As we approach summer, we are likely to see increased attention to the subject of modesty in Catholic publications. We will hear talks about what swimsuits are permissible, the length of skirts, and so on. Then fall will come, and we will forget, and then we will repeat the circle of life next spring and summer by again wringing about modesty.
This endless merry-go-round annoys me not just as a writer, but as a Catholic who loves to learn about these things. For all the time we spend talking about modesty, we certainly aren’t becoming any smarter about the subject. To remedy this, I’ve attempted to write about modesty from the perspective of St. John Paul II’s Catechesis on Human Love. This understanding of modesty is far more focused on the interior life of a Christian. We make the same choices about modesty we should have made to begin with, the only difference is that now we have a better understanding of why we make them.
Another example of this is with the topic of custody of the eyes. If you read most TOB scholarship, they will tell you custody of the eyes is unnecessary to the Christian. It only applies to the man “bound by lust.” In some of the more troubling statements, it is viewed as a hindrance to holiness. Yet, if we are honest with ourselves, it is hard to fault these writers.
For most people, custody of the eyes doesn’t accomplish much. They might avoid looking at porn, but they are no less dominated by lust. Many use custody of the eyes as an excuse for thinking about the body in a very Manichean and Puritan way, where prudery is mistaken for holiness.
To counter this we shouldn’t be looking to explain away custody of the eyes. We should be looking to properly understand it from the Biblical perspective. In the General Audience of September 10, 1980, St. John Paul lays out the central truth behind custody of the eyes:
A look expresses what is in the heart. A look expresses, I would say, the man within. If in general it is maintained that man “acts according to his lights,” (operari sequitur esse), Christ in this case wanted to bring out that the man looks in conformity with what he is: intueri sequitur esse. In a certain sense, man by his look reveals himself to the outside and to others. Above all he reveals what he perceives on the “inside.”
When looked at from this perspective, custody of the eyes says more about us than what we are looking at. What we look at, and the way we look at something, shows the world what goes on in that head of ours. When Sirach says “turn away your eyes from a shapely woman” (Sirach 9:8), it is done within the context of adultery, specifically a man seeking out a harlot. Even before he touches a harlot, he has told the world he cares little for the oath he made to his wife. To emphasize how serious the author is, infidelity with your wife was often used as a literary device to portray idolatry. (Genesis 28:9, 1 Kings 11:1, The entire Book of Hosea, etc.) This theme is further reinforced in the Wisdom Literature by wisdom (God) and harlotry (idols) being portrayed as two women who a man forsakes everything to seek out. (Proverbs 2) By the act of looking out, one could tell the persons priorities.
In the Sermon of the Mount, Christ takes this timeless truth and gives it even newer meaning:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-29)
It was not enough to say you were fulfilling the letter of the law by not committing adultery. Christ recalled his audience to the spirit that was behind that law, and no doubt had the wise sayings of Bin-Sirach in mind here. If you were lusting after a woman, you were seeking to be united to her. You were telling the world that if you had it your way, you wanted to be free of your oath of fidelity to your wife. Christ’s entire point in this section of the Sermon of the Mount was that everything begins in the heart, and is then carried out by our actions.
Adultery begins the moment you seek to be united to one who is not your spouse. The look you give that person comes from that adulterous thought, and if it is carried out further, you are simply completing the action that already began in the heart. If you are doing these things, then you aren’t living as a Christian should.
In order to live as a Christian, we need to have a transformed heart. It isn’t enough to simply avoid the evil, but to seek out the good instead (Isaiah 1:16-17).
How does this translate to custody of the eyes? Contrary to the assertion of some, we don’t simply continue looking as we have always looked; only now we “look properly.” We set our eyes upon something entirely different. As a married man, the day I made my commitment to my wife, that was the day I stopped seeking out other women. Instead, I looked only towards her. Even the single person shouldn’t go out seeking everyone on the street, but rather only seeking the one they have prayerfully considered as being revealed to them by God. (And even then, he can’t look upon her as a husband does his wife, and vice versa.)
When we come across an immodestly dressed person, we don’t look away out of constant fear of sin. Provided we are in a state of grace, we are a new creation. Instead, we look away because our eyes are focused instead on the good. Our eyes are focused only on Wisdom and that which helps us obtain Wisdom better.
Some will dismiss this as a pie in the sky idealism; something impossible to achieve in today’s sexualized world. If they acknowledge it as relevant, it is only for those in the monastery. Yet the call to holiness is a call all of us must answer (Lumen Gentium, 5:39). As far as the pervasiveness of immodesty and sexualized behavior in the world, they fail to appreciate the distinction between seeing and looking. Even the greatest of saints will eventually come across immodesty. Even if they do not seek it out, it is inevitable. In such cases, how should we react?
A classic case of this mentality is St. Nonnus of Edessa. One day he encounters the prostitute Pelegia attempting to seduce future clients. While he sees this going on, he doesn’t focus on her. Yet at the same time, he doesn’t forget her. He returns to his chamber and wishes he was as devout in serving God as she was in serving the flesh. In his words “a single day’s adorning of a harlot is far beyond the adorning of my soul.”
St. Nonnus uses this event as a way to double down on his faith. He begins to become bolder and more eloquent in his preaching. Eventually the prostitute Pelegia hears this preaching and is drawn to him. Instead of using makeup and sexuality to gain his attention, she uses the tears of repentance on his feet after hearing the Gospel message Nonnus preaches. She was then baptized and chose a life of penance for her misdeeds. Today she is known as St. Pelegia.
When we see immodesty, we shouldn’t be drawn to it. Nor should we seek to ridicule those who are trapped in immodesty. We should instead use it as an opportunity to transform our heart. We should turn our eyes away from the situation, and instead focus them on God and grow in holiness. Holiness is the only way to battle immodesty in this world and achieve real victories. You never know the impact this holiness might have on others.