Mortimer and Me.

JMJ

The Readings for Tuesday, 1st Week of Ordinary Time (B2):

Porro Anna loquebatur in corde suo, tantumque labia illius movebantur, et vox penitus non audiebatur.

Now Anna spoke in her heart, and only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard at all.


Today is the first day of “Ordinary Time” since the new liturgical year began on Advent Sunday. In the Liturgy of the Hours we’re already prayed through one entire volume in the year! This year the Epiphany “Ordinary” Season is medium-short: Septuagesima Sunday, the traditional beginning of “PreLent” in the Pre-VII Liturgy is on 28 January, the earliest date being 18 January. Ash Wednesday is 14 February. We do have a little time for some Ordinary Reflections here, but not a lot: Ash Wednesday can fall as late as March 10th. (We’ll have that in 2038, with Easter falling on 25 April!)

So, our Ordinary Time thoughts open with Hannah praying for a child. Her lips are moving, but Eli can’t hear anything so he thinks she’s drunk.

How do you pray? For most of my life – including my “spiritual but not religious” Neopagan Days, and my Protestant journey and also a lot of my Orthodox time – I practiced the things I learned in the Methodist Church of my youth: bowing my head, closing my eyes and, in my brain, saying things to God. Praying out loud seemed unnecessarily pious. Now, the Charismatics prayed out loud! They did so with great alacrity and in many sorts and conditions of tongues. And when I became Episcopalian I learned to read the hours in Church, but, generally, on my own, I stuck to reading them silently.

So I was surprised, when I began to study in the Benedictine Tradition, first as an Oblate, and later as an monastic novice, that we were required to say something when we pray, even if it’s only ultra soft whisper. And our lips should move.

This was explained as to avoid those odd, misty, mental shenanigans that happen when we “close our eyes and bow our heads in prayer.” That’s really something only the greatest, advanced mystics can do. The rest of us are left using our bodies and our souls in concert. We see it in the Russian instructional text, The Way of the Pilgrim as the pilgrim recites his Jesus Prayer over and over, even at dinnertime, his lips keep moving.

This is also the teaching of the Catholic Church! Paragraphs 2701-4 of the Catechism

2701 Vocal prayer is an essential element of the Christian life. To his disciples, drawn by their Master’s silent prayer, Jesus teaches a vocal prayer, the Our Father. He not only prayed aloud the liturgical prayers of the synagogue but, as the Gospels show, he raised his voice to express his personal prayer, from exultant blessing of the Father to the agony of Gesthemani.
2702 The need to involve the senses in interior prayer corresponds to a requirement of our human nature. We are body and spirit, and we experience the need to translate our feelings externally. We must pray with our whole being to give all power possible to our supplication.
2703 This need also corresponds to a divine requirement. God seeks worshippers in Spirit and in Truth, and consequently living prayer that rises from the depths of the soul. He also wants the external expression that associates the body with interior prayer, for it renders him that perfect homage which is his due.
2704 Because it is external and so thoroughly human, vocal prayer is the form of prayer most readily accessible to groups. Even interior prayer, however, cannot neglect vocal prayer. Prayer is internalized to the extent that we become aware of him “to whom we speak;” Thus vocal prayer becomes an initial form of contemplative prayer. 

(Emphasis Added.) 

Our bodies are required participants in our prayer! O, heavens, how liberating this is!

It’s such a blessing to be at the door of the Church when it opens at 6AM. As folks filter in, leading up to Mass at 6:30, there is a quite, pious whisper that builds. All the folks praying their rosaries or other devotions, quietly, but making noise. Their lips moving, their souls and bodies working together to reach out to God. This is the prayer of the Church. And yes, there are times of total silence, of bliss and waiting, but these are opened and closed with the voice. Even the devout practice of sacred reading, of Lectio Divina is properly done out loud and slowly. The various offices in the Liturgy of the Hours can be read silently to oneself in about 5 minutes, I think. But that’s not properly doing them: read in a whisper, they are longer. We are not mute before our God, who wants the external expression that associates the body with interior prayer, for it renders him that perfect homage which is his due.

Our bodies are required participants in our prayer! 

