Custody of the Eyes: What it is and How to Practice It

Disclaimer: I am aware that I have a number of female readers. However, this is from a men’s blog, and
this post is addressed to men and their unique struggles.

 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 pornified culture, and if you’re a man who wants to be pure, you’re going to be involved in a constant warfare against lust. Everything from toothpaste commercials to weight loss ads have some sort of sexual spin. After all, as they say, sex sells.

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 is it

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 is simply impossible to allow hundreds of immodest images into our minds, however innocently, 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 which we can control, such as movies, magazines, or television shows. If your favorite TV show has a sex scene every 5 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 especially 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.

Conclusion

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.

 

This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at The Catholic Gentleman.

By

Sam Guzman is an author and editor of The Catholic Gentleman whose work has appeared in several publications. He resides in Wisconsin with his wife and two small boys where he is also the Communications Director for Pro-Life Wisconsin.

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  • Mancipium Mariae

    Thanks Sam for this great reminder of guarding our sights. The late Archbishop Fulton Sheen said that it is not enough to avoid looking at immodest images or immodestly dressed people but we must have a way of filling our minds with what is good, beautiful and true. Beautiful and wholesome things like contemplating and memorizing the scriptures, praying the rosary, Eucharistic adoration, healthy and wholesome friendships, and grasping and accepting the story of God’s love for us all help us to overcome the onslaught of lust. This I believe is a wholesome approach to living chaste in this culture of impurity.

  • laurettas

    Even though I am a woman, I can appreciate the struggles that this society imposes on men as visual people. As the article states, we use sex to sell everything and women often do not dress in a manner that reveals their dignity. That being said, however, I believe that there is good that can come from all of this is we but seek it.
    First of all, disordered desire has been around much longer than immodest dress and the “sex sells” consumer mindset. One reads also of marital rape among certain religious groups whose women dress very modestly and whose culture does not allow the immodest advertising that occurs in the West. As the article states, the saints talked about this when there was no immodest advertising and women were fully clothed. Bottom line is that men, for the most part, have disordered desire built into them. Our culture is bringing this to the surface for everyone to be aware of. Men can no longer “avert their eyes” because no matter where they look, they are going to see something inappropriate!
    If averting one’s eyes is no longer possible, what then? Go live in a cave in the desert? The only solution, as far as I can tell, is to confront the disordered desire head on, take it to God and allow Him to transform it. We need to come to understand and accept what our sexuality is for and stop using it for entertainment and pleasure. Humans were given the great gift AND responsibility of being co-creators with God of that which is the crown of all creation–mankind. This is an awesome (in the original sense of the term, fear-provoking!) responsibility and one which we need to re-examine carefully.
    We are living in a time of immense opportunity if we but recognize it. Our culture is giving us endless opportunities each day to see if we are making progress in ordering our disordered desires. Rather than running from it, maybe it is time to embrace these opportunities and allow God to transform our hearts and in the process transform the world.

  • Monica’s Daughter

    Two things: men like that might be the ones that are so far gone they’re not even operating in any semblance of human ability to control impulses (I think men like this are likely addicted to pornography and see filth every where they look like it’s been irrevocably imprinted on their brains and their absolutely enslaved).

    The other thing is that I have never once in my life had anyone I knew in a personal way, boss, teacher, say anything foul to me, or in front of me. I was a pretty young girl at one time and got plenty of attention to know that I was attractive regardless of what I wore. But I think you need to ask yourself if you’ve said or done anything that would give these men the sense that it’s okay to talk that way around you? It’s either there’s something like that, or I’ve been out of the office for so long that I’m not aware of common vulgarity being spewed amongst co workers mixed company or not.

  • L. Vella

    May I suggest the Jesus Prayer. When this gets ingrained in our heart and mind you will find that it will automatically come into play when temptation rears its ugly head. It is also, if I may say so, a powerful tool to make us aware that Jesus is closer to us than we are to ourselves. This Jesus/Heart attachment pomptly sets us on the right track . I recommend the book, Searching for and mainaiing Peace’ by Father Jacques Philippe. God Bless.

  • MichaelServes

    SPOT ON SAM. Being a new convert (2013) I’ve read many saints’ experiences which I highlight here with those Holy Souls of purgatory. They taught me it is better to not be of this world than to suffer the preventable pains of purgatory (of course hell too) simply by avoiding temptation. Here’s what I try:

    -For me its never taking a 2nd glance at what 1st catches your eye.
    -Discerning some websites draw you in and avoid them (like sports themed sites)
    -Keeping my eyes downcast in church and most everywhere and/or avoiding people watching.
    -TV & News: They love to make it risque or sensationalized to appeal to our lower selves.

