Seeing sacramentally in a pornified culture

“Custody of the eyes” means being a custodian of how we see, not pretending that we can exist by not seeing.

"Pysche Revived by Cupid's Kiss" by Antonio Canova (1757-1822) at the Musée du Louvre. Photo by Sara Darcaj on Unsplash

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 [1] good for food, [2] pleasing to the eyes, and [3] 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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About Fr. Thomas Loya 1 Article
Fr. Thomas Loya is pastor of Annunciation of the Mother of God Byzantine Catholic Parish in Homer Glen, Illinois. He is also the host of “Light of the East,” a radio show that can be heard across the United States on several Catholic radio networks.

14 Comments

  1. “It is the place where Jesus Christ took every moral issue—to the heart, to the interior of the person”

    Yes, sin is in the eye (heart) of the beholder and from a male perspective must never justify misogyny.

    With regards to modesty, mankind in many different cultures throughout the ages have dressed with the minimum of clothing out of necessity, as in tropical climates etc. I do not think that these situation increased lust. Whereas it was once though that ‘a glimpse of stocking was something shocking’ possible due to the Victorian concept of modesty, and by its covert perception, incited in some, lustful thoughts.

    It appears that convention is the underlining judge on modes of dress, whereas the intent of the dresser or has a part to play in incitement, it falls upon the voyeur (sexual interest in another or image) to curb his/her inclination/observation/fascination with any other person or image, as sin emanates from our own heart.

    A Dryad

    She took my hand at the garden gate
    Movement of easy gentle of pace and spoke with grace
    The gardeners were old women dress in black
    When they looked at her they were looking back
    Come, come to the glade, and rest in the shade, while I show you my ways
    Swaying with the breeze, she moved amongst the trees
    With movement and shape of every branch
    She commenced to dance
    Every conceivable form she made within that wooded glade
    Still moving with the flow “I have more to show”
    We went to green hill
    Domed monument built with great skill
    Marble and ivory, adornment within
    She enhanced it further still
    A bathing room of splendor, you could eat of the floor
    Showing contraptions I had never seen before
    Entwining herself almost into my form
    ‘This cannot be I’m a Christian you see’
    My mind was as crystal to converse in a dream
    But who set the scene?
    You bow before your God but we are equal with ours
    Your promise is your seed shall be as many as the stars
    But I am destined to dine on the seed, the sons of Jacob are my feed
    She spoke with such clarity of the Hebrews of old
    Nimble and at easy, confident with knowledge
    She smiled and teased, “I do as I please”
    “Show me your heart?” Her face was as of ivory
    Her top lip, turned to old bone, it cracked it crumbled
    I heard her groan; now I was alone

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

      • That presumes knowledge you can’t actually have.

        While I concede that dying with the sacraments after a lifetime of service to the poor should legitimately inspire more confidence concerning one’s eternal destiny than dying as the head of a soft-porn empire after a lifetime of exploiting women and urging hedonism, I think we also ought properly to leave the judging of souls to God alone.

  2. Thank you , for an essay with many good points – esp.liked the one about cultivating an appetite for what is authentic , good ..thus to be repulsed by what is not ..
    In the medical fields too, the training helps persons to see those they care for , in the sacredness of almost the heart of a parent caring for a wounded child ..
    The indirect mention in the article as to how Eve and Adam was no longer sort of repulsed by the tree pointing to how evil can seduce .
    https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/resources/sacraments/holy-orders/adam-high-priest-of-humanity – Adam , destined to be the high priest of creation , responsible to till and guard , against the intrusion of evil , seemingly negligent ..
    the enemy said to have been envious about the life bearing role given to the woman .. thus intent on destroying her , also indirectly using Adam to do so .
    The Lord desires to counter that envy , in increasing the birth pangs of the woman , Adam now having to till the soil and son on ..
    Bl.Emmerich mentions how our First Parents were clothed in light , hairs were like beams of light ( Cora Evans too , in her book mentions how our Lord , in his Incarnation too , was clothed in light in such a manner that no one has seen his nakedness .)
    Such a truth also points to the caring providence of The Father and may be the little discomfort in some of us , when nakedness is depicted as something to be celebrated .
    Similarly how , before The Fall, procreation itself would have had the total holiness of the Immaculate Conception , with more of the power of spoken words , as was in the case of the parents of Bl.Mother , how O.T itself is about God preparing a holy line to bring forth same .True, such graces are now again given to us through the baptism , to be claimed and extended back to our lives , for us to even claim the beauty and goodness of a good marriage ,of grace to see each other too , in that light , as a good couple , even as in the ones in the Song of Songs , even in the not so perfect marriages .
    ( Song of Songs could also be seen as the prophetic utterance of Solomon , about the glory of good courtship and married love in these G.parents of The Lord .)
    Interesting too how Bl.Mother mentions how many persons do not ask for many of the graces of the Immaculate Conception .
    ‘Cover us with your mantle of love ‘ – a prayer often uttered , thus , all forms of any unseemly nakedness , the wounds behind such , to be taken unto The Lord ,to thus be set free from any death spirits behind such , by the Precious Blood , instead to be clothed in His light and love –
    thank you for the prayer and blessings for such to be the case for many .

