Guarding our hearts and minds, and making them beautiful

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27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A: Oct. 2, 2011
Isa 5:1-7; Ps 80; Phil 4:6-9; Matt 21:33-43

As we go about our daily lives, we observe that many people are very careful about what they eat and drink. Some seek to eat only foods organically grown, or not involving genetic engineering. Many need to avoid foods they are allergic to—such as nuts, or gluten, or lactose—and perhaps they cannot take in even a trace amount of those substances. Certainly this is the case if someone is traveling to a country where food is not handled safely, and they can become sick by eating the wrong thing handled and prepared in a tainted environment.

This same care can also be taken with what we breathe in, so that we avoid second-hand smoke and are careful with air filters. Or in what we place against our skin: what our clothing is made of, or our sheets or other objects.

We are careful about what we take into our bodies by mouth, by breathing, by direct contact. But what about what we take into our hearts and minds, our souls, by seeing and hearing?

Too often we who are sensitive to our physical vulnerability, live and act as if we are invulnerable in what we see, what we know, what we spend time reflecting upon. We will look at anything, talk about anything, think about anything—as if nothing will hurt us or change us. And yet it will.

  • The 9th and 10th commandments direct us away from covetousness—from desiring and mentally dwelling upon people and things that are inappropriate for us.
  • St. John in his first letter (2:16) warns against “the lust of the eyes.”
  • And our moral tradition urges us to practice “custody of the eyes”—to exercise sufficient self control to not even look upon things which we should not be dwelling on.
  • St. Thomas Aquinas, that 13th century philosopher and theologian who very much wanted to know and to understand, warned against the vice of curiositas, which is when the desire to know turns wrong (ST, II-II, 167). This can happen, he says, when we seek to know in order to build up our own pride; or when we neglect what we have the duty to learn and know, in order to look upon what is idle and unimportant; or when we look upon something for no useful purpose, but only for a certain sensory gratification; or even for a harmful purpose, such as lusting after someone, or wanting to think badly of them.

So often we want to hear about the bad things that others do—the scandals, the crimes. Think about what sells newspapers; or what gets forwarded by email or shared on Facebook. We want to know about it out there; and also close by, as when we talk together about others’ faults, in gossip and detraction, even calumny. We view artistic depictions of horrible acts of violence and degradation.

And especially today we view pornography—which, the Catechism reminds us (2354), “consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties.” Pornography is so common today, accessible in every place through technology, and so widely used by so many people, that we can slip into thinking of it as normal, or at least just a small problem, a small sin. But it is not. It does grave injury to all who engage in it: those who allow themselves to be depicted in it; those who sell it; those who view it.

And so the viewing of pornography is not a small matter but a grave one. It is not a venial sin but a mortal sin—if done with full knowledge and full freedom. If you view pornography, you must go to the sacrament of confession to have that mortal sin forgiven; you must seek out that sacrament quickly; and you must not receive Holy Communion before you do. It is that serious.

To be careless about what you see and hear and think is to value yourself too little—as well as others. And this might well be unconscious—thinking that only what you do is valuable, and not what you are inside. But you are meant to be beautiful inside—yes, even you—beautiful, and radiant, and glorious in heart and mind: giving delight to God the Father, and life and encouragement to other people who catch a glimpse of who and what you are inside.

In our first reading and Gospel today, we hear about the vineyard that God has planted so carefully—”spading it, clearing it of stones, planting the choicest vines.” And this is a collective image of the People of Israel and the Church, yes—but it is also a personal image. You are that vineyard, which the Lord has made so carefully. St. Teresa of Avila and other saints speak of our souls as being like enclosed gardens that can become beautiful, full of radiant flowers. Not full of sordid, unseemly thoughts; or polluted or poisoned; but pure and beautiful; full of the fruit that our Lord Jesus speaks of.

And so the practice of modesty is very important: not just the kind of clothes you wear, although that is important; but, more deeply, to truly value how precious and valuable other people are, and you yourself. The Catechism tells us (2521-24):

Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden… It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity. [It] protects the mystery of persons and their love. It encourages patience and moderation in loving relationships… It keeps silence or reserve where there is evident risk of unhealthy curiosity. It is discreet…

It is the recognition of the spiritual dignity that belongs to each of us as human beings—to others, and to you.

It is not just what we take into our bodies by eating, breathing, or physical contact that affects us; but what we love, what we look upon, what we dwell upon within our hearts and minds. And so St. Paul urges us: whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. And the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

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