Why is this liberating? Because our bodies are God’s gift to us, our station in the great chain of being: the Angels being pure spirits, and the animals being only flesh, we are both spiritual and fleshly. We are a spirit-suffused fleshly hybrid, and in our nature we are wholly God’s creation, a unique essay in what it is to be created by and for love and worship of him. We must not fall prey to the demonic, gnostic myth that our bodies are (mostly) useless tools that can be replaced, destroyed, changed, etc without any harm to our Spirit. We have a body as fully invested in our identity. 

This is me: so long as by “this” I mean both seen and unseen, spiritual and fleshly. This is who I am.

And so when I pray all of this must pray.

It is, of course, possible for a prayer to be all on the lips and no deeper at all. I know how to read out loud, liturgically while making up a shopping list, or listening to conversations around me. I can read psalms perfectly well (from the outside) without ever once noticing the words that are passing from my eyes to my lips. I am a very loquacious ventriloquist. I have no idea how I do it. It’s impossible to listen that way and to respond that way. But I can read out lout that way!

We are required to bring our interior voices to our vocal prayer as well. When we pray our brain should be “saying” the same thing as our lips. We must unify the entire created person in intercession before the throne of Christ. We cannot be reciting the Rosary, the Jesus Psalter, or the Jesus Prayer and, at the same time, be looking around in Church, driving the car, wondering what’s for dinner, or (as I was this AM) designing a new rosary. I’ve also designed bookshelves…

This effort to unite mind and voice (and later heart as well) is the on-going ascesis, podvig, jihad, or struggle of Prayer. Like athletes we are training our bodies not to do whatever they want but to only do what is needed to worship and love God. Every prayer must be part of this struggle. Every action must be part of this prayer. Hannah was quite well advanced. I am not. I can’t pray a rosary while driving (although I can piously listen to one, also a good action). I can’t listen to Mass while making mental notes about liturgical errors – this is a very common problem for me. 

We must come out of the mental fogs, out of the misty onanism of heads bowed and eyes closed, into the glorious light of fully incarnated prayer. We have the need to translate our feelings externally. We must pray with our whole being to give all power possible to our supplication.

When we pray all of this must pray!

The Empirical Bogey (O Oriens)

Originally published in 2015, this essay is part of a series I used to do annually on the Great O Antiphons of Advent. This Verse will be sung tonight at Vespers and, since this night is the Longest Night, and tomorrow is the Dawn of Summer’s Advent, we sing. “O Dawn”. The church knows when the solstice is, certainly, although it has nothing to do with the date of Christmas. Many parts of the liturgical year are tied (officially or not) to the natural cycle of the northern hemisphere: not just major holidays, but also fasting on the quarter days, the choice of which feast in a Saint’s Life is more important, etc. The liturgical cycle sanctifies time rather than obliterating it. We are manifesting heaven on earth sacramentally, not escaping earth and fleeing to “realms of spirit.” The physical world is being saved, not ignored.


O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol iustitiae: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris et umbra mortis.

O dawn of the east, brightness of light eternal, and sun of justice: come, and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

This is my favourite of the Great O Antiphons, for entirely non-liturgical reasons: this verse is one of several paraphrased by the Orthodox Anglo-Saxon Poet, Cynewulf in his long poem Crist or, in modern English, Christ.  In Anglo Saxon and in English, the lines run:

Eálá Earendel engla beorhtast
Ofer middangeard monnum sended.
Hail Earendel brightest of angels,
over Middle Earth sent to men.

It was this text that gave J.R.R. Tolkien the name and purpose of his character, Eärendil the Mariner. Oddly enough I learned about the Great O Antiphons (back in 1982 or 83) by reading about this connection with Tolkien and then doing research. That was before I had been exposed to western liturgy beyond Novus Ordo and late 70s ECUSA. It was the dawn of a new world for me – connecting Tolkien’s world that never was with parts of our world that were no longer.

Tolkien and his fellow writer, C.S. Lewis, knew that part of our modern problem is that our world is being destroyed – now, almost a century after their friendship, our world is nearly totally gone. We used to live in a world peopled by angels and located in the middle: not geographically, but mentally, spiritually, between heaven and hell. Now we are more than ever trapped in time, stranded between the past that cannot be and the future that is never. The religion of our culture, Scientific Nihilism, has washed away all connection, all sense of a possibility of connection, replacing a Transpersonal God with what C.S. Lewis called “The Empirical Bogey:”

…the great myth of our century with its gasses and galaxies, its light years and evolutions, its nightmare perspectives of simple arithmetic in which everything that can possibly hold significance for the mind becomes the mere by-product of essential disorder… its flat superlatives, its clownish amazement that different things should be of different sizes, it’s glib munificence of ciphers.

