Oh! how many are lost by indulging their sight! — St. Alphonsus de Ligouri
If your eye offends you, pluck it out. — Jesus
We live in a hyper-sexualized, even porn-ified, culture, and if you’re a man who wants to be pure, you’re going to be involved in constant warfare against lust. Everything from toothpaste commercials to weight loss ads has some sort of sexual spin.
Then there is the rampant immodesty in women’s dress (even in church, sadly), including mini-shorts, crop tops, and leggings worn as pants. Popular TV shows are filled with graphic sex, and celebrities dress in see-through clothing—that is, when they aren’t releasing nude photos of themselves.
Now, these temptations are so powerful because they involve our sight—one of the most potent of our senses, especially for us men. What we see is indelibly etched into our memories, and we can never truly un-see anything. Additionally, our sight has a powerful connection to what we want. Radio ads will never be as effective as TV ads, because hearing simply isn’t as strong a sense as sight.
Today I want to talk about an ancient Catholic practice that can help us combat temptations to lust: Custodia occulorum, or custody of the eyes.
What it is
At its most basic level, custody of the eyes simply means controlling what you allow yourself to see. It means guarding your sense of sight carefully, realizing that what you view will leave an indelible mark on your soul.
Many of the saints, in their zeal for purity, would never look anyone in the face. “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,” says St. Alphonsus de Liguori.
Now, staring at the floor at all times is a bit extreme for most of us, but it does demonstrate the seriousness with which the saints viewed the importance of purity. They teach us that it is simply impossible to allow hundreds of immodest images into our minds, however unintentionally, and remain pure.
Of course, to the modern mind, this guarding of the eyes is rather quaint and even ridiculous. How prudish, many would think, to think that we should exercise any control over what we see. And yet, if we care about our souls, we have no other option.
How to Practice It
The best place to begin practicing custody of the eyes is in the things we can control, such as movies, magazines, or television shows. If your favorite TV show has a sex scene every five minutes, you need to cut it out of your life. It’s not worth the temptation. In short, don’t consume things that are occasions of sin. Carelessly putting yourself in spiritual danger in this way is a grave sin itself, so take it seriously.
It’s actually rather easy to edit what you consume. But what about the things we can’t control, such as the immodestly dressed woman walking past you? This takes far more prayer-fueled discipline and practice. That said, here are some suggestions.
First, if you’re struggling with the way a woman is dressed, immediately look at her face. I don’t care how beautiful a woman is, it is essentially impossible to lust after someone’s face. The face is the icon of each person’s humanity, and it is far easier to respect a woman’s dignity when you’re looking at her face and not her body.
Second, it may just be appropriate to stare at the floor sometimes, especially if there’s no other way to avoid temptation. This doesn’t have to be the norm, but if the situation warrants it, it is foolish not to do so.
Third, avoid places you know are problematic for you. For most men, the beach is a problem. Dozens of women in tiny bikinis is just too much. If that’s the case for you, avoid the beach.
Finally, fast and pray. This should go without saying, and yet I am always amazed that men think they can control themselves without God’s help. It simply isn’t possible. We always need grace in the battle against concupiscence, and if we trust in ourselves and our own willpower, we will do nothing but fail.
Yes, temptation is everywhere, but we are not helpless victims. We must take the need for purity seriously, and that means guarding carefully what we allow ourselves to see. Through prayer, fasting, and practice, we can learn to take control of our eyes and avoid temptation. This isn’t quaint and archaic—it’s basic to spiritual survival.
Let us call upon our most pure Lady and her chaste husband St. Joseph, begging their intercession for our purity.