Custody of the Eyes

In a recent reflection (again) in the Magnificat, a remark by the Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper caught my eye, if you’ll pardon the pun (which you won’t have noticed until you read what Pieper said):

The cultivation of the natural desire to see assumes the character of a measure of self-preservation and self-defense. And then studiositas (diligence) means especially this: that a person resists the nearly inescapable temption to indiscipline with all the power of selfless self-protection, that he radically closes off the inner space of his life against the pressing of unruly pseudoreality of empty sights and sounds – in order that, through and only through this asceticism of perception, he might safeguard or recoup that which truly constitutes man’s living existence: to perceive the reality of God and of creation and to shape himself and the world by the truth that discloses itself only in silence. (Magnificat, Christmas 2006, p.95-6)

Such observations bring to mind Dante’s depiction of the envious in the Purgatorio with their eyes wired shut to prevent them from lusting after the gaudy baubles of the world (made alluring by the fact that others desire them or seem pleased that they do), the parenthesis being a Girardian elaboration on the theme. But it also reminds me of something I read a few weeks ago in a recently published book by my friend Ann Astell entitled, Eating Beauty: The Eucharist and the Spiritual Arts of the Middle Ages. Ann is a medievalist and a deeply faithful woman, and her erudition and insight grace every page of her remarkable book. I found her treatment of the theological anthropology of Bernard of Clairvaux especially fascinating.

For Bernard, Ann tells us, the first sin is curiositas (curiosity) and the cure for it is humility.

For St. Bernard the starting point is always the reality of the fallen human condition, which is characterized by an ingrained curiositas and concupiscentia, defects that are two sides, as it were, of a single coin. Both constitute a disordered relationship to the other person, whom we are called to know and to love. Curiositas, an undue preoccupation with the affairs of others, constitutes a defective aspectus (attitude of mind or regard). Concupiscentia, a distorted (emotion, passion, drive) of longing, desires the other inordinately and craves what belongs to the other. Curiositas is cura (care or concern) grown wrong; cupiditas is the misdirection of love that results from it … [67-8]

As flagrantly as our age urges the renunciation of traditional Christian virtues, especially in its trivialization and vulgarization of sexual intimacy, that attack on virtue is made possible because we have become inordinately preoccupied with others, and we have fallen under the mimetic spell of countless models. Adam’s inattention consists, writes the poet Denise Levertov, of:

his confused attention to everything,
impassioned by multiplicity, his despair.
Multiplicity, his despair …

For St. Bernard, the “principle reason why the invisible God willed to be seen in the flesh” was this:

He wanted to recapture the affections of carnal men who were unable to love in any other way, but first drawing them into the salutary love of his humanity, and then gradually to raise them to a spiritual love. [Astell, p. 86]

Therefore:

The soul at prayer should have before it a sacred image of the God-man, in his birth or infancy or as he was teaching or dying, or rising, or ascending. Whatever form it takes, this image must bind the soul with the love of virtue and expel carnal vices, eliminate temptations and quiet desires. [85]

In case you’ve been tardy in coming up with a New Year’s resolution. That’s Bernard’s suggestion.

(This was first posted on www.gil-baile.com ‘Reflections on Faith and Culture’ Dec 2006)

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