The phrase “custody of the eyes” always gets a lot of play in modesty discussions (which always ramp up around swimsuit season). In general, the phrase just means “watch where you look,” and it usually has to do with not staring at somebody else’s body parts. This is just good old, practical Mother Church teaching us how to behave so we don’t get into trouble: if you’re a man who is tempted into lustful thoughts by a woman’s cleavage, then keep your eyes on her face. If you’re a woman who’s tempted into lustful thoughts by shirtless joggers, then keep your eyes on the road. Don’t want to get burned? Keep your hands away from the fire. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with fire; it just means that you have to know what your weaknesses are, and act accordingly.
But the phrase “custody of the eyes” is used in a non-sexual context, too. This etiquette guide for Mass says,
After receiving Communion, keep a “custody of the eyes,” that is, be conscious to not let your eyes wander around. Instead, it is proper to keep your focus in front of you, with your head toward the floor … A “custody of the eyes” is also important for those who are in the pews who have yet to join the Communion line. It is not proper to stare at those who have received Communion. The time of Communion is a very intimate, personal and for many an intense time.
Isn’t that interesting? The purpose of custody of the eyes is to help us focus on what’s important at the moment — and also to preserve the privacy and dignity of other people. That latter aspect — preserving the dignity of the other person — is often missing when we discuss custody of the eyes.
We often talk about how important it is to keep custody of the eyes when we see some stranger who turns us on. The most basic purpose of this is just to protect ourselves. It’s not sinful to feel attracted to someone attractive, but we don’t want a simple and natural attraction to transform itself into lustful thoughts that corrupt our hearts; and so we avert our eyes when necessary.
But the other purpose of custody of the eyes, and the more profound one, is to protect the person we’re looking at — to avoid turning him or her into an object, something to be consumed, something to be subjected to our own needs and ideas. Something, not someone.
And so I’d like to introduce the phrase into yet another less-common context. Many of us, men and women, could use practice keeping custody of the eyes when we’re looking at someone to whom we are not attracted, lustfully otherwise — someone whose dress or behavior we don’t approve of, someone whose appearance repels us.
Lust isn’t the only passion that needs reining in.
Here’s an example. When I was shopping yesterday, I saw an enormously fat woman wearing short shorts and a cherry red shirt that was cut so low, it was hardly a shirt at all. I mean, gravity was being disrupted. Light was going there to die. Whatever you’re picturing right now, it was more outrageous than that. I mean!
So, as someone who does care about modesty, what did I do? I thought bad things about her. I jeered at her in my head. I imagined how annoyed I would be if I had had one of my young sons with me. I compared my weight with her weight. And I concluded that she — not people like her, but she herself — was what was wrong with America today.
This was all in a matter of a split second, of course. I didn’t stand there gawping and scowling at her; and pretty quickly, I caught myself. I heard what I was thinking, deplored it, and made a conscious effort to think about something else, and I moved along.
But if I had been practicing custody of the eyes, I would have moved along much sooner, because I need to protect myself — not against lust, but against the sins of nastiness, cattiness, and disdain. If I had been practicing custody of the eyes, I would have just moved along automatically when I realized my weaknesses were being exposed.
But that’s not the best I can do. How much better would it have been if I focused on protecting not only myself, but this woman. How much better if, by long, well-established habits of charity in my thoughts, words, and deeds, I had found it very easy to see this woman simply as another child of God.
This should be our goal whether we’re gazing at someone who is immodest, or sloppy, or whose style is too trendy, or too pricey, or too pretentious, or old fashioned, or bizarre, or pointedly too modest, or too anything. We should be accustomed to finding Christ in every face.
It’s common and understandable to feel anger and frustration when someone makes life harder for us by presenting us with temptations. But this is an immature spiritual stage we should strive to outgrow, as we begin to recognize more and more that our behavior is about us, period. It’s about us and God, and we’re not going to find God if we despise other people. Period. There’s no point in fighting lust if we’re just going to dive headfirst into hate! That’s like curing your crack addiction by switching to heroin. Lust is a sin because it crowds out love. Custody of the eyes is a tool for achieving this end, and is not an end in itself. Its purpose is to help us to love.
That must be what true holiness looks like: not just snapping my eyes away from some no-good tart who can’t be bothered to look decent, but practicing custody of their eyes for so long that it’s easy to see the actual person in, to paraphrase Mother Teresa’s phrase, “the distressing disguise of the slut” (or the slob, or the fatso, or whatever). It’s not enough to think, “Oh, how trashy; better look away.” I should be learning to look at anyone and see Christ.
This is, after all, something Catholics should excel in. We are well trained in seeking out and affirming the unseen. If we can see Christ in a round, white wafer, then surely we can see him in a woman wearing short shorts. Surely we should try.
Custody of the eyes shouldn’t, ultimately, make us see less of a person. It should help us see more.