I don’t want my boys to avert their eyes from a scantily clad woman.
I want them to look at her, to delight in her, to show her the great value she possesses by the way they acknowledge her personhood.
There is a story of a group of bishops in Antioch who walked past a beautiful prostitute. All of the bishops averted their eyes out of shame, but Bishop Nonnus said, “Did you see that beautiful woman? Did you delight in her? I did.” And then he wept for her. He wept for her soul that wandered about, searching for itself. He wept for the many times that her actions did not reflect her infinite worth.
And as for the prostitute, Bishop Nonnus’ gaze upon her sparked her conversion to Christianity. She had never had someone look at her with such purity and, suddenly, she knew who she was. She realized she had a deeper purpose than the lifestyle she was living. And now we know her as St. Pelagia.
The complementarity of men and women is a delicate balance. Women so easily play upon the vulnerabilities of men through dress and action, and men play upon the vulnerabilities of women through look and speech. We may not be fully culpable for the sin of the opposite sex, but we do have the ability to help them become who God created them to be–authentic lovers, creatures of dignity, saints.
Of course, our fallen natures will be victimized by that relentless tempter named Lust. During those weak moments, we learn to protect ourselves by avoiding certain situations, averting our gaze, and gaining “custody of the eyes.”
But we mustn’t forget that we are not limited to two choices: to look upon another with lust, or to not look at all. Limiting ourselves to those two choices allows Satan to rob us of the joy of real love and offer us only a stinted imitation. As St. John Paul II reminds us in the Theology of the Body, “Purity is a requirement of love.” (TOB 49:7) To really love–to be able to completely give ourselves to another and accept the same in return, we must not take custody of the eyes, but, rather, guard the gaze of the heart. It is the heart that determines what the eyes really see.
We can teach our children to avert their eyes if they feel the temptation of lust overtaking them, and of course we want to teach them to avoid pictures, magazines, and websites that have the intention of arousing lust. But we mustn’t give up on their potential for purity. We cannot abandon the belief that we were created for more. The body is good and our desires are good, meant to be ordered towards God’s great plan for marriage and love–ordered towards the surviving and thriving of the entire human race and the communion of saints. This is why we can look upon another person with love and respect, regardless of how he or she is dressed.
Like Bishop Nonnus, our goal is to be of such purity of heart that all we see in every person we meet is a body and soul, unified and glorified with the light of Christ. It is when we see others like this that we start to change the world. It is when we look upon others like this that they realize who they are–not someone shameful, objectified, and disposable; but someone dignified, unique, and eternally worthy. It is when we know who we are that real love is free to take its course.
One look is all it takes. One real look–from someone who sees the other as God does: ever in need of mercy and a worthy member of the communion of saints.
Here is more on this topic from Christopher West.