    My weapons: Pray the Rosary. Fasting. More prayer. Time in adoration.
    Not only is downcast eyes temptation avoiding but this helps me avoid judging those around me. If you’re like me often I look at someone and immediately sum them up.

    I am a filthy, weak, in need of Jesus’s mercy sinner and am sorry for every woman I thought lustfully of (long line forms here…)

    Thanks for saying what needs to be said Sam because all humans suffer from temptation and men may be most guilty of the flesh in this internet age where everything is always a click away. I pray all see this article that need to see it.

  • JMC

    You say aversion of the eyes is impossible, because no matter where he looks, a man is going to see something inappropriate. That’s exactly why Mr. Guzman recommends directing one’s gaze downward if the situation warrants. One isn’t likely to see something inappropriate in the concrete of the sidewalk, or the surface of a floor.

  • JMC

    A note to the feminists, from another woman, is also in order here: The fact that men are so strongly visually oriented is exactly why the onus of purity traditionally was on the woman. Men were taught not to look; women were taught not to give them anything to look AT. It wasn’t a matter of who was at fault; it was a matter of who was weaker. In this department, at least, we are stronger than men. To paraphrase Spiderman, “With great strength comes great responsibility.”

  • A’Esquecida

    I lift up in prayer any & all that lunges from my eyes to my head/imagination.
    Sometimes over & over & over, the same person/people. As many times as they remain w/me, is as many times that i lift them up to the Lord!

  • Blobee

    For women, the problem manifests itself in seeing the bad example of other women. By their immodesty in all things, not only dress but also including makeup, cosmetic surgery to augment sexualized body parts, seductive movements and speech, they either “teach” women this bad behavior, or normalize it, making it seem like something to be imitated and incorporated into women’s lives.

    As a women, I find it almost impossible to avoid this tsunami of sinful dress and actions. One example of the worst is the Victoria Secret Fashion Show. (I can’t imagine what young girls take away from THAT! ) But all of this is only to say women must also practice custody of the eyes, in the same way and to the same degree as you have recommended here to men, so as not to incorporate the society’s perversions into their own lives

  • Blobee

    As to the News programs: “News” has become filled with the most salacious gossip they can find, and nothing is better for them than a video. It becomes even hard to find a program that does not tempt you to sin.

  • laurettas

    Unless, JMC, someone is aroused by an uncovered foot–which I have heard about on more than one occasion! Not to mention the fact that continually looking at the sidewalk is dangerous to oneself as well as those around you.
    I have mentioned at other times also that if one is tempted by those on the street, then one’s disorder is probably going to spill over into one’s married life as well. Having lust toward one’s spouse is a sin also and it is very difficult to avert one’s eyes all the time in one’s home. Much better to address the disorder and allow God to heal it and then one will not be tempted–at least not the vast majority of the time.

  • Felix_Culpa

    As laurettas alluded to a few comments above, men have been temped to lustful thoughts long before bikinis and miniskirts were invented, in the Victorian era and before. I have nothing against women dressing modestly, but it will not stop men from having lustful thoughts.

  • Freedom62

    “If your favorite TV show has a sex scene every 5 minutes, you need to cut it out of your life”. That goes without saying for goodness sake! How about turning the television completely off? And permanently. I don’t think it takes a nuclear physicist to figure that one out!

    St. Elizabeth Seton made the following prophecy: “Every American would have a black
    box in their home through which the devil would enter.” Gee, I wonder what that could be.

    You can get your news from the Internet which has better coverage anyway. You can also remove all images on the Internet by clicking: Tools, Internet options, the Advanced tab, scroll down to Multimedia, then remove the check in the “Show pictures” box.

  • Freedom62

    I can’t believe you said that! Your attitude only encourages immodest dress! When women dress modestly, it prevents good Christian men from having lustful thoughts. My father and 5 brothers can testify to that! If you can look at a modestly dressed woman with lustful thoughts, you need to examine your conscience to find out why you’re struggling with the sin of impurity, then cease and desist with that behavior. If you watch television, for example, the worst offender, turn it off for goodness sake!

  • Felix_Culpa

    ??? Sorry, not understanding you. To argue it right to the extreme, since women get raped in Afghanistan; it is obvious that even if all women wore burkas, it would not stop men from having lustful thoughts. Men need to work on their temptations THEMSELVES and not fob-off all the work onto women.

