For several years of my life, for several days a week, for several hours a day, I would look at people posing completely naked right in front of me in every position imaginable. Some were men, some were women. Some were young and shapely and some were older, plump, with sags and wrinkles. No, I was not a pervert or a porn king who had a conversion and became a celibate Byzantine Catholic priest. I was an art student. Mastering the portrayal of the human body is what art students do. It is what any serious artist strives to do throughout his whole artistic life.
The human body contains within its magnificent design all of the elements of beauty. The gift that makes someone an artist is that they see what is beautiful and strive through their expressive abilities to share that vision with the world. To see beauty is to see God, who is true, good, and beautiful. To master the portrayal of the human body is to master all of the elements of beauty in art.
I studied art all of my life and pursued a career in art prior to entering the seminary. From my life-long study of art and by virtue of that particular gift that makes someone an artist, I knew very well the ethos of seeing—what I call “seeing sacramentally.” I can personally testify to the fact that it is indeed possible to see the naked human body and not lust, but instead to see in it the glory of God. Unless civilization re-learns how to see sacramentally, we will never really overcome pornography and the demon of lust.
Blocks on our computers, support groups, altering our daily patterns, counseling, keeping “custody of the eyes,” are indeed necessary tools and disciplines to help guard against and overcome vulnerability and addiction to pornography. These are essentially external disciplines. Where we ultimately must go is to the source, to the psycho-spiritual soil in which the seeds of lust and pornography germinate. It is the place where Jesus Christ took every moral issue—to the heart, to the interior of the person. We have to retrieve the ability to see from the inside out, with the eyes of our heart. It is the way that Adam and Eve saw before they sinned; “They were both naked yet they felt no shame” (Genesis 2:23).
When Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit there was first of all a change in how they looked at things. Their ethos of seeing went from sacramental to lust, or appropriation. Lust is not reserved just to how we look at the human body; lust is a way to look at anything. After the serpent visits Eve and she falls for his bad line, the Bible describes a three-fold lust that began to well up in Eve:
The woman saw that the tree was  good for food,  pleasing to the eyes, and  desirable for wisdom. So she took some of its fruit and ate it: and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. (Genesis 3:6-7)
To “see sacramentally” is to see as Adam and Eve first saw before they sinned. It is to see as God saw when he created everything to reflect his glory. As God looked upon everything he created, “God saw how good it was” (Genesis 1:25).
In the writings of St. John Paul II, a man of the arts in his own right, he reminds us that the naked human body is not in itself an occasion for lust. Rather, it is how the body is presented and how it is received. Although St. John Paul II cautions that the use of the naked human body in art poses a particular moral challenge of intention and purity, the use of the human body in art is not in itself pornographic or an occasion for lust.
In his homily at the rededication of the Sistine Chapel after its restoration, St. John Paul II referred to the floor-to-ceiling nudity in the chapel’s paintings as the “sanctuary of the Theology of the Body.” He said that Michelangelo had the correct (sacramental) view of the body, of the redemption of the body through the reality of Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection. The Sistine Chapel has been visited by countless people for centuries precisely because its portrayal of the naked human body inspires awe, prayer, and contemplation, and not lust.
Seeing all of life, in particular the human body, “sacramentally” is to see things in an integrated way, in terms how something points to and participates in God. It is a way of seeing the beauty and the order of things, but then keeping our hands off of it. It was Eve’s “fatal reach”—putting her hands on the attractive fruit—that triggered the fall of the entire cosmos. In therapeutic terms, I describe seeing sacramentally as a three-part process: see, pray, and pass on.
See the beauty of something. Gentlemen, it is OK to see the beauty in the figure and countenance of a woman. Attraction is not appropriation, nor is to be confused with lust. After perceiving the beauty, turn what you are seeing into prayer. Thank God for making such beauty. And then turn your gaze and thoughts to other things.
Soft porn images are all around us. When you see these images, turn the image of that anonymous woman into a real person in your mind. Maybe she is a single mother twice divorced who has to settle for this type of job for her income. Say a prayer for her. We are surrounded by various levels of pornography in our culture. Men cannot drive their cars wearing blindfolds. “Custody of the eyes” means being a custodian of how we see, not pretending that we can exist by not seeing.
For men in particular, the battleground of lust is in an eye-mind coordination. It is a split-second choice in that tiny passageway between the eye and the mind and heart. Lust is a choice to move from seeing beauty for its own sake and giving glory to God to making a choice to appropriate that beauty, to lust. Notice, I said lust is a “choice.” Indeed it is.
It is a fact of the natural order of things that when we cultivate an appetite for what is authentic, true, good, and beautiful, we lose our appetite and are even repulsed by what is not authentic, true, good, and beautiful. It is true that “we are what we eat,” and that includes what we “eat” visually. My experience studying and trying to capture through art the beauty of the naked human body standing before me is actually its own “firewall” against any attraction to pornography. I know and appreciate the real thing so I have no appetite for the counterfeit.
The basic ethos of seeing in our modern civilization is bi-polar. We see all matters of sexuality as belonging to a shameful dark abyss and all things holy on the opposite pole. We can’t imagine speaking of sexuality and sacramentality in the same breath. The sacramental worldview, on the other hand, see all things from our interior and in light of God, in an integrated and honest way. We may not be able to change everything that is outside of us, from billboards to social media. But we can change how we see. We can choose to see sacramentally.
(This essay was originally posted in a slightly different form on the Clean Heart Online website on May 15, 2019.)
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