Custody of the Eyes: A Commentary on St. Alphonsus

‘And Jesus looking on him, loved him…’ (Mk. 10:21)

In his excellent work, ‘The True Spouse of Jesus Christ’, St. Alphonsus speaks to religious about custody of the eyes. Mark these words, to religious. His advice is not to be applied to one and all without distinction; this could have disastrous repercussions. Also, his writings must be read with prudence. Overly literal interpretations and St. Alphonsus do not always mix.

One must know that religious have been called by Our Lord to be His spouse (this is to be understood in a spiritual sense). It is for this reason that they are called to practice custody of the eyes in a particular way.

The purpose of this commentary is to clarify some points that might be a source of confusion and scruples for some. Do not think that I am correcting St. Alphonsus! Far from it; I am merely clarifying what he has said, for the sake of those who will misread him. At times I am only stating the obvious. Furthermore, I am explaining his words (or the words that he quotes) in relation to non–religious individuals. This is a very important point.

The format of this commentary needs no explanation.

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“A deliberate glance at a person of a different sex often enkindles an infernal spark, which consumes the soul.”

[Comment: True; but this does not amount to saying that all deliberate glances are sinful. A deliberate glance is sinful when done for the sake of sexual pleasure, or when there is a near occasion of sin, namely lust (i.e. “seeking venereal pleasure not in accordance with right reason” – Aquinas).]

St. Gregory says, that “the eyes, because they draw us to sin, must be depressed.”

[Comment: In other words, we should mortify our desire to look at everything that pleases us. We are not forbidden to appreciate all beauty. Have you ever found words like these in an examination of conscience: ‘Did I look at a sunset?’ There is a reason for that. If it were wrong to appreciate all beauty, the Popes would long ago have asked for the removal of several sculptures at the Vatican, which depict naked men and women. The fact is, not all beauty excites lust. Take the beauty of Our Lady, for example.]

“He that looks at a dangerous object,” continues the saint, “begins to will what he wills not.”

[Comment: A dangerous object is something that is likely to lead us to lust.]

“Gaze not about,” says the Holy Ghost, “upon another’s beauty… hereby lust is enkindled as a fire.”  Gaze not upon another’s beauty; for from looks arise evil imaginations, by which an impure fire is lighted up.

[Comment: That is, don’t gaze with the intention of arousing sexual pleasure, or when there is a near occasion of sin e.g. when you are likely to experience unlawful sexual pleasure. Many of the Saints had visions of Our Lord, Our Lady and the Saints, and they often appreciated and commented on their great beauty. In his work, ‘The Ladder of Divine Ascent,’ St. John Climacus – no liberal – writes: “A certain man (St. Nonnus, Bishop), on seeing a beautiful woman, thereupon glorified the Creator; and from that one look, he was moved to the love of God and to a fountain of tears. And it was wonderful to see how what would have been a cause of destruction for one was for another the supernatural cause of a crown.” (These words are even included in Dom Maurus Wolter’s classic text, ‘The Principles of Monasticism,’ p. 365, which is specifically for religious)]

“Hence, to avoid the sight of dangerous objects, the saints were accustomed to keep their eyes almost continually fixed on the earth, and to abstain even from looking at innocent objects.

[Comment: Some saints, not all. When asked by a Sister why she was looking so intently at her, St. Therese answered: “No, I just love looking at you!” (p. 120 of ‘Her Last Conversations’, Clarke)]

“After being a novice for a year, St. Bernard could not tell whether his cell was vaulted. In consequence of never raising his eyes from the ground, he never knew that there were but three windows to the church of the monastery, in which he spent his novitiate.”

[Comment: This was not the practice of St. Padre Pio, for example. Some who met him, such as Fr. Vincenzo (cf. padrepiodevotions.org ‘Newsletter archive’) , have commented on his penetrating gaze, which, at times is a source of consolation.]

“St. Hugh, bishop, when compelled to speak with women, never looked at them in the face.”

[Comment: Perhaps this was necessary for him in order to maintain purity. Priests are permitted to look at those who they are talking to. Dom Marie–Gabriel Sortais (d. 1963), Abbot General of the Trappist Order (O.C.S.O.) – and a very holy and penitential man – shared an intimate bond with Mother Yvonne Aimee (Servant of God), and he even kept a picture of her on his desk.]

“St. Aloysius never looked at his own mother in the face.”

[Comment: Supposedly. Hagiographers have been known to embellish things from time to time. Besides, if this is true, it is not necessary. ‘When Jesus therefore had seen his mother and the disciple standing whom he loved, he saith to his mother: Woman, behold thy son. (Jn. 19:26) A holy priest and mystic, Pere Lamy (Servant of God), was once given a statue of Our Lady, which depicted her with her head bent. Pere Lamy asked the sculptor why this was the case. “She looks mystical like that,” was the reply. “Oh,” he said; “Well, she does not look at all mystical. She stands there. She looks at you straight in the face; and that is as it should be, straight in the face.” (Words taken from ‘Pere Lamy’ by Biver)]

“For having once looked deliberately at a woman who was gathering ears of corn, the Abbot Pastor was tormented for forty years by temptations against chastity.”

[Comment: Then, for him, it must have been a dangerous look. Also, he seems to have been called to a very high degree of sanctity, as all Abbots are.]

“If,” says St. Augustine, “our eyes should by chance fall upon others, let us take care never to fix them upon any one.”

[Comment: These words do not apply to holy images, nor to Our Lord and Our Lady. They cannot possibly apply to those who are married. They do not forbid us from looking at our parents or siblings. What do they mean, then? It means, again, that when there is a near occasion of sexual impurity, we must restrain our glance.]

“But I do not see how looks at young persons of a different sex can be excused from the guilt of a venial fault, or even from mortal sin, when there is proximate danger of criminal consent.”

[Comment: Note the words, “when there is proximate danger of criminal consent”, thereby implying that the look itself is not sinful.]

“It is not lawful,” says St. Gregory, “to behold what it is not lawful to covet.”

[Comment: This must be read in the light of a true understanding of what lust is. Taken literally, this would mean that we can look at almost nothing, for Scripture says: ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house… nor any thing that is his.’ Surely this is not what St. Gregory meant!]

“To practise modesty of the eyes is the duty of a religious, not only because it is necessary for her own improvement in virtue, but also because it is necessary for the edification of others.”

[Comment: Very true. Even so, it is still possible for the religious to look at others in a pure way.]

“From the moment we awake in the morning, let us pray continually in the words of holy David: Turn away my eyes, that they may not behold vanity.”

[Comment: We should ask God to be kept from impurity. Looking at swimsuit calendars, for example, is hardly going to lead to an increase in virtue.]

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Summary

– If certain writings leave us scrupulous and confused, we should avoid them.

– God’s creation is good and beautiful (Gen. 1:31). Immodest dress, impure glances and the like are a misuse of this goodness.

– Everything must be framed in relation to Church teaching. The Catechism is the official summary of Church teaching; therefore we are safe in following it.

“Q. 881. WHAT is lechery, or lust?

An inordinate desire of carnal sin, or delights of the flesh.” (The Douay Catechism of 1649)

“Immodest looks. Bold [daring] looks are forbidden, because they lead to sin, just as a parent forbids his child to play with edged tools.” (‘The Catechism Explained’, 1899, p. 393)

“Lust is disordered desire for or inordinate enjoyment of sexual pleasure. Sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes.” (# 2391, Current ‘Catechism of the Catholic Church’)

In the words of the Liturgy, Pax Domini sit semper vobiscum (The peace of the Lord be with you always)!

 

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