The Latin Phrase which was employed as the title of this article is translated as “Custody of the Eyes”. It’s a quaint, perhaps Victorian-sounding, phrase to which I was introduced by a Priest in NYC who had once been an Benedictine at the Great House of Nashdom in the UK. He noticed me, please forgive me, of a Sunday after Mass, ogling someone on the street. Leaning to me he said, “Custodia, Frater!” Custody, brother. Since I’d no idea what he meant, he explained: training to remove the eyes from gazing upon the vanities of the world.
One modern Orthodox writer compared thoughts tending towards sin as rocks thrown through the windows of our minds with messages tied on them. We are startled and we read the messages… we engage the thoughts. To the Medieval theologians and philosophers, it was the eyes that were the largest of these windows, the ones easiest, if you will, for the rocks to be thrown at. When they were inventing the notion of “romantic love”, the troubadours of Europe encouraged these rocks to be thrown – in fact, if you wanted to “fall in love” you had to be looking around…
The eyes go reconnoitering for what the heart would possess…
Yeah, that’s one way to put it. Jesus was commenting on the same thing when he said:
Audistis quia dictum est antiquis: Non moechaberis. Ego autem dico vobis: quia omnis qui viderit mulierem ad concupiscendum eam, jam moechatus est eam in corde suo.
You have heard that it was said to them of old: Thou shalt not commit adultery. But I say to you, that whosoever shall look on a woman to lust after her, hath already committed adultery with her in his heart.
Matthew V xxvii-xxviii
It’s not a modern issue. Jesus was well aware of not just a male’s tendency to have wandering eyes, but all people, and not just sexually speaking. Coveting in the sense of keeping up with the Jones is essentially allowing the eyes to wander and then the soul following. Gluttony can begin with “your eyes being bigger than your stomach”. Jesus offered a clue to ending this issue as well:
Quod si oculus tuus dexter scandalizat te, erue eum, et projice abs te: expedit enim tibi ut pereat unum membrorum tuorum, quam totus corpus tuum mittatur in gehennam.
And if thy right eye scandalize thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee. For it is expedient for thee that one of thy members should perish, rather than that thy whole body be cast into hell.
Plucking out your eye may be a bit extreme: but there is a clue to the Church’s understanding of this text in the Office hymn for Prime (the First Hour in the Western Rite):
Which in the Anglican tradition is translated thus:
I think a better translation is:
The point is well sung: it is all of our senses that are thus at issue. Custodiat Oculorum is short hand for an abstinence that is needed for all our senses. Our senses can be tuned to God, but when they are “tweaked” by the world, aroused, if you will, they are short circuited. We cannot do what we are out to do: work out our salvation in fear and trembling. This story (from the teaching of Francis of Assisi) makes clear how our tempting distractions can throw us off course:
A certain pious King sent two messengers successively to the Queen with a communication from himself. The first messenger returned and brought an answer from the Queen, which he delivered exactly. But of the Queen herself he said nothing because he had always kept his eyes modestly cast down and had not raised them to look at her.
The second messenger also returned. But after delivering in a few words the answer of the Queen, he began to speak warmly of her beauty. “Truly, my lord,” he said, “the Queen is the most fair and lovely woman I have ever seen, and thou art indeed happy and blessed to have her for thy spouse.”
At this the King was angry and said: “Wicked servant, how did you dare to cast your eyes upon my royal spouse? I believe that you may covet what you have so curiously gazed upon.”
Then he commanded the other messenger to be recalled, and said to him: “What do you think of the Queen?”
He replied, “She listened very willingly and humbly to the message of the King and replied most prudently.”
But the Monarch again asked him, “But what do you think of her countenance? Did she not seem to you very fair and beautiful, more so than any other woman?”
The servant replied, “My lord, I know nothing of the Queen’s beauty. Whether she be fair or not, it is for thee alone to know and judge. My duty was only to convey thy message to her.”
The King rejoined, “You have answered well and wisely. You who have such chaste and modest eyes shall be my chamberlain. From the purity of your eyes I see the chastity of your soul. You are worthy to have the care of the royal apartments confided to you.”
Then, turning to the other messenger, he said: “But you, who have such unmortified eyes, depart from the palace. You shall not remain in my house, for I have no confidence in your virtue.
The Works of the Seraphic Father St. Francis of Assisi,
London: R. Washbourne, 1882, pp. 254-255
This text as quoted was found here
When the rocks are thrown into our windows our duty to the Heavenly King is disrupted. How many times, walking down Polk Street from my apartment on my way to Church can my gaze be distracted by human beauty, by shops displaying their wares in the windows, by flashing signs, by my own nosiness (as when hearing someone talking loudly or near me), or by smells of tasty food coming out of shops and restaurants. Oh, my mouth can water just walking by the butcher shop or the pizza stand. If you follow my Instagram you have an idea for how easily I can be distracted. Even just sitting as I type my eyes wander. In this case, contra Tolkien, those who wander are lost.
God wants us to move in his peace, to keep our hearts and consciences pure, secured in his light. Our culture, however, needs us to live in a state of Ambient Arousal: just on the edge of shopping, just on the edge of consuming things or people. It’s too easy to say “Satan made the culture” but it is clear he uses this culture to his advantage. And it is so easy to forget that God didn’t build it this way, nor did Christians at all: Our culture is predicated on making us stumble at all cost into lust, into envy, into emotional states, into consumption of our souls.
So Custody of the Eyes – and in a real way, of all the senses – is a way to achieve Custodia Mentis and Custodia Cordis: Custody of the Mind and of the Heart. In our culture we think a lot. Our minds wander: we imagine, we cogitate, we ruminate. We do not, however, often pray. St Paul says to pray constantly and we all know that means pulling our mind away from the TV, from the radio, from the internet, from other enjoyments. But it also means pulling all of our senses away from the enticements of the world whenever possible. This doesn’t mean stopping our participation in daily life: it means changing it.
One of the Desert Fathers tells of an Angel that promised to show him a woman who was much more adept at prayer than he. The Angel took him into the great city of Alexandria where he saw an old woman washing dishes. As she washed she prayed. Today we find more dangerous things to do mindlessly than washing dishes: driving cars comes to mind. We do it with a minimal focus, and think about random things, or chat with our companions. We are quite willing to free our mind fully by whatever mindless task we are doing. And we thus miss the chance to pray. Whenever we are being mindless… the rocks come through the window.
Thus far I can bring you in my meditation. I understand the situation. The Rosary has been a great help to me in this regard. I find that I can pray the Rosary whilst walking – in fact it is a great prayer for that! The feet go on their way, the eyes are downcast, the brain is occupied. Prayer! It is easy to glance about, to notice the surroundings, to be safe, to go about our duties. But prayer is happening. This is a new thing! Hours of the day open up for prayer! On the way to lunch, walking to the office, getting on the bus. Training the brain to crave prayer – automatically as soon as the front door opens. This is not a time to worry about the shopping list, or to evolve a shopping list for the future, or to plan a meal, or to lust after your neighbor: this is a time for Communion with God!
Custody, brother! Custody, sister! Not only of the eyes, but of all the senses and then of the mind and then of the heart! When you get home at the end of the day, will you able to sing the final stanza of the hymn?