We pretend we have discovered the really awesome parts of the universe, when, in fact, all we have done is let our mind’s impression of the Speed of Light create in us a false sense of awe at mere numbers; numbers which we ourselves invented and to which we attach some sort of quasi-religious content. We become over-awed by generating the emotions within ourselves at our own inventions, as a child might, looking too fondly at a sand castle she has built on the beach.

But we have discarded the Created Order: the reality that is there, no matter how much we ignore it, or imagine we’ve surpassed it. We need the Dawn to show to us all of this.

We’ve got darkness and death again running parallel to light and justice. In the traditional liturgy this gets sung at Vespers on the 21st of December: the Solstice, the return of the Sun. Singing this verse creates the linking of Christ with the rising Sun, very literally in time and space.

A certain sort of political activist will often invoke Jesus as a supporter of “justice”. They do this without irony despite the fact that they would reject a vast majority of what Jesus stood for. They would certainly never call his teachings “Justice”. They make this rejection by saying that Jesus was merely human and often wrong based on the cultural biases of his time. But they are certain that any “outcast” calling for “justice” today would be supported by the Jesus they have invented as easily as science invents big numbers. Justice, in this political dialect, usually means “supporting my political causes and damning my opposition”. Jesus is not invoked as in this Antiphon, as being, himself, the Sun of Justice. God – Jesus – in his person – is Justice.

The Sun of Justice is a line taken from the Prophecy of Malachias 4:1-4

For behold the day shall come kindled as a furnace: and all the proud, and all that do wickedly shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall set them on fire, saith the Lord of hosts, it shall not leave them root, nor branch. But unto you that fear my name, the Sun of justice shall arise, and health in his wings: and you shall go forth, and shall leap like calves of the herd. And you shall tread down the wicked when they shall be ashes under the sole of your feet in the day that I do this, saith the Lord of hosts. Remember the law of Moses my servant, which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel, the precepts, and judgments.

Ecce enim dies veniet succensa quasi caminus: et erunt omnes superbi et omnes facientes impietatem stipula: et inflammabit eos dies veniens, dicit Dominus exercituum, quae non derelinquet eis radicem et germen. Et orietur vobis timentibus nomen meum sol justite, et sanitas in pennis ejus: et egrediemini, et salietis sicut vituli de armento. Et calcabitis impios, cum fuerint cinis sub planta pedum vestrorum, in die qua ego facio, dicit Dominus exercituum. Mementote legis Moysi servi mei, quam mandavi ei in Horeb ad omnem Israel, praecepta et judicica. 

The Justice that Jesus offers is only for those that fear God and do all that he commanded through Moses: they who do so shall tread down all the proud folk who do wickedly as ashes under their feet. But you can’t have God’s Justice for you to do something God has commanded you not to do, for there is no Justice beyond God’s law.

Here again we are being presented with the Empirical Bogey. We are convinced that our minds can discover things and then we invest those things with quasi-religious value. The new Jesus we have at last discovered in our wisdom supports us, not those stodgy religious sorts. Freedom, we have at least discovered in our wisdom, is not “the Free human being who is most himself in the will of God” but rather “I can do what I want.” The Evil One makes us hate what is good for us and love what is bad for us. In fact this is such a good trick of his, that he makes us think the bad stuff really is us. Thus Justice does not mean justly following God’s law and creating civil laws that enable others to do so as well. Justice means, “I can do what I want and you can be punished for thinking, saying, or living as if I shouldn’t do it.