  3. At first reading we likely would say What? St Thomas Aquinas wrote Man has a natural tendency, desire to be naked. After What? and thoughtful consideration apparently true although the purity of mindset that preceded the Fall was lost after. Fr Thomas Loya is correct we can cultivate what he calls a sacramental vision. Africa, the hinterland is as [I] expected a land of nakedness, where a taught phi. And offered Mass in various missions on weekends. Women have no qualms in breastfeeding their infants sitting outside the chapel entrance or in the pews. At dinner with a lovely young couple with their first child. Or bathing naked in a stream by the road waving innocently not beckoning when passing thru. Africa that is missionary Africa tests your spiritual resolve. Either develop a sacramental vision of life or best leave. Even Stateside it’s a much healthier stance than pretending lovely young women do not exist, that may be seen but not be obsessed with. A kind of violation of the person. “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” (Fr Loya). Healthier also because Unnatural pretension can lead to unnatural sublimation. Excellent Article.

  4. As a word of caution, Fr. Loya has been known for strange ideas and ones at variance with JPII’s material. Here he tries to redefine the traditional notion of “custody of the eyes.” He gets many of his ideas and runs in tandem with Christopher West, whose troubling work was highlighted a few years when controversy exploded. West “misrepresents significantly” JPII’s material, according to David Schindler, among others, professor at the JPII institute in DC and West’s own former teacher and mentor. https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/christopher_wests_teaching_warrants_uneasiness_theologian_warns; https://www.catholicnewsagency.com;/news/christopher_wests_teaching_warrants_uneasiness_theologian_warns)

    One of the questionable ideas of West and Loya is that practicing “custody of the eyes” in the traditional sense supposedly shows that one has not achieved their definition of purity. West says that the response of a man upon seeing a naked woman not his wife is to deliberately gaze at her, and he would not have any improper thoughts or impulses if he is truly “pure,” and it would be a sign of weakness if he turned away. The support of JPII is erroneously invoked here, and thus in questioning their ideas, one is said to be running counter to JPII. Loya’s website at one point even had scrolling images of soft-core pornography that would briefly appear. Loya and West have been asked by critics whether they believe public nudity might ever be appropriate, to which they strangely give no reply.

    Here there is a straw man presented to justify the author’s view- that we see all matters of sexuality as belonging to a shameful dark abyss. Says who? Ergo, a man looking away would supposedly mean he sees the body as bad. No, it means having a proper notion of what purity is, as well as proper, legitimate shame, of which JPII makes a point. Among other things, it entails guarding and keeping veiled the mystery of sexual matters. Another questionable point here is, while acknowledging the connection with a person’s physiological reply, thinking it is always possible to insert an act of will in between this. However, we know that the bodily reply can occur before and without this happening. So, one is told to deliberately gaze upon a woman and her figure, but thinking one can avoid the physiological stimulation that may occur. Further, what can also happen is that before one even realizes it, the imagination already proceeds to dwell on the image and one then hopes to be able to draw that back after the fact. This is why the advice of all the great spiritual writers and saints down through the ages is to avoid taking in such images in the first place, choosing not to see them. (Is Fr. Loya suggesting they were all wrong and puritanical in their view?) This is why it is called custody of the eyes- one maintains vigilance over what the eyes take in- not taking everything in but then trying to determine “how” one sees that. One can see why such an approach would lead to someone justifying dubious images as noted above- it is all in “how” one sees something.

