Custody of the Eyes
One of the things I found most interesting in Karen Armstrong’s Through The Narrow Gate, a memoir of her life as a postulant, novice and young nun in a fairly strict order of Catholic religious sisters, is the description of the spiritual disciplines that were taught and enforced for the young women.
In meeting for worship a few weeks ago, I found myself considering the discipline the sisters called “custody of the eyes.” In its simplest form, it means not looking up every time someone enters the room. I know there are Friends who already practice this in meeting for worship but it is hard for me. I was wondering if it is easier to keep custody of the eyes if you have something specific to look at. For example, the nuns in their meditations frequently had the crucifix to look at. What would it be like if I had to look at and meditate on the cross? I’ve heard that taking up the cross daily was a favorite phrase of early Friends. I wonder if I had a visual reminder, would that help me to keep my mind focused on the things I am called to? Or would my mind keep wandering anyway?
Carl Magruder, in his speech to Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting last summer, talked about the pain that many Friends are in because we don’t live up to the principles we hold. He was talking about the things we know are important for the Earth but which we fail to act on, like going beyond recycling and driving a Prius to consuming less, to traveling less, to giving up our unsustainable way of life. He said that this is more painful for Friends than many people because we often do know better but we aren’t living up to the light that we’ve been given. The apostle Paul said something similar a long time ago: “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.” (Romans 7:19)
It’s a big question for me: How do I keep my mind centered, my life centered on the work that God has called me to do, and no other?
At the Fall session of College Park Quarterly Meeting, a teen Friend who traveled to El Salvador last summer, under the auspices of Palo Alto Monthly Meeting, repeated what someone told their group: that often the hardest part of culture shock isn’t going somewhere exotic, it’s coming home with a different way of looking at your old life. The young Friend said she doesn’t want to get over the culture shock of coming back from El Salvador. She wants to keep being aware of the ways her life is blessed, of how trivial so much stuff is and how little much of the world has.
Me too. And maybe it starts with custody of the eyes.
It reminds me of the old civil rights hymn, keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.
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