Each day, we are visually bombarded with a host of images. Try running an errand or going to work without seeing some advertisement or spying your reflection in the glass of some glistening screen. Even in the monastic cloister, we can pass our waking hours looking at things—be they the words of Scripture, the faults of our fellow friars, or the spaghetti stain on our just-washed habit.
While we might think about sight as an active operation—we are the ones doing the seeing, after all—Aristotle puts the person in a place of passivity with respect to the object of our sight. He defines “sense” in passive terms: “By a ‘sense’ is meant what has the power of receiving into itself forms of things without the matter” (De Anima II.12). For example, when you see a blade of green grass, it is not the blade itself but aspects of the blade, such as its green color and its thin shape, which are impressed or informed upon your sense.
In an analogous way, we can speak of images impressing certain sentiments on us. When we see a news report about recent natural disasters, we might be moved to compassion or empathy. Conversely, if we see an attractive woman, we might be moved to lust after her like David lusted after Bathsheba (see 2 Sam 11:2-3). If one reacts consistently toward these impressions made upon oneself, then soon one will become habituated towards acting in ways that lead to either further good acts (virtue) or bad acts (vice).
Aristotle knew the power of habituation by the power of his reason. St. Augustine, who passed his adolescence living a licentious lifestyle, knew it by experience. In his rule for religious, he says it is not forbidden for brothers to see women when they are out of the monastery, but he strongly instructs the brothers not to “fix” their eyes on women. Augustine goes on to counsel them, “If you notice in any of your number this roving eye referred to above, immediately admonish the individual and correct the matter as soon as possible, in order to curb its progress.” Once the stamp of sin wounds the inner man, all manner of vice can begin to flow freely from us. Thus our Lord teaches, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.” (Mt 15:19-20).
By sin, both our personal sins as well as the effects of original sin, our hearts are wounded and in need of healing. Part of our wounded nature, however, is that we try to hide from God in shame and fear. Like the psalmist, we cry out, “Remove your gaze from me, that I may know gladness, before I depart and be no more!” (Psalm 39:13)
In these last days, however, God the Father has sent us his Son, fully God and fully man. As human, Christ possesses our sense of sight. But as divine, his vision possesses an active element that ours lacks. We witness this affecting look of the Lord in St. Matthew’s description of his very own conversion (Mt 9:9). In a marvelous homily, St. Bede the Venerable recounts and explains the scene this way:
Jesus saw Matthew, not merely in the usual sense, but more significantly with his merciful understanding of men. He saw the tax collector and, because he saw him through the eyes of mercy and chose him, he said to him: ‘Follow me.’
Christ Jesus, who perfectly knows what is to be seen in man’s heart (see John 2:25), looks upon our infirmity with active eyes of mercy and salvific choosing. We see this power of the Lord manifested again on Holy Thursday, when he turned his gaze towards St. Peter after his threefold denial. Pope St. John Paul II has this to say about this encounter in his scriptural Way of the Cross, composed for Holy Week in Rome:
This is not just any man who looks at another; it is ‘the Lord,’ whose eyes peer into the depths of the heart, into the deepest secrets of a person’s soul. From the eyes of the Apostle fall tears of repentance. In his story are condensed countless stories of infidelity and conversion, of weakness and liberation…We too can take the road that brings us to Christ’s gaze and we can hear him give us the same charge: you too, ‘once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers!’
As Pope John Paul exhorts, you and I have a great gazer of mercy in the Lord Jesus. Let us then confidently fall under his vision, that we may receive mercy and grace in our times of need.
Image: Rembrandt, Denial of Peter.