“…But I say to you: Whoever looks at a woman to desire her
has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Mt. 5:28)
I could be wrong, but I think no one, word for word, gave more attention to this verse of Scripture than Blessed Pope John Paul II did in his “Theology of the Body.”
But, like much of Blessed Pope John Paul II’s work, the “Theology of the Body” remains largely unread. Thus, one of its best-kept secrets is the Holy Father’s explanation of Jesus’ call to overcome concupiscence via “purity of heart.” He addressed this vividly in his Wednesday audiences from Nov. 5, 1980 (TOB 47), and Nov. 12, 1980 (TOB 48).
Indeed, some of what he taught might seem to collide with the age-old spiritual advice called “custody of the eyes,” widely understood to mean “looking away” when we fear being tempted to the sin of lust. But there is more to “custody of the eyes” (intriguingly, a term not found in the Catechism) than meets the…eye! In fact, in the same way that Blessed Pope John Paul II says that looking at a “woman to desire her” (the “concupiscent look” of Mt. 5:28) is intrinsically linked to “adultery in the heart” (see TOB 48:5), so, too, I would say that “custody of the eyes” is intrinsically linked to “custody of the heart” (intriguingly, a term that is found in the Catechism—in Paragraph #2849).
I would say “custody of the heart” describes the path beyond merely “looking away,” a response to Christ’s call to the “mature” purity of heart that can overcome concupiscence’s dominion of our interior life. To be clear, “custody of the eyes”—“looking away” when we fear succumbing to temptation to sin—is the exact thing to do if what we see pushes us beyond the boundary of self-mastery. But the Church teaches that we can also do something more than “look away”—we can, through God’s grace, learn to “see rightly.”
For example, the Catechism also says (Paragraph #2519): “The ‘pure in heart’ are promised that they will see God face to face and be like him. Purity of heart is the precondition of the vision of God. Even now it enables us to see according to God, to accept others as ‘neighbors’; it lets us perceive the human body—ours and our neighbor’s—as a temple of the Holy Spirit, a manifestation of divine beauty.”
An authentic and mature purity of heart comes from “custody of the heart,” and it necessarily implies “custody of the eyes”—but this form of “custody of the eyes” allows us to see “according to God.” It genuinely is something we can do—a task “truly worthy of man” as Blessed Pope John Paul II says (TOB 48:4).
When we seek purity of heart, it’s clear we seek to distinguish the attraction of an authentic “eros” from its disordered counterfeit (the pull of concupiscence that is itself not sin but that tempts to sin). The “perennial attraction” of “eros” is itself a thing of goodness and purity, and it’s our task to keep it that way. We must not respond to any temptation to lust that brings “disorder” to our appetites by indulging in the appetite contrary to our intellect and will (our use of reason).
When we encounter some exterior phenomenon—a beautiful face, a shapely clothed woman, an immodestly dressed seducer, a pornographic image, even our own spouse’s nakedness—we are called to the same basic interior task that takes us beyond averting our eyes from what we see. Rather, we must confront what we have already seen (even “looking away” implies that we know we have seen something, or someone, that requires some form of interior assessment from us). We must evaluate whether our reaction to what we have seen is something fitting for purity of heart (TOB 48:3)—or not. If our response is fitting for purity of heart, there is no “interior” reason to “look away” (though there can be “exterior” ones—particularly the virtue of modesty and proper sense of shame possessed by the person seen).
If instead our passions escape the mastery of our reason and intellect, and we experience impure thoughts leading us into sin—“look away”! Don’t look back, either. Look away rather than commit sin.
But remember, concupiscence is not sin itself, it’s temptation to sin. Temptation can be fought and conquered with the help of God’s grace. So if your intellect and will can be moved to fight temptation with prayer and openness to God’s grace, then your task is to fight it.
Growth in virtue (striving for a “mature purity”) is therefore the means to equip ourselves to respond interiorly and virtuously to what we see. By staying vigilant, we can have “custody of the heart” and, by extension, full “custody of the eyes.” We can experience a true liberation of the heart that gives life to its “noble desires and aspirations” (TOB 48:5)—a task “truly worthy of man.”
© 2014. Deacon Jim Russell. All rights reserved.