III. MORTIFICATION OF THE EYES
The indulgence of the eyes, if not the cause of any other evil, will at least destroy recollection at prayer. The images and impressions caused by the objects seen before, or by the wandering of the eyes, during prayer, will occasion a thousand distractions, and banish all recollection from the soul. It is certain that without recollection we can pay but little attention to the practice of humility, patience, mortification, or of the other virtues. Hence it is our duty to abstain from all looks of curiosity which distract our mind from holy thoughts. Let the eyes be directed only to objects which raise the soul to God. St. Bernard used to say, that to fix the eyes upon the earth contributes to keep the heart in Heaven. “Where,” says St. Gregory, “Christ is, there modesty is found.” Wherever Jesus Christ dwells by love, there modesty is practised. However, I do not mean to say that the eyes should never be raised or never fixed on any object. No, but they ought to be directed only to what inspires devotion, to sacred images, and to the beauty of creation, which elevate the soul to the contemplation of the divinity. Except in looking at such objects, we should in general keep the eyes cast down, and particularly in places where they may fall upon dangerous objects. In conversing with people, we should not roll the eyes about to look at them, and much less to look at them a second time.
To practise modesty of the eyes is the duty of religious souls, not only because it is necessary for their own improvement in virtue, but also because it is necessary for the edification of others. God only knows the human heart: man sees only the exterior actions, and by them he is edified or scandalised. A man, says the Holy Ghost, is known by his look (Ecclus. xix. 26). By the countenance the interior is known. Hence, like St. John the Baptist, a Christian should be a burning and shining light (John v. 35). He ought to be a torch burning with charity, and shining resplendent by his modesty, to all who behold him. We are made a spectacle to the world, and to angels, and to men (1 Cor. iv. 9). And again: Let your modesty be known to all men: the Lord is nigh (Phil. iv. 5). Oh! what devotion does a modest religious person inspire, what edification does he give, by keeping his eyes always cast down! St. Francis of Assisi once said to his companion, that he was going out to preach. After walking to the town, with his eyes fixed on the ground, he returned to the convent. His companion asked him when he would preach the sermon. We have, replied the Saint, by the modesty of our looks, given an excellent instruction to all who saw us. It is related of St. Aloysius, that when he walked through Rome the students would stand in the streets to observe and admire his great modesty.
St. Ambrose says, that to men of the world the modesty of the Saints is a powerful exhortation to amendment of life. “The look of a just man is an admonition to many.” The Saint adds: “How beautiful to do good to others by the very sight of you.” It is related of St. Bernardine of Sienna, that even when a secular, his presence was sufficient to restrain the licentiousness of his young companions, who, as soon as they saw him were accustomed to give one another notice that he was coming. On his arrival they became silent or changed the subject of their conversation. It is also related of St. Gregory of Nyssa, and of St. Ephrem, that their very appearance inspired piety, and that the sanctity and modesty of their exterior edified and improved all that beheld them. When Innocent II visited St. Bernard at Clairvaux, such was the exterior modesty of the Saint and of his monks, that the Pope and his cardinals were moved to tears of devotion. Surius relates a very extraordinary fact of St. Lucian, a monk and Martyr. By his modesty he induced so many pagans to embrace the Faith, that the Emperor Maximian, fearing that he should be converted to Christianity by the appearance of the Saint, would not allow the holy man to be brought within his view, but spoke to him from behind a screen.
That our Redeemer was the first Who taught, by His example, modesty of the eyes, may, as a learned author remarks, be inferred from the holy Evangelists who say that on some occasion He raised His eyes. And he, lifting up his eyes on his disciples (Luke vi. 20). When Jesus therefore had lifted up his eyes (John vi. 5). From these passages we may conclude that the Redeemer ordinarily kept His eyes cast down. Hence the Apostle, praising the modesty of the Saviour, says: I beseech you, by the mildness and modesty of Christ (2 Cor. x. 1).
I shall conclude this subject with what St. Basil said to his monks: If, my children, we desire to raise the soul towards Heaven, let us direct the eyes towards the earth. From the moment we awake in the morning, let us pray continually in the words of holy David: Turn away my eyes, that they may not behold vanity (Ps. cxviii. 37).