There is a pretty, sensual young woman sitting in that room, and she is completely naked. Never mind how she got naked in the first place. She is naked and helpless and under your control. What do you do? Do you feel tempted? Do you rage at her for being that way, for tempting you? Do you take off your own clothes? Do you stare at her? Kiss her? Rape her? Do you take off your jacket and give it to her to wear? Do you make eye contact and gaze at her, one human being to another? Do you lead her from the room? You could. You have the potential to do any of these things. The difference is in your disposition and your gaze.
You cannot always help your ignorance. Sometimes you can, and when you can you should. You cannot always help your hormone levels, your sex drive, and what kind of temptations flash before your mind. Sometimes you can. You usually can’t help what information flashes before your eyes, whether it’s a painted icon or a pornographic magazine cover or a woman wearing spaghetti straps to Mass. Pornographic photos shouldn’t exist, and people should remember it is polite to wear clothes that cover their shoulders at Mass, but you can’t always help running into that sort of thing. But what is under your control, is your gaze. Your sin, or your act of virtue, does not depend on spaghetti straps worn by somebody else. Your sin, and your act of virtue, are in your own gaze first before they’re in your actions. First you dispose yourself to gaze with the eyes of your soul. Then you see with the senses of your body or the conjuring of your psyche. Then you gaze, and then you act. To commit adultery in the heart is to commit adultery indeed, before you’ve done it with your body and whether you’re successful in doing so at all. We have that on the authority of a much wiser One than I. To gaze upon all of creation, and on your Neighbor in particular, with the pornographic gaze– with a disposition of superiority, of being one who has no responsibility toward them, of being entitled to use another rather than having reverence for them– is sin. To gaze upon all of creation with reverence and openness is virtue, and from that virtuous gaze, virtuous acts naturally follow. You can be tempted to every sexual sin imaginable, but if you gaze upon your neighbor with true love and reverence, you won’t commit any sin against her. Even if she’s being immodest.
Virtue demands a different logic. Virtue demands that we gaze upon one another as icons, and then do whatever our reverence demands of us, whether it’s making eye contact or sacrificing our lives as martyrs of charity. Modesty is not only one side of the coin; modesty is a small function of a much larger whole, and the whole begins with the proper gaze.
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)