By: Christopher West
In a culture saturated with pornographic imagery, we would do well to remember Christ’s words from the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that if you even look at that Victoria’s Secret catalogue and lust, you have already committed adultery in your heart” (Modern Christopher West Translation of Mt 5:27-28). And lest women think they are off the hook, we could just as aptly say, “If you even read that romance novel or watch Desperate Housewives and lust, you’ve already committed adultery in your heart.”
Christ isn’t saying a mere glance or momentary thought makes us guilty of adultery. As fallen human beings, we’ll always be able to sense the pull of lust in our hearts. This doesn’t mean we’ve sinned. It’s what we do when we experience that pull of lust that matters. Do we seek God’s help in resisting it or do we indulge it? When we indulge it — that is, when we actively choose “in our hearts” to treat another person as merely an object for our own gratification — we seriously violate that person’s dignity and our own. We’re meant to be loved “for our own sakes,” never used as an object for someone else’s sake.
Averting our Gaze toward a Great Mystery
What are we to do, then, just stare at the sidewalk for the rest of our lives? Sure, remember that song we sing in church: “They will know we are Christians by our staring at the sidewalk…?” Or, rather, is it “They will know we are Christians by our love…?” Christ’s words are not merely a command to avert one’s gaze. As John Paul II taught, Christ’s words about lust are “an invitation to a pure way of looking at others, capable of respecting the spousal meaning of the body” (Veritatis Splendor, n. 15).
The body has a “spousal meaning” because it reveals the call of man and woman to become a gift to one another. Maleness and femaleness only make sense in light of each other. Spouses express this truth most fully by becoming “one flesh.” In this gift, spouses are meant to express the very love of God. They are meant to reveal the “great mystery” of Christ’s love for the Church (see Eph 5:31-32). Those who are pure of heart are able to see this “great mystery” — this great plan of God’s love — revealed through the human body. Seeing this and rejoicing in this is very different than looking at the body as an object of lust.
Obviously, if a person needs to avert his (or her) gaze in order to avoid lusting, then, by all means, that person should do so. We classically call this “avoiding the occasion of sin” by “gaining custody of the eyes.” This is a necessary first step, but John Paul II described such an approach as a negative purity (negative here not meaning ‘bad’ or ‘worse’ but an absence). As we grow in virtue we come to experience a positive, more mature purity. “In mature purity man enjoys the fruits of the victory won over lust.” He enjoys the “efficacy of the gift of the Holy Spirit” who restores to his experience of the body “all its simplicity, its explicitness, and also its interior joy” (Theology of the Body, April 1, 1981).
Purity is not prudishness
Purity does not reject the body. “Purity is the glory of the human body before God. It is God’s glory in the human body, through which masculinity and femininity are manifested” (ToB, March 18, 1981). Purity in its fullness will only be restored in heaven. Yet, as the Catechism teaches, “Even now [purity of heart] enables us to see according to God…; it lets us perceive the human body — ours and our neighbor’s — as a temple of the Holy Spirit, a manifestation of divine beauty” (CCC, n. 2519).
If you find that lust blinds you to the true beauty of the human body, take heart: Jesus came preaching sight for the blind. Like the blind man in the Gospel, we must all cry out to him, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me, I want to see!”
An Invitation, not Condemnation
Most people see in Christ’s words only a condemnation. Do we forget that Christ came into the world not to condemn, but to save? (see Jn 3:17). Christ’s words about lust call us back to the original truth of the body and sexuality. As part of the heritage of original sin, lust obscures in each of us God’s original, beautiful plan for the body and sexual love — but it hasn’t snuffed it out. John Paul II insisted that the heritage of our hearts is deeper than lust and the words of Christ reactivate that deeper heritage giving it real power in our lives (see ToB, Oct 29, 1980).
Imagine the human heart as a deep well. Starting from the top we have to pass through layers of muddy waters. But if we press through, at the bottom of the well we’ll find a spring that, when activated, can gradually fill the well to overflowing with pure, living water. If we think a “lustful look” is the only way a person can look at the human body, then we subscribe to what John Paul II called “the interpretation of suspicion.” Those who live by suspicion remain so locked in their own lusts that they project the same bondage on to everyone else. They can’t imagine any way to think about the human body and the sexual relationship other than through the prism of lust.
When we hold the human heart in a state of irreversible suspicion because of lust, we condemn ourselves to a hopeless, loveless existence. As St. Paul warns us, we must avoid the trap of “holding the form of religion” while “denying the power of it” (2 Tim 3:5). “Redemption is a truth, a reality, in the name of which man must feel called, and called with efficacy” (ToB, Oct 29, 1980). In other words, the death and resurrection of Christ is effective; when allowed, it takes effect in us. It can change our lives, our attitudes, our hearts. Yes — Christ’s death and resurrection can change the way we experience sexual desire, away from lust and toward the truth of divine love.
The Rewards of the Riches Within
Much is at stake. As John Paul II stated, “The meaning of life is the antithesis of the interpretation ‘of suspicion.’ This interpretation is very different, it is radically different from what we discover in Christ’s words in the Sermon on the Mount.” Christ’s words about lust “reveal …another vision of man’s possibilities” (Oct 29, 1980). Christ’s words reveal the possibility of loving as God loves — not despite our sexuality but in and through it.
John Paul II observed that this demands “perseverance and consistency” in learning the meaning of our bodies, the meaning of our sexuality. We must learn this not only in the abstract (although this, too, is necessary), but above all in the interior reactions of our own “hearts.” This is a “science,” the Pope said, which can’t really be learned only from books, because it’s a question here of deep knowledge of our interior life. Deep in the heart we learn to distinguish between what, on the one hand, composes the great riches of sexuality and sexual attraction, and what, on the other hand, bears only the sign of lust. And although these internal movements of the heart can sometimes be confused with one another, we have been called by Christ to acquire a mature and complete evaluation. And the Pope insisted that “this task can be carried out and is really worthy of man” (ToB, Nov 12, 1980).