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Practicing ‘custody of the eyes’

August 28, 2015
Sister Maria Catherine, OP

In Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23, the Pharisees are up in arms (as usual) about their observations of Christ’s religious observance. But before I throw them under the bus, their reaction poses a valid question: At what point does my desire to perfect religious muddle my identity? At this time the tradition of the Elders is considered a crucial part of the Pharisee’s Jewish identity. To cast it aside as quickly as Christ does would seem sacrilegious to them. It would be like wearing white after Labor Day in the South. On our side of the country it would be like failing to eat organic, or being an A’s fan in San Francisco: Uncouth, definitely.

The Pharisees believe that these traditions make or break their faithfulness to God. Jesus clearly disagrees. How can I discern between a tradition that is burdensome (but is now expected), versus a legitimate practice that deepens my faith? In this situation Jesus indicates that the Pharisees are not paying attention to the telos – the end for which all things strive according to their nature. He indirectly implies the real question: To what end are you washing hands, purifying beds, pots, etc.?

The first thing Jesus lists that emerges from human hearts is “evil thoughts.” The happiness we strive for in our relationship with God and each other is directly related to what we think about. My thoughts are the rudder that direct the boat of my moral life. This is part of my telos; I become what I ponder.

So, this begs another question: What am I thinking about all day long? What am I putting into my mind to nourish it? Monastic writers discuss a practice called “custody of the eyes,” at length. These wise fathers in the faith encourage me to discipline my eyes. When I’m driving along the highway, do I have to look at every billboard? When I go grocery shopping, do I dwell on a Kardashian gracing the cover of People?

My mind needs something life-giving to feast on. Paul emphasizes this, when he says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious if there is any excellence or anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). How do I find more of these things to dwell on? A twofold approach could be helpful: Where am I wasting time on frivolous images? What am I reading? What do I listen to? Minimizing the time spent on what doesn’t lead me to God, will help me to make room for the things that will deepen my relationship with Christ and open my heart to what is truly restorative. Regular Sunday Mass attendance is mandated by the church to offer such an opportunity. It provides a weekly spot in my schedule to refocus. In addition, here is where adding 15 minutes of spiritual reading before bed, listening to a couple of faith-filled podcasts in the car every week on spiritual subjects that interest me, and praying the rosary step in; these are the things that give me palpable energy.

To what degree do the things you think about and the ways you spend your time help you to fulfill that end?

Sister Maria Catherine, OP, is a perpetually professed member of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. She is fresh from teaching high school English in San Francisco, and is pursuing her master’s in theology at Ave Maria University in Florida.

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