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Is it Really OK To Look But Don’t Touch?

November 28, 2012

There’s an old saying that “it’s OK to look but don’t touch” when it comes to relating to another human being. Given today’s minimalistic morality of not flagrantly harming others and naturalistic understanding of human beings as creatures with animalistic drives, it’s not surprising that this maxim has become a widely-accepted folk proof-text allowing a person to lust after someone else as long as that doesn’t include any sort of physical intimacy.  Of course, this maxim flies in the face of the Christian spiritual tradition that views lust as a passion, human beings as called to greater deeds than the instinctive reactions of animals, and harm as resulting not only from physical actions, but also from the focus of the mind that can be manifested by the wrong kind of glance inflicting damage both on the individual who is looking and on the person who is seen. The maxim also doesn’t pass muster from a neurological perspective, since looking with lustful intent sets in motion a cascade of neurotransmitters aimed at driving the organism to reproduction and not acting on it creates an inner conflict between desires and reality. For spiritual health, Christian tradition has steadfastly counseled “custody of the eyes.” For peace of mind, enlightened psychologists could offer the same advice.

The biblical cornerstone for the Christian practice is our Lord’s teaching to the Apostles on the use of their eyes. Saint Jerome noted that the Lord who told them that “whosoever looketh upon a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” also commanded them “to lift up their eyes and to look on the fields, for these are white and ready for harvest” (Letter 76 to Abigaus, PL 22.689). In other words, the eyes should be used selflessly, not selfishly, to give, not to take, for love and service, not for lust and exploitation. The way that we use our eyes is dependent on our deeper orientation towards life and commitment to something greater than ourselves. From the perspective of ancient Christianity, using our eyes in the wrong way is symptomatic of a passion (pathos), the very root for the word pathology, the science of the cause and effect of diseases. In this case, the cause of the disease is not the bodily eyes that see, but the eye of the mind that, as Saint Ambrose of Milan teaches, chooses between modestly looking away and turning its attention towards an object for the purpose of desire (Two Books on Repentance, 1.14, PL 16.487d).

For the ancient fathers, the passions are disordered, unhealthy impediments to becoming “more than the beasts that perish.” The passions are discrete sicknesses that limit our freedom, poison our relationships with others, and if untreated have the capacity to destroy what is most beautiful in the human soul, the capacity to love. Lust, envy, anger, jealousy, and greed are not bad merely because they are contrary to the Ten Commandments (although they indeed are).  No, these passions are bad because they turn us the children of Adam and Eve who were intended to live in harmony with one another and with God into something we were not meant to be. According to this therapeutic, rather than legal, understanding of the passions, a “little lust” or a “little jealousy” is as unacceptable as a “little cancer.” Those who ascribe to the “look-but-don’t-touch” theory consider a lustful glance to be no more serious than running a stop sign: there is no harm done as long as one doesn’t get caught or cause an accident.  A legalistic approach to the passions misunderstands what’s at stake and the seriousness of the malady.

Guarding the senses, especially the eyes, is a central part of ascetical praxis. With respect to carnal beauty, Saint John Chrysostom teaches that this means restraining curiosity, refusing to hunt for provocative images or faces, not allowing the eyes to feast to satiation, and limiting the amount of time one fixes one’s gaze on something that could trigger lustful thoughts (Commentary on Matthew, 17, PG 57.256).  The issue is not the eyes, but the use of the heart and the focus of the attention. As in the last blog post in which I discussed anger, giving way to the passions, even a little bit, is never in our best interests. A little venting or a little lusting does cause harm. And even when we are making progress in prayer and striving to live a life centered upon the Gospel, the passions lie in wait to ensnare us. They lurk in the tall grass of our thoughts waiting for the right moment to strike at us.  Fasting, confession, and vigils drive the passions out of this tall grass and further away from us.  But above all, we need to be watchful and rely on the Lord Jesus Christ who gave us commandments not as legal prohibitions, but as medical prescriptions for the healing of soul and body, so that we might become all that He has fashioned us to be.

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