The Pilgrimage of the Eyes

One of the most passionate on-line discussions I’ve dropped in on recently was sparked by a blog post from a concerned mother, who had been sitting at the dinner table with her teenaged sons and trying to set some ground rules for dealing with Facebook friends whose photos seemed – to a parent’s eye – to be disturbingly sexually suggestive.

The post was framed as a letter to a girl who had, perhaps unintentionally, posted a suggestive self-portrait using her bedroom as a backdrop. The mother’s tone was both fierce and poignant:  “That post doesn’t reflect who you are at all! … what you were trying to do? Who are you trying to reach? What are you trying to say?” As you read it, you hoped that the girl in question was not a real person – of course, she may have been a composite, a fiction created to illustrate the idea. Still, you found yourself wondering whether this girl-reader, after a childhood spent in a forest of sexualized images of women sporting the early-puberty body type, could have any real clue what the mother was talking about. Girls tend to simply take these images as ‘what women are supposed to try to look like’.

So it was easy to imagine the alarm of the girl-reader, whether she really existed or not. She had certainly not been trying to advertise her home as a bordello, and it had perhaps not occurred to her that a sexy pose might lead a certain kind of viewer to think of her as a potential partner for actual sex. It also might not occur to her that her Facebook friend’s mother going all medieval on her had been intended as a protective gesture, a tiger-mother’s sort of kindness.

I have to mention here that the mother’s blog post was illustrated by copious male eye candy in the form of radiant and quite hunky photos – the mother’s bare-chested sons horsing around on a beach. My imagined teen-aged reader was definitely getting a subliminal message that if she kept herself pure, the prize would be a wholesome and blue eyed love god. I’m pretty sure that it was those boys’ torsos that made the post go viral.

Dozens of comments accused the writer of setting a double standard – boys can show all the flesh they want!  To be fair, it almost certainly wasn’t her intent. But intended or not, the combination of words and pictures did give off a whiff of blaming girls for what goes on in the head of boys.

So why are we talking about this here? You guessed it – this whole topic is one where the early Christians had strong views. But if you know where to look, there turns out to be quite a bit of good sense on offer. The place to start is the Egyptian desert – if there was anybody in early Christianity who understood cranky, hungry, sleep-deprived teenagers it was the Desert Fathers and Mothers.

I spent quite a bit of time with the Desert Mothers when I was working on Band of Angels: The Forgotten World of Early Christian Women. I was charmed to discover how critical they were of men’s tendency to blame women for their own failures of self-control. For every Desert Father warning men to stay away from the temptations of women, there was a Desert Mother making fun of them for being so foolish (and so lacking in humility).


The desert mother Syncletica, from a medieval menologion

So early Christian literature isn’t quite the wall-to-wall medley of blame-the-woman nonsense that an unsympathetic reader might expect. The Desert Mothers Syncletica and Sarah of Pelusium seem to have had a snappy answer to almost anything, but my favourite early Christian put-down to the idea that women are responsible for men’s inability to control their thoughts is  from an anonymous leader of a community of virgins in the fourth or fifth-century desert. When a group of monks made a detour in order to avoid encountering her and her followers, this mother let one of them have it: “‘If you were a perfect monk, you would not have seen us as women.'”.

The point of this saying is to make it clear that the monks who made a show of avoiding women were missing the point. If monks needed to avoid women in order not to be distracted by lust, this was a sign not of their moral superiority, but of their moral weakness. The monastic tradition does place great emphasis on the idea of the ‘custody of the eyes’ – custodia oculorum. This is the idea that a person should avoid letting his or her eyes stray toward something that he or she knows will destroy peace of mind, unless there is a good reason (so: looking at the wounds or into the eyes of a suffering person is encouraged if it helps you to help them, but staring at cake when you have just given up sweets will either drive you crazy or cause you to break your intention). But the need to keep custody of the eyes is nothing to be self-important about – it is a sign that one has not progressed very far in the ability to see into another person’s soul.

In the end, the greater task for the eyes in the desert tradition is not custody but pilgrimage – not looking away from another person, but seeing through his or her eyes. I haven’t yet figured out whether that idea will solve the problems in my own household surrounding teenagers and facebook. But it may be a place to start.



  1. This reminds me of the story of two Buddhist monks who encounter a woman who asks them for help in crossing a river. One of the monks takes her on his back and helps her over. The monks then continue on their way. Several miles down the road the second monk angrily asks “Why did you pick her up, you know we are not allowed to touch women?” The first monk replied “Are you still carrying her? I put her down on the riverbank.”

    Your book looks fascinating, I’m glad I caught this post.

    1. Thank you so much for reminding me of the Buddhist story – it is lovely that the two traditions share the same humour about this kind of problem!

  2. […] and proclaiming its wisdom. Then, slowly but surely, less glowing responses began to show up. [See this fantastic example that brings in late antique Desert […]

  3. I’m happy I caught this post, what a great and eloquent form of straightening up the truth that rules our nature as human beings. I hope that truth is understood by many readers of Ms. Hall’s post and herself. What happens in the mind is what starts the real problems, sins are already sins once they inhabit in our minds.

    Thank you!

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