  • Freedom62

    No kidding! That’s exactly what I said! However, that takes nothing away from the fact that women still have a responsibility to dress modestly.

  • Felix_Culpa

    Don’t forget, my original comment was directed at JMC, who had just written “…the onus of purity traditionally was on the woman.” I’m standing with the author of the article that men have to step up to the plate; the onus for purity cannot be laid wholly on one party. It is simply not within the power of women, no matter how modestly they dress, to entirely stop men from having lustful thoughts! Men need to work on controlling their *own* thoughts, as the author of the article explains.

  • Chris L

    Read the book “Achieving Chastity in a Pornographic World.” Praying for the person in our field of vision & asking for God’s blessing for that person is giving instead of taking. Taking in the image in thought & possessing that image in lustful fantasy is committing adultery in the heart as Jesus clearly teaches.

  • Freedom62

    I never said women alone are to blame. Both the men and the women have to do their part; it’s that simple. The bottom line: If a man succumbs to lustful thoughts because a woman dresses immodestly, she is to blame. Just as a man is to blame if he cannot control his thoughts when a woman dresses modestly.

  • Felix_Culpa

    (“I never said women alone are to blame…”) Yes, that’s true, you didn’t say that. JMC seemed to imply it, however. Recall that my original comment was to JMC. You jumped in.

  • patty

    I HEAR YA ! It makes sense that the most powerful temptation would be a perversion of our greatest/ most powerful ability; To Create New Life. Please don’t give this Glorious affection between the genders to the realm of dirty/ perverted ! I adore God’s Genius of creation; Woman. This appreciation/ attraction is very different than my appreciation for beloved brothers, yet it’s still a Holy experience God meant for me as a man. I’m definately not immune to having this affection wander into the realm of lust, but I have, through much struggle, aquired an understanding to help keep it in check; 1 Cor. 15: 56; “…the power of sin is in the Law.” indicates that if someone says; “STAY OUT OF THE COOKIES !”, it only makes the temptation worse. Instead of “Slapping My Hand” with “Naughty-Naughty”, I’ve come up with a “Fast on the Draw Tool” to fend off lustful tendencies; the acronymn E.P.L.S. which stands for Eternal Peace & Love Sister (sounds like apples that reminds me of the “Forbidden Fruit”). It prompts me to look my sister in the eyes as a daughter of The King & to pray for her if I sense a danger of her being objectified. [As emphasized in Chris L's comment.] Using this “Tool” in no way diminishes the God given excitement I experience around the Genius of women. Rather, it enhances it by, in a mysterious way, “Conceiving a Sort of New Life” or “Spiritual Energy”; Similar to how a priest or nun creates New Spiritual Lfe with their spouse The Church.

  • patty

    And PLEASE don’t assign the “FIRE of Marital Libido” to the realm of mere Lust ! As long as the couple is aware & considerate of their mate’s feelings at any given time, it’s OK to “Let The Horses Run Free”. From a married man’s perspective, showering my wife with gratitude for how pleasing she is to me, appeals to the Feminine Genius of wanting to please & nurture. We are a Sacrament to each other; The same way Jesus, out of Love for us, willingly gave of Himself for the “Reward (friendship/ Love with us) He Knew awaited Him.” (Hebrews 12: 2)

  • Freedom62

    That’s what people do on forums; it’s called “debating the issues”.

  • Maria

    http://www.catholic.org/prayers/prayer.php?p=1499- prayer to the Sacred Head as Divine Wisdom that governs all movemnets of The Heart , asking for all hearts , minds and tongues to know, love and praise same ;
    asking for the Sacred heart to consume us with the Fire of His love ; those who are seeking attention through immodesty are possibly like the kids who have been deprived of the milk of Father love !
    Just that , they are still being used by the enemy, to bring persons into unholy pacts , to bring all that is in that other person’s debt of sin too , into one’s life and to keep oneself away from the Covenantal pact with The Lord of holiness so that the enemy can have a field day , in the family as well !
    What a bargain !
    Instead , let us plead in, the love of the Sacred Heart , into all lives in all our lives, to immunise them against such and for those in the entertainement area too and allow ourselves often into the heaven of His Real Presence , atleast spiritually …. gaze at the compassionate Fathelry eyes of the Divine mercy ( Vilnius ) Image ..to be filled in that pure sweet love , that alone satisfies the deepest hungers !

