. But we pretend that because the glance
was so brief — and in vain — we have not sinned. But that is not
what Jesus Christ tells us: "But I say
to you, that whosoever shall look on a woman to lust after her, hath
already committed adultery with her in his heart."
(St. Mat. 5.28)
This is Custody of the Eyes: paying attention to what one willfully
sees, opens ones eyes to, lingers upon. And because the sin to which
it most readily lends itself is that of lust, the desire for sexual
intimacy, and gratification through the other, Custody of the Eyes is
the most effective means to that beautiful virtue of Holy Chastity.
The two are inseparable. We only come to desire what we see with the
eyes, and for that reason it is paramount that the Catholic keep custody
of his eyes, holding them in abeyance to his will —
not allowing them to wander wantonly upon all things that present themselves,
but carefully choosing what he allows himself to see, knowing his weakness
and proclivity to sin, and that the avenue to sin almost always begins
with the eyes.
Instead, as a Christian ought, the most proper posture for the eyes
is the posture of humility, of looking down when in the presence of
the opposite sex, reigning in the wandering of the eyes that, unhindered
by the will, would freely and salaciously roam over the body of a woman,
taking into himself, desiring for himself, that which belongs to another.
It is not only the sin of lust, but the sin of theft, the taking to
oneself through stealthy desire what is not offered and what is not
ones own. For some
II. Avoiding the Occasion of the Sin of Pride
Custody of the eyes and the sin of pride? What am I talking about?
We lust as much for knowledge in the mind much as we lust for sensuous
gratification in the body. We want to know! Everything.
From the very beginning it has been thrust upon us that all knowledge
is good; that he who knows more is superior to one who knows less. We
esteem those who know the most and disdain those who know the least.
Indeed, it is a matter of pride to possess more of anything, especially
knowledge, yes? By extrapolation, then, he who could know everything
would be far superior to those who know less. There would be no corner,
no aspect of the universe of which he was not potentially knowledgeable.
Such an individual would be esteemed beyond measure, and the closer
he moves to the total acquisition of knowledge the closer, we believe,
he comes to human perfection, and therefore happiness. Right?
Those who would have you believe this — that all knowledge,
regardless of what, is good — are both foolish and dangerous. Do you
doubt it? Remember that the Fall of our First Parents, Adam and Eve,
was predicated upon the false promise of the fullness of knowledge as
the greatest possible good:
|“And the serpent said to the woman:
No, you shall not die the death. For God doth know that
in what day soever you shall eat thereof, your eyes
shall be opened: and you shall be as Gods,
knowing good and evil.”
III. Not all Knowledge is Good and Beneficial
The consequence, we know, was
death, suffering, and misery — not only for Adam and Eve, but for
all their posterity through the sad patrimony of Original Sin passing
from generation to generation. Not all knowledge is good and beneficial.
Do you doubt it still?
Let us suppose that we genuinely sought to know
all things, thinking ourselves surely to be the better for it.
After all, “to know” is always better than “not to know”. To know is
to be among the “learned”, and not to know is to be among the “ignorant”
— and who wishes to be ignorant, right? Apart from analytical propositions
(for example logical propositions and mathematical utterances) that
always resolve themselves into conclusions already implicit within,
and derived from, premises already stated, most of our “knowledge” is
empirical, that is say, it is derived from sensory experience. To say
that we know something is really saying that we have experienced
something and are therefore acquainted with it. We do not know mathematical
propositions in the same way we know the fragrance of a rose. We cannot
know that fragrance analytically in the way that we know that 1+1=2.
We must experience it.
IV. A better analogy
Perhaps a better analogy exists:
to one who is color-deficient and has never seen the color purple, every
attempt to help such a person analytically arrive at purple through
invoking the science of chromatics, the visible color spectrum, or the
graphic designer’s use of RBG or Hex color codes, fails miserably. He
is unable to experience the color purple because of defective
retinal cones in his eyes and nothing short of the experience
of the color purple will suffice. Only upon experiencing
purple would he be able to say that he knows purple.
Now, this is a very benign paradigm. I think it likely that the color-deficient
man would find it beneficial to actually experience the color purple.
A garden of flowers would be all the more beautiful for the greater
multiplicity of colors. Certainly to one who is deficient in both red
and yellow, a clear and distinguishable acquaintance with each would
be decidedly beneficial while approaching traffic lights. Such knowledge
redounds to both his happiness and his safety.
V. Other … Paradigms
Let us now consider our acquaintance
with other types of experiences that would qualify us
as knowing certain things, and see, in light of them,
if we will still maintain the proposition that all knowledge is
good and beneficial.
In order to do this, however, we must be prepared to accept the fact
that our subsequent knowledge of them will remain with us, and that
we will be unable to “unknow” them once we have acquired knowledge of
them. You will probably know more than you presently know,
and whether you deem this as having redounded to your happiness
and well-being only you will be able to decide afterward … but
the preponderance of the likelihood that such knowledge will be detrimental
to both is of the highest order of probability. This is not for the
faint-hearted. Be forewarned! If you nevertheless adamantly hold that
all knowledge is good and beneficial to us, then proceed,
even as I discourage you to. To proceed is pride and arrogance — and
the foul fruit of it will be commensurable with both.