Which is to say that Jesus didn’t teach a “justice” that would have been recognized as such by anyone marching in our streets today. In fact, Jesus colluded with the unjust systems of his day: paying taxes, respecting civil authorities. He makes it rather clear that those authorities would not be there (just or not) if God had not put them there. In the matter of “judge not”, God will judge authorities that act outside of his divine Justice. That’s not for us to worry about (unless you happen to be in political office). Our job, as Christians, working our our salvation in fear and trembling, is to live in God’s Just Law, no matter what the world lives in. Paul, writing to Philemon, does not challenge the system of slavery in the Roman world, but rather he tells Philemon to act in God’s Justice towards his brother in Christ, the slave Onesimus, suggesting even that Philemon will do more (following God’s Love) than Paul even suggests in his letter. Paul doesn’t protest in the streets to change the laws: but he reminds Christians that they have a higher law to follow

O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer,
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

So it is with us, today looking at the Antiphon, and for all time. We know that Justice comes from God in Jesus very person. Our secular laws, as such, mean precious little if they do not reflect this. They can be ignored as so many cardboard cutouts. The traditional prayer for civil authorities from the Russian Prayerbook makes this clear:

Save, O Lord, and have mercy on our president and all in authority throughout the world, commanders-in-chief of armies and navies and airfleets, governors of provinces and cities, and all the Christ-loving navies, armies and police; protect their power with peace, and subdue under their feet every enemy and foe, and speak peace and blessing in their hearts for Thy Holy Church, and for all Thy people, and grant that in their calm we too may lead a quiet and peaceful life in true belief, in all piety and honesty.

Civil gov’t is there only to keep the peace so the Church can do her work: this can be done with the second amendment, or without it, with socialism, capitalism or the odd hybrid we now have. As long as there is civil peace the Church can do her job. Be mindful that this prayer was also prayed for the leaders of the Soviet state…speak peace and blessing in their hearts for Thy Holy Church, and for all Thy people, and grant that in their calm we too may lead a quiet and peaceful life in true belief, in all piety and honesty.

From the state all we want is to be left alone. We need Jesus for Justice: which is an interpersonal quality, not a legal standing. All this world – including our gov’ts, our states, the religion of Scientific Nihilism and the Empirical Bogey – are all trapped in darkness and death. We seek the dawn, Earendel, to show us the way out.

O Lord: 2nd Advent Meditation

Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

Lord and Ruler the house of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the flame of the burning bush and gave him the law on Sinai: come, and redeem us with outstretched arms.

The redemption prayed for in this antiphon has happened – as mentioned in the last meditation: we are once again set to be free to enter into the dance with God.  We can, however, insist on a return to the “slavery to our own reasonings”.   It’s a path I well know: because I want to be Christian, but, you know, not all the way.

To call the divine child “Adonai” is a theological claim, a heavenly claim.  To call him “Dux” or, as in a few days time, “Rex”, is a temporal claim, an earthly claim.  If you will, it is a political claim. In Greek it is usually rendered “Kyrie” which is a title for Caesar.  In Latin the title is usually “Domine” here, however, the text takes up the Hebrew word, one of the Divine Names – using it untranslated, to better make the theological point: this is God in the Flesh. As noted, it’s backed up with a temporal title, “Dux” or “Duke”.  God was both of these things to Ancient Israel until they begged for an Earthly King “like the other tribes”.  God said this desire for a visible, human Dux was a rejection of his kingship.  In his mercy he gave them what they asked for, first a “king that looked like a king” in Saul, then a king that acted like one in David.  Perhaps in a divine show of humor, he became one of the children of that earthly kingship: in and by himself returning the throne and crown to himself. As he is the Lawgiver in heaven through Moses, so he is the lawgiver on earth through his Church. The divine and the earthly are joined in this man: Christ is both God and Man and he is Lord of Heaven and Earth, both Adonai and Dux.

O come, O come, thou Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times didst give the law
In cloud and majesty, and awe.

What would it mean for a human person – or nation – to call this God-Man, “Adonai et Dux”?  We know that Jesus, himself, said that just saying this was enough:

Non omnis qui dicit mihi, Domine, Domine, intrabit in regnum caelorum: sed qui facit voluntatem Patris mei, qui in caelis est, ipse intrabit in regnum caelorum. 

Not every one that saith to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven: but he that doth the will of my Father who is in heaven, he shall enter into the kingdom of heaven. 

Matthew 7:21

Saint Paul adds: Et nemo potest dicere, Dominus Jesus, nisi in Spiritu Sancto. And no man can say the Lord Jesus, but by the Holy Ghost. (I Corinthians 12:3) Simply saying it is not enough – there is the doing. Saint James says, “Estote autem factores verbi, et non auditores tantum: fallentes vosmetipsos.” But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. (1:22) Saying is a start: but doing is the key.