    A main message is to beware of popular presenters of “TOB”- what they claim is JPII’s teaching is not necessarily so, while some of their ideas are contrary to Catholic tradition and arguably even dangerous. For further critiques of Fr. Loya: https://maryvictrix.com/2010/08/05/theology-of-the-body-and-the-mystical-magical-train/ https://maryvictrix.com/2010/08/10/father-loya-peer-reviewed/

    • Your advice is well taken David. We certainly are to avoid attention to lewd comportment, staring at women. Custody of the eyes includes this. Our viewing the world is to be measured by God’s grace and the example of the saints especially Mary modal of purity. In my instance as a missionary that was assumed by necessity and so remains.

  5. After the Fall Adam and Eve clothed themselves with fig leaves, then God Himself clothed them with skins. Catholic modesty is not the sham of Puritanism, but rather a grace covering a good that is to be exclusively shared in matrimony. Our Lady of Fatima warned against immodest fashions. We are not innocent as before the Fall. Our nature is corrupted, and though elevated in grace, we must still endure the effects of original sin without the stain. Concupiscence remains. No artist has the right to view naked bodies. And pretend it’s a sacramental view. Are artists immune from the fomes peccati? Furthermore, paintings that have nudity are not the same thing as sitting before a living naked model. A doctor gets a special grace to treat bodily illnesses, artists do not.

  6. And then there’s the fig leaf thing; there’s the ADDED lie that we dangle over the original lie. The defensive self-respect of our innermost core. But that which we pretend to defend actually is no longer intact.

    Still, we build a fictive cocoon of self-deception within which the initial transgression can be excused. Adam shifts blame to Eve and Eve shifts blame to the Serpent.

    The damage, it seems, is not only in denying the Creator (whose originally-innocent possession we still are) but in the SIMULTANEOUS BETRAYAL of our own mysterious selves—the betrayed mystery of the indwelling Spirit in whose image we are.

    The fault, we imagine, is not in making an exception for ourselves. Rather, the fault is in believing that there is a fault. After all, we do not really deny morality; instead, morality is more of an “ideal” subordinate to a PAUSE BUTTON. Not a delete button, just a pause button. We deny nothing that is true, but we discern exceptions. In muddled theological tracts we even fancy that faith and (obsolete) morality are now to be uncoupled, so to speak.
    We rise above (!) and now “know” both good and evil. Maybe a “new Church” is just what we need—a one-size-fits-all collective fig leaf?

    Obsolete? In his eternal present, God creates all of us simultaneously—in the same moment. We are Adam. The Original Sin—the mark that weakens us all (wherever we are on the stage of history) is willfully original to ourselves.
    The Original Sin is not simple. The layered look is in!

    As for the mystery of the “fig leaf”, St. Augustine faces up to our inner contest between TWO WILLS, and reports that we even defensively fornicate with our imaginations—“fantastica fornicatio”: “the prostitution of the mind to its own fancies.”

