Thursday, May 29, 2014

Distinction: Looking At and Looking Into

Relevant to modesty, there are two kinds of looking. First is looking at and second is looking into.

We look at a body when a body draws attention to itself in order to arouse desire. Of course, bodies cannot do anything by themselves but are controlled by people. It would be more accurate to say that a person draws attention to his or her own body in order to arouse desire. Lust is looking at bodies with such a desire and to arouse further such desire.

The desire in turn creates a fantasy in which the desire can be ultimately satiated although this satiation sometimes can even take the form of endlessly building up desire rather than releasing it. The fantasy focuses on the body, but its underlying mechanism and energy is found in desire.

The basic reason for creating this desire through the body is narcissism, and the root of narcissism is a lack of love. Love (as a noun) is a state of wholeness and integrity by which a person can live harmoniously according to the nature of his own being as a person—a substance who gives and receives of itself in relation to other beings. In order to reach this state, a person must first be loved (as a verb), and in the process of receiving love, the person is filled with love and can give it to others. When this love is lacking, the person lives on the verge of death, creating fear and despair.

Unable to withstand the pain of this proximity to death, the person seeks to create desire in the hopes that someone may love him. But the fatal mistake is made by drawing attention not to the deficient and suffering person, but to the body. The body, which becomes a vehicle of attention, the hook with a worm to drawn in fish, suddenly and paradoxically becomes its own end. Everything goes wrong. Instead of desiring the person, an attracted person desires only the body of the person that is doing the attracting. And the attracting person, forgetting or not knowing that he is seeking love and not merely the attention of another, mistakes that attention for love itself and thus finds ways to bolster the attraction of the body. Love is confused for attention, which is only the first step on the way to giving love (for we can love only what we actively attend to).

As for those who look at the body, because they remain fixated on the body and the fantasy—the image—, they cannot descend deeper into their soul and hence they either have no interior life other than the imagination or whatever interiority is present is quickly stifled. This is why the Desert Fathers noted that lust or sins of the flesh in general were one of the quickest ways of totally destroying the spiritual life and leading to what they called a distaste for prayer.

I would also note that looking at may also apply not only to bodies but to other creatures and things. Any-thing that is physical or at least can be visualized in some way and made the object of a fantasy can become an object looked at. Reading, watching movies, and all sorts of activities. Here, however, we shift from merely looking at and remaining on the surface to a slightly different but related notion of where one's attention is placed. When attention is not placed on the interior life, then the interior life is stifled. Hence attention has always been a necessary condition for effective prayer according to the formula that God does not listen to those who do not listen to themselves while praying.

But, on the other hand, we look into a soul and through the body when we exercise purity of heart. Purity of heart is the constant realization of and clinging to what is true and what is false in matters of true love. By doing so, the attention can never remain on the body because it sees the futility of doing so. Rather the person looks through the body to the soul and sees the truth. What truth is seen? Ultimately, purity sees the truth that most people defile purity, even by those who claim to uphold it.

Immodest dress always reveals an impure soul. A pure soul is not fooled by narcissism and thus would never dress narcissistically. Even if the immodest person is unaware of the mechanisms of immodesty and narcissism at work, that doesn't mean that those mechanisms are not in fact at play.

A person who draws attention specifically to the body cannot have an interior life beyond the imaginative realm for the very reason that the attention remains on the physical surface in order to produce a fantasy. Even those who focus intemperately on a certain spiritual faculty, such as the intellect or imagination, by being over-studious, for example, typically give little attention to the body and hence draw little attention. Although body and soul are not opposed in goodness, for both by being manifestations of being are intrinsically good, immodesty draws attention to the body to the neglect of the interior soul as well as the distraction of the will and desires away from the interior, where God is, to the exterior, where the fantasy thrives. Hence anyone who encourages this psychological-spiritual activity, whether consciously or not, is revealing a lack of interiority. If the activity is unconscious, as in many cases it seems to be, then the reason may firstly be due to ignorance and a lack of self-reflection, which would quickly reveal the emotional traps that a person has been going through, say in abusive relationships.

Just as grace can overflow to the body and have sanctifying effects on it—for this reason do we venerate the relics of Saints because in doing so, we can "touch" God in a way distantly similar to how we receive Christ in the Eucharist [1]—so too sin can have vicious effects on the body. There are some who are so depraved that one can see the emptiness of sin in their faces and eyes.

Nevertheless, modest dress does not necessarily reveal a pure soul. Attention to the externals of dress may be due not because of intrinsic purity but because of adherence to rules, a sense of duty, or the fear of punishment (and many other circumstances around the decision to dress modestly). A person can still obey the law even if they do not desire or appreciate the law or its deepest spirit and sentiments. Thus the law of purity demands modest dress, but the reason for this demand may be completely unapparent to a modestly-dressed person.

But what about those who know that and why the law of purity demands modesty and nevertheless are still impure? The only remaining possibilities are either weakness or malice in their character. And sometimes weakness can give way to malice and vice versa.



1. Fr. Marie-Eugène, I Want To See God, trans. by M. Verda Clare (Notre Dame, IN: Christian Classics, 1953), 30: "The transforming union extends its influence too over the sense powers and even radiates out to the body.... The body itself is sanctified by the radiation of grace; it is by virtue of this that it is honored in the case of the saints, and that God Himself sometimes glorifies it even here below."

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