25 June 2015

A Few Thoughts on Custody of the Eyes

[[Hello Sister Laurel, Thank you for putting up the piece about the new movie. Custody of the eyes is not a phrase we hear much about today. When I looked it up I found a reference to "10 reasons men should always practice custody of the eyes" and some forum posts talking about avoiding lust, but why would cloistered nuns be practicing custody of the eyes so much to name a film about it? I mean is it really that central to life in a cloister? What am I missing?]]

Hi there and thanks for the questions. I agree that custody of the eyes is kind of an old-fashioned term and not one we use or, for that matter, practice much today, but in a congregation such as the Poor Clares or the Trappistines, for instance, it is a significant value which has a good deal less to do with avoiding lustful feelings and more with protecting the privacy, and more, the silence of solitude of one's Sisters and of the house more generally. Interestingly, custody of the eyes is meant to be combined with a genuine sensitivity to the needs of one's Sisters (or others more generally) so it does not mean closing oneself off to others, cultivating general unawareness, isolation, or anything similar. I think custody is one of those values we ought all to cultivate as appropriate to our own states of life. It seems to me in some ways it is a vital practice our own technological and media-driven world really needs.

In last Friday's Gospel lection we heard the Matthean observation that the eye is the lamp of the body. One of the meanings of this observation is that what we look on changes us and can be a source of light or darkness. This can occur in many ways. We read classic works of literature or contemporary books that enlighten and shape us. We do the same with art and media of all sorts. Unfortunately, this may involve "literature" which demeans the human person, or may involve visual input that does not even pretend to be art --- and rightly so. More commonly for most of us, it involves commercials or TV programs which objectify us, make a parody of and trivialize our lives even as they presume to tell us who we are, what we desire, and need, what we ought to value, buy, otherwise spend resources on, and so forth. Custody of the eyes in this kind of thing means allowing God to shape us and show us who we are and what we really need. It means refusing to allow others to define us or our own hearts especially. Custody of the eyes is a necessary element in being our (and God's!) own persons.

On the other hand what we look on, that is, what we choose to look on and the way in which we do so speaks about our hearts; that is, it reflects either the light or the darknesses of our own hearts. We see this when we look on another person and judge them on the basis of appearances, or otherwise jump to conclusions on the basis of past hurts; but we also see it when we allow our compassion to perceive a person as God's own precious one who is really very like us, when we look with awe at the beauty which surrounds us or find beauty in the simplest thing rather than with the vision of someone who is bored and jaded and incapable of being truly surprised, and so forth. Custody of the eyes has as much to do with truly allowing the eyes to be the lamp of the whole person as with simply avoiding lust or lasciviousness.

Custody of the eyes allows a person to attend to their own hearts without constantly being distracted by the activity and sights around them. Especially, as it does this, it assists us in becoming people who see things truly, that is, who see things as God sees them. Moreover, it provides space and the gift of privacy for others with whom one lives; especially it provides for the communion we call "the silence of solitude" in which they too are seeking to dwell so that they too may be persons who see as God sees. Custody of the eyes intends our living with focus; it fosters the containment and denial of the incessant voice of curiosity and even prurience that has been intensified with the computer and social media environment, and assists in following through on a project without getting distracted. (N.B., even the monastic cowl or cuculla ("hood")  helps us maintain custody of the eyes and appropriate focus.) Thus, I think, the practice of custody of the eyes is rooted in a true reverence for others and for ourselves even as it helps create an environment where others may experience the same.

In a cloister or a laura, for instance, silence does not cut us off from others or the demands of love. It is not a neutral reality but one that is carefully cultivated and allowed to flourish in love for the others who are also seeking God just as we are. It enfolds us each and joins us together in a supremely respectful embrace which is deeper than any word. It is a gift we offer one another. Custody of the eyes serves similarly and seems to me to be a piece of the monastic and eremitical values of stricter separation from the world and the silence of solitude especially. It too is ordered toward loving others and providing the gifts of space and privacy in which they may seek and commune with God while at the same time making sure they are profoundly supported in this.