  7. There have been a lot of references to Original Sin. Here is my mystical take on the Fall of Man. I apologize for the length of the comment.
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    To me the Fall of Man story in Genesis cries out for a mystical exegesis.
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    When I read about the seven days of Creation in Genesis, to me the seventh day, the day of rest, looks like it was made for contemplation. When God rested on the seventh day could it not be said that this rest was contemplation?
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    We are made in God’s image and likeness. A primary characteristic of God is one of union, the intimate union of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One God in Three Persons. This being so, union with God would be a primary part of our image and likeness. God is Love, so our union with God would need to be one based on free will in order to be based on true love. Paradise is called a walled garden. A monastic cloister can be considered to be a walled garden. Eden was a primordial cloister where Adam and Eve were being spiritually formed to have their bodies become temples of the Holy Spirit through divine union. St. John of the Cross wrote a book about divine union titled “The Ascent of Mount Carmel.” The Fall of Man was the fall from off of Mount Carmel. In Original Sin Adam and Eve corrupted their contemplation.
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    The passage that covers the Fall of Man describes the forbidden fruit as being desirable, and makes reference to Adam and Eve’s eyes. The eye is talked about in Matthew 6:22-23:
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    “The lamp of the body is the eye. If your eye is sound, your whole body will be filled with light; but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be in darkness. And if the light in you is darkness, how great will the darkness be”. (NABRE)
    *
    In the Old Testament the punishment is often in the form of the offense. In Original Sin Adam and Eve valued the gifts more than the gift Giver, which suggests an unholy lust for the things that are God’s. Thus concupiscence entered the world.
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    In Christianity there are two kinds of death. The first is the death of the body, and there is the second death of mortal sin that leads to Hell. When Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened they were no longer illuminated by the light of God’s graces. This is when the darkening of the will and intellect took place and they underwent the spiritual death of mortal sin that God warned them about. Through Original Sin Adam and Eve had stripped themselves of the robes of righteousness, leaving them truly naked. Denuded of grace, spiritually dead.
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    The choice of the talking snake was an excellent representation of Satan. The mouth can produce lying speech. In a snake this is also where the fangs are located, which in the case of poisonous snakes can issue deadly venom. We can find a description of the devil in John 8:44:
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    “44 You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (RSVCE)
    *
    If you carefully read the Fall of Man in Genesis, what the snake was promising Adam and Eve was autonomy from God. The Trinity; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist in harmonious intimate union. They are not competitors. The snake was setting things up that the relationship between God and Adam and Eve was a competitive zero-sum power struggle; that they had to act ungodly, be disobedient, and breach the union of their relationship with God to gain autonomous godhood. Being made in God’s image and likeness, anything that would alienate Adam and Eve from God would also alienate them from each other, and would include self alienation. Satan views his relationship with God to be a power struggle.
    *
    When Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened this was when the poisonous venom of the snake’s lies found its target and they died a spiritual death. What took place in Eden was that Adam and Eve took their spiritual direction from the serpent and not from God.
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    The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. To me the loin cloths are the mystical representation of the barrier between God and man that was brought about by Original Sin, and represents the veil of the temple, because Adam and Eve’s bodies could no longer be the Holy of Holies where there could be the pure indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The loin cloths, the veil of the temple, were the mystical representation of the stain of Original Sin on the souls of Adam and Eve, the same veil of the Temple that was torn in two when Christ died on the Cross for our sins, and opened the Gates of Heaven.

  8. I like to think that the garden of Eden is a metaphor in which there were only two beautiful fruits on the tree of knowledge, one the soul of Adam and the other the soul of Eve. And that in the process of biting into the forbidden fruit, which was meant for consumption by God alone, that mankind used the gift of freewill to despoil his own soul. Willful disobedience, giving in to lust, hubris and ill-advised curiosity are the hallmarks of Original Sin, (Satan = the great tempter and Lucifer = the bringer of black light). But in Jesus Christ, the caring gardener of Eden, every forbidden fruit which has be bitten into can be restored to its original state and returned to the tree of life, (I have no problem, by the way, telling my Protestant friends that I eat God ever Sunday in hope of being eaten by God after this life, and I pray everyday for the worthiness to be consumed by God when the time of my own harvest comes).

  9. I think it is perhaps important to note that, you (1) do not go looking for naked women or (2) do not go about with the intention of looking at shapely women for your personal kicks, or (3) do not go about with the intention of looking at a woman for your pleasure, if you happen to see a naked/shapely woman.

    However, it is okay (assuming no impurity in intention) to have seen a women breast-feeding or the whole naked body of a woman. Having seen that by itself is not a sin. We must strive to take it in our stride and move on without trying to grasp/appropriate to ourselves what we have seen (this includes looking at the person/image with the intent of gaining pleasure, cherishing the image in your memory, developing the image in your imagination, desiring/working towards seeing the image again etc.).

    This is easier said than done, and is only possible with God’s grace. Our desire for beauty, which is ultimately the desire for God, will likely impel us to indulge in one or more of the behaviours listed above.

    To use an analogy, think of a person who struggles with making an idol out of a car. We tend to idolise whatever we think will make us happy. If that person happens to see a BMW M3, it is not a sin. If he dwells on it, and turns it into an idol in his mind, that is when he sins.

    At the same time, it may be good to not obsess over keeping your eyes from ever happening to see something of the sort. Our primary focus must be on growing our relationship and love of Jesus, and not on thinking every moment about not lusting after women. If we grow our relationship with God, the less we will feel inclined to idolise the female body.
    Being pre-occupied with the female body can lead to a sort of idolization of the female body (I think this is what Fr.Loya meant by “unnatural pretension can lead to unnatural sublimation”).

    “It is not your avoidance of sin that will grow your relationship with God. It is growing your relationship with God, that will help you overcome your sin” –

    If you happen to lust, return to your pursuit of relationship with God, ask for God’s healing and forgiveness in your personal prayer AND in the sacrament of confession.

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