After serious consideration we have decided, for the sake of our readers,
to include no hyperlinks to graphics and topics of the types of “knowledge”
available to us — at will ... things that we could learn
about in depth, or visually experience, that would “add” to the sum
of our knowledge even as it would detract from our happiness, or at
least our peace of mind. Instead we will leave it to your imagination
and allow you to decide if acquiring such knowledge will be good for
you and redound to your happiness because it redounds to your knowledge.
Such topics would include, among, many, many, others:
• Body farms
• Bacteria on our skin
• The Procedures of Forensic Pathologists
• Dust mites
• The Procedures of Undertakers
Our learning, knowing, of such things would surely accrue
to the sum of our knowledge … but not to our happiness. Upon learning
of them, we would that we had never known them — our limited world
of knowledge would be a decidedly happier place for us — but once
known such things cannot be “unknown”. What we choose to acquire
in knowledge we sometimes purchase at the cost of happiness.
In a word, what we let into our minds — what we choose
to let into our minds — is of vital importance and will directly affect
our happiness, both our natural happiness in this life and our
supernatural happiness in the life to come. The latter, especially
concerning the acquaintance, knowledge, and experience with pornography
and its detrimental effect on our moral and spiritual lives we need
not elaborate upon.
6. Am I Suggesting that Ignorance is Bliss?
Of course not! Only the most superficial
reading would lend itself to this brainless interpretation.
My present reflection, both in meaning and tenor, is not to denigrate
education. A properly educated man is an asset in every way, both to
himself and to those around him. I hasten to add that education is not
to be confused with possessing diplomas or degrees. I know too many
men with both, who possess far less knowledge than some who have neither.
Sadly, we need Forensic Pathologists, Morticians, and Epidemiologists,
to name a few.
What we do not need is indiscriminate knowledge: knowledge
of everything and anything. This is neither possible nor, as we have
seen, desirable. In the end, it is the Custody of our Eyes
— what we allow, permit, will to see, and thence to
know — that is really the most vigilant guardian of both our happiness
in this life and our redemption in Christ that culminates in the total
felicity of our souls in the next.
As a postscript, I would add that it is extremely unlikely that the
educated man will find his academic faculties of any use whatever in
Heaven … or of any avail in Hell. I suspect that the latter is more
populated than the former with men and women of extraordinary academic
credentials. Simple souls who know less and love more are far more likely
to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (St. Luke 10.21).
When greeting a woman do not attempt
to speak to her with your eyes. You know what I am talking
about. Human communication does not rely solely upon words. What
you would not dare to say with your lips you attempt to say with
your eyes. Do you think that she does not know what you are doing,
implying, attempting, suggesting? If you would not dare say it with
your tongue, do not attempt to surreptitiously say it with your
eyes. If your lips say one thing and your eyes say another, you
are being both dishonest and deceitful. You know it, and she will,
too. You already have broken trust; what more can she expect from
you, given this?
You may look into a woman's eyes only to the
extent of being courteous and acknowledging her presence. That
should take no longer than a second or two. If she is with her spouse,
fiancé, or boyfriend, it is your obligation to address him,
not her. This prevents jealousy and establishes a firm recognition
of her relationship to him (which is intimate) as distinct from
her relationship to you (which is not).
Never allow your eyes to wander over the body
of a woman. Do not disrobe her with your eyes to make a physical
assessment of her attributes, no matter how suggestive or open to
scrutiny her clothing makes her. Reign in your eyes if you would
reign in your passions. You will only desire what you see, and you
will only deliberately see what you will to linger
Never allow yourself to be alone with a woman,
if at all possible. Find a reason, any excuse, to avoid being alone
with another woman. This protects both you and her — not only
from the occasion of sin, but of scandal. Make every effort to include
someone else to be with you. From a merely practical point of view
in these days of endless litigation, especially concerning sexual
harassment, you are leaving yourself open to embarrassment at best
or a lawsuit at worst. How are you to counter what she may say that
you said or did "in private"?
Never touch a woman needlessly. Those seemingly
harmless, utterly innocuous gestures in which you lay your hand
upon a woman's arm while speaking, or gently touch her back to gain
her attention, are, more often than not, a purposeful touching of
her body — and you know this! They are pretenses of gestures of
friendliness or undue familiarity in which you violate that physical
distance that separates you from what your eyes have already lingered
upon with desire. They are often implicitly sexual, for now you
have actually touched what you have desired — perhaps not to the
extent that you would like, but in an almost vicarious substitution
for what you cannot touch without reproach, you touch under the
guise of innocence ... when it is not innocent at all.
Avoid innuendoes. That "jesting" reference
to something unseemly or inappropriate is most often not a "jesting",
but a "testing". "How far can I go in my suggestive language or
carefully crafted innuendoes before I can ascertain if she is willing
to cooperate with me? Where is the threshold? Can I move further
beyond it?" What you are really doing is testing the water. "Is
Respect her privacy. Do not attempt to gain
more personal information about a woman than is necessary to the
occasion. What her name is, where she lives, how long she has lived
there, what her interests are, what she does for a livelihood, if
she is married or unmarried, has children or not, is none of your
business. Prying into her life is invading her privacy. It is a
deliberate attempt to bridge the distance between you and her: you
gain a kind of "possession" of her by being privy to these things
that are not public. It suggests intimacy, or the desire for intimacy,
where none is appropriate.
Geoffrey K. Mondello
for the Boston Catholic Journal
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