I am aware at how good I am at saying.  I am equally aware at how good my friends are at calling bull-pucky.  I am thankful for my friends, liberal and conservative, Christians and not, who have challenged me since High School: saying you cannot be both Gay and Christian without warping one or the other beyond all recognition – so much so as to no longer need the name.  I’m sorry it took most of my life to hear them, but I am thankful for them.   Ditto the people who call bull-pucky on my lack of charity or, most recently, on my sloth.  Saying, “Jesus is Adonai and Dux” means a serious essay towards fixing things over which he’s not Lord. I have learned to hear my Holy Guardian Angel saying “Stop That”.  Just gotta learn to listen…

Thing is, Jesus makes it clear it’s possible not to get this point at all.

Multi dicent mihi in illa die: Domine, Domine, nonne in nomine tuo prophetavimus, et in nomine tuo daemonia ejecimus, et in nomine tuo virtutes multas fecimus? Et tunc confitebor illis: Quia numquam novi vos: discedite a me, qui operamini iniquitatem.

Many will say to me in that day: Lord, Lord, have not we prophesied in thy name, and cast out devils in thy name, and done many miracles in thy name? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, you that work iniquity.  

Matthew 7:22-23

It’s possible to spend your entire life going to church or thinking “spiritually” but never change your bed, your food, your social patterns.  It’s possible for people to look at you and say “Yeah, he’s a Christian, but I’m thankful he’s not that sort of Christian: he’s kinda cool.”  Or, if they are your friends, really, they may challenge your integrity on that point.  Be sure to listen then – it may save your soul.

There will be preachers and prostitutes, pious peddlers and impious pastors, popes, police, patriarchs, politicians, and you and I standing before the throne at the last day: will our lives – or only our words – say “Adonai et Dux”?

What do your friends think?

O Wisdom: 1st Advent Meditation

By way of introduction I have been posting meditations on the “Great O” Antiphons since I was Chrismated in 2002. There are seven in the Tridentine liturgy plus one more from the Sarum Rite. These 8 antiphons space out rather nicely over the 40 days of the Byzantine Rite Advent Fast which starts today, 15 Nov. I will, God Willing, post on 20th, 25th, and 30th November, 5th, 10th, 15th and 20th December. For a good bit of history (as well as html Frames!) see Fr Z’s page here. He also does meditations on the Antiphons and some of my RCC and even WR friends may appreciate his take more!


Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodidisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviter disponensque omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.

Wisdom, who came from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from end to end and ordering all things mightily and sweetly: come, and teach us the way of prudence.

This Advent I’m meditating on failure – mine, mostly, but our shared failures as well.  Another word for failure is “harmartia“, which comes from the Greek ἁμαρτία, from ἁμαρτάνειν hamartánein, which means “to miss the mark” or “to err”.  It’s usually translated “sin”, but I’m going to stick with failure for now because I am here, “Midway in the journey of our life” and it seems a good time to do so.  So this is a sort of “Life Confession” or “Midlife Confession”.

From 5th Grade, at least, I wanted to be a minister.  Our family was Methodist. I’ve no idea what the Methodist “Ordination Process” was like in 1974, but it was probably some low-church version of “lunch with the Bishop.”  If the Lunch ended with “you’er a nice young man, perhaps you should consider seminary?”  You were on you way.  That lunch would not happen until late in High School, but from fifth grade on I was teaching Sunday School and preaching the “Youth Sunday” Sermon.  Pastor Bob was a great encouragement to me in Wurtsboro, NY, as was Pastor Jim when we moved to Acworth, GA.  But somehow, 40 years later, I’m not ordained.

This self-evident fact was given to me like a hard face slap a couple of years ago, just after my 49th birthday, as a friend was ordained to the priesthood.  I realized that given all the same choices as I, he had taken them differently in several places and his choices had led him to where I had claimed to want to go. Another friend was ordained this Summer and his mother commented regarding her pride in the choices he had made to get there.  She used the words “Sacrifice” and “Integrity”.  These are not words I would be able to use to describe my life’s journey.

O come, O Wisdom from on high,
who orders all things mightily,
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go.

The invocation of Divine Wisdom – Sapientia in Latin, Sophia in the Greek – at the beginning of these Advent Devotions is to a specific end: the inculcation of Prudence in the worshipers.  But what is Prudence?  It is one of the four Cardinal Virtues which also include Justice, Temperance, and Courage. (There are also three “Theological Virtues”: Faith, Hope, and Charity.) Prudence is primarily about foresight, about seeing which of several possible choices is the moral choice, the right choice.  By the correct actions we can grow the other virtues as well.  Prudence is regarded as a prime virtue for this reason: you can’t get the others without it.  But what is “correct action”?