  • Jacob

    Thank you for this article; it addresses a practice all men of faith really ought to take up. I’m in formation for religious priesthood and custody of the eyes was something I realized was necessary if one is going to take their vow of chastity seriously. One practice I’ve found helpful (granted it isn’t for everyone) is trying to combat lust with gratitude. As you’ve pointed out, our culture has convinced so many women that immodesty is a thing of the past and you can wear whatever you want, so even going to Mass can be a challenge for some, but walking down the street, going out to eat, etc. can be just as difficult. Whenever I am out and about and I happen to see an attractive woman (immodest or not) I do two things immediately: 1) I divert my gaze, recognizing that seeing her once is more than enough to confirm that, yes, she is beautiful and then I immediately pray this prayer 2) “Father, thank you for the beauty of your daughter, but she is not mine; she is not for me.” I continue to do what I can to avoid looking at her again and if for some reason that is difficult to do I try and take the opportunity to pray for her, to combat the temptation or difficult situation with charity and concern for her soul.

    I’ve found this practice helpful because it can help a person avoid the fear and shame that some can allow to creep into their efforts for holiness; happening to see a beautiful woman, immodest or not, is no bad thing, but once you’ve recognized that, then the ball is in your court. By taking the opportunity to praise God it can help a man recondition how he looks at women and recognize that their physical beauty is a reflection of God’s own beauty. That little prayer also helps condition a man to recognize the aspects of selfishness that are tied into lustful thinking; by admitting to God that this woman does not belong to himself and is not for him it resists the temptation to fantasize or sexualize her in his imagination and moves the encounter in the direction of protecting her dignity and seeing her as a fellow child of God.

    I hope these thoughts help some brother out there. Peace.

  • laurettas

    Many good comments have been posted the past few days. I would like to address one issue that has been broached a few times. The issue of the culpability of the immodestly dressed woman. First, who is going to judge what is immodest? What attracts one person is not going to attract another so how is a woman going to know whether she is immodest or not? Two, apply that to any other disorder. Is a restaurant or grocery store culpable for having food visible to someone with an eating disorder? Or is a liquor store culpable for being visible on the street and causing an alcoholic to succumb to over-drinking? We all have our weaknesses. Who is responsible for controlling them?

  • Anonymous

    “I would like to address one issue that has been broached a few times. The issue of the culpability of the immodestly dressed woman. First, who is going to judge what is immodest? What attracts one person is not going to attract another so how is a woman going to know whether she is immodest or not?”

    Agreed. but…

    i think something we can all agree on, as a general rule, about immodest dress is the more skin that’s shown the more immodest it is and the less that’s shown the more modest it is. like a nun(very modest) vs girls in very revealing swimsuits(very immodest) as that’s the extreme examples of both.

    but with that said, tight jeans(or shirt etc) can be a issue since it can be tempting at times for us guys because the female form can really be exposed here. so while a minimal amount of skin might be shown it can still be tempting. but i think even in cases like this it’s still better than something that shows too much skin overall among a wider range of guys even though like you said what turns on one guy might not bother the next guy as much.

    as a guy myself, sometimes something a bit less revealing can be more tempting then something a bit more revealing.

    but with what i said above should be a pretty good guideline for females on about how to dress. i would not worry about it too much though as you can only do so much before the responsibility is on us guys as if a guy ends up caving into sexual temptations over a girl wearing some tight jeans then in that case i personally think it’s the guys fault and they need to turn to God through prayer etc.

    “We all have our weaknesses.”

    Yes we all do. but i think the most common one that’s nearly universal with us guys is sexual temptations which is the easiest one to exploit.

    so while alcohol (and other things) can definitely be a issue for some people that’s not nearly as universal like sexual temptations are since there is a lot of people that alcohol does not bother all that much (like the casual drinkers) but with sexual temptations that covers pretty much all guys as there can’t be many out there who are free of that.

  • pnyikos

    I might add that, even though white is traditionally the symbol of purity, a tightly fitting piece of white clothing is more revealing of the female form than clothing of any other color.

  • Anonymous

    @pnyikos:disqus when i said what i said in my initial reply above it was more of the general shape of the female form being exposed (which tight fitting clothes in general do) and not really directly seeing skin or other things in which case it really won’t matter to much on what color your clothes are in that regard. but i should have been more clear on that whole female form thing.

    but with that said, you still have a good point as some tight fitting white shirts do tend to expose under garments etc (which other colors generally don’t do as much) which can amplify what i said about the female form for some of us guys.

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