In Orthodox and Catholic understanding of the human person man’s natural state of being, his φύσις or “phusis” is according to God’s plan for his life.  In this natural state – that state “according to our nature”, the nature God intended for us – man makes prudent (correct) choices and from this correct action flows. Correct action is according to our nature.  Our failures throw this prudence off course.  We make a choice based on other things: and so our choices are against nature or παρά φύσιν (para phusin) which really means “to the side” of nature: and look, we’re back to missing the mark again. We’re off to the side.

Paul uses παρά φύσιν in his epistle to the Roman to describe a number of things including same-sex sexual activities, men pretending to be women or vice versa.  Our answer to that charge, today, is “Yes, but this is my nature.  Paul had no idea about my nature.  For me to pretend to be something else would be against my nature.”  To this individualistic claim, Advent is a Divine Slapdown. Human nature is one ontological whole: yes there are many persons who are human, but there is only one Human Nature.  Just as there are three persons in the One Divinity, so there is One Humanity.  In the incarnation of that one Divinity as One of Us, part of the One Humanity, the natures are joined.  It is not my nature: it’s nature.

Your nature is no different from mine save in the ways each of us fails in the path of prudence – of making choices based not on the Divine Plan but on our own plans, our emotions, or our feelings. Human freedom lies not in the ability to choose to do anything we want, but rather our freedom to be the most amazing humanity possible lies in the choice for God’s plan – not our own.  When we choose else we are not being free: we are led away as slaves to our own reasonings, our body’s cravings, our appetites, or on our Passions, as the theologians would say.  When we convince ourselves that “This thing contrary to God’s plan is really who I am” we are exposing our own lack of understanding of our shared human nature.  We are rather like a street car refusing to ride on the tracks laid out for it – and insisting that it’s a better street car because of its ability to jump the rails.

The first Great O Antiphon is a prayer for Divine Sophia, to teach us prudence, to show us the way to go.  We want her to put our lives in o that “all things mightily and sweetly” dance into which she orders the world. We want her to make our lives, to borrow a pun from the Latin, suave.  As Sophia is Christ, the Incarnation itself is an answer to this prayer. Jesus becomes man to restore our sanity, to restore to us our natural, inborn ability to make the right choices, to become fully human (like Christ) which is the first step to becoming divine.

To get to right action again – after we’ve jumped the rails, as it were – requires a metanoia often translated as “changed mind” or “repentance”, as in “If you miss the mark, you must repent”.  But it’s  not just a “changed mind” but “beyond mind”.  We need to get beyond our own thinking, our own little box of ideas about “who I am”.  Advent is the only way out: God becomes us so we may join him in the dance.  God reveals to us in himself the fullness of humanity and, by becoming man, restores to all of us our natural humanity.

When I look at my life I see that my choices were imprudent because they were para-phusis, if phusis is understood as a divine revelation.  I will admit my choices caused me and others much temporary happiness, but I can not say that they have made me into the person I wanted to be way back in  fifth grade.  Nor, to judge by my active life in the confessional, have they made me into the person God wanted me to be.

Which leaves me with one remaining question: perhaps that desire, first voiced in 1974 or ’75, was the wrong choice.  Can a fifth grade be prudent? Is it possible for the fifth grader to derail the man?

Custodia Oculorum

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.
Idid. xxix

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):

Sint pura cordis íntima,
Absístat et vecórdia :
Carnis terat supérbiam
Potus cibíque párcitas.

Which in the Anglican tradition is translated thus:

[God] keep our hearts and conscience pure
Our Souls from folly would secure
And bid us check the pride of sense
with due and holy abstinence.

I think a better translation is:

Oh, may our hearts be pure within,
No cherish’d madness vex the soul;
May abstinence the flesh restrain,
And its rebellious pride control.

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?

Ut cum dies abscésserit,
Noctémque sors redúxerit,
Mundi per abstinéntiam
Ipsi canámus glóriam.
So when the evening stars appear,
And in their train the darkness bring;
May we, O Lord, with conscience clear,
Our praise to thy pure glory sing.