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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Blogger Gregg Koskela said...

This is helpful...and convicting to me after yesterday's worship. I felt quite distracted in our waiting yesterday, distracted by coughs, sneezes, kids dropping things, etc.

And completely off topic...I apologize again for being so incommunicado. Tomorrow I leave to spend some days with my parents and brother for an early Christmas, and I'm looking forward to the chance for God to slow me down, and bring refreshment.

12/18/2006 7:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find that if I am feeling relatively settled into worship, then I am not distracted by who is coming in or what ambient noises there are.

I also find that if I force myself NOT to look up or look around, then that in itself becomes a distraction for me--my attention turns toward the mantra, "Keep focused, keep focused, keep focused!" rather than relaxing and sinking into the Seed.

Still, we each have to find out how to let go of our own ego and open ourselves to the Spirit.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

12/18/2006 11:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In Meeting for Worship, one woman often arrives late and sits next to me. Rather than ignore her, I reach out and squeeze her hand in welcome. This seems to me more worthy than maintaining my focus on my own thoughts, but what do you think?

12/21/2006 12:02 AM  
Blogger Paul L said...

Your story reminds me of one of the Devil's Queries -- a very funny piece that I remember reading a long time ago but can't find now.

The one your reminded me of was:

Does thee time thy arrival at meeting so as not to be disturbed by latecomers?

12/21/2006 2:52 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

I think that this is just a form of exercise, you can decide if it is helpful to your spiritual development or not.

I think looking up or not in meeting for worship is only a small part - like learning to dribble in basketball, maybe.

I'm much more interested in how to mind my own business on a larger scale:

How do I know how much attention to current events is helpful and how much is distraction?

How can I keep myself from accepting tasks and forms of service that are not really my responsibility?

How do I keep my time free for the things that really matter?

How do I know the difference?

Practice, practice, practice.

12/21/2006 7:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't help it--when someone comes into worship and is in easy view of me, I always look at that person with open appreciation. The fellowship has just been made more complete. I think I have a ministry of encouragement anyway; I always focus on speakers (hopefully without scary intensity!) and often find myself praying for them. This is probably the opposite of "custody of the eyes" and I'm not writing about it as a general recommendation, just giving my own experience.

A long time ago some writer (Bill Vaswig?) wrote about using one's eyes as "blessing projectors" or something like that. This is a concept and practice I have found very helpful, especially if I'd otherwise be tempted to look at someone either uncharitably or in an objectifying way. I try to aim blessings even at drivers whose aggressive tactics might otherwise infuriate me. It works sometimes but not always.

12/26/2006 3:52 AM  
Blogger kathy said...

Hi Robin, I love the questions you're asking here. I have found that taking notes in worship helps me the most. During open worship, I meditate on a word or phrase that surfaced earlier from the music, from the scripture, or from someone's vocal ministry.

As for the bigger picture, I have long considered the Spirit my "silent partner." I find myself consulting with him about decisions, plans, and ideas throughout the day - on a good day. Pausing to ask God, "What do you think about that?" can be really helpful. I appreciate his help with having a good attitude and making better choices when I'm listening well. The problem is that I don't listen well every day!

I try to hold my plans up in the light of his and go forward as best I can. It's far from perfect but he does seem to honor the effort.

12/27/2006 9:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi! This is my first visit to your blog. Very interesting and educational! I hope you don't mind me bookmarking you and coming back often to "visit". Have a great day!

12/29/2006 11:03 AM  
Blogger Nancy A said...

There's a cultural thing going on when we look up as someone comes into the room. In almost any situation, it would be rude not to make eye contact with an arrival.

It's also human nature. When someone or something enters the room, our first instinct is to identify it as friend or foe. Of course, that's not appropriate for a quaker context, but hey, RNA runs pretty deep!

Also, late arrivals are sometimes newcomers. So there's a risk of snubbing them badly by ignoring them.

I find this discussion interesting because I'm the mother of an Asperger boy (now 10 years old) who does not look up when anyone enters the room. He does not acknowledge people.

We used to play a game with him as part of his therapy when he was younger, which we called Sneak. When he was playing on the computer, my husband or I would sneak into the room and move behind him. If he looked up before we tagged him, he won. If we managed to tag him before he looked up, we won. Looking up was an essential human skill that we had to teach him. In other variations, I would just stick my head in the room. If he looked up to see me wink, he would get an extra snack.

He often looks up nowadays. But whenever the door to the kitchen opens while we are having dinner (e.g., Dad arriving late), he hightails it out of the kitchen and hides in the living room without waiting to see who it is. Friend or foe? He doesn't wait to find out.

I've learned to see the world through his eyes, rather than mine. So I always look up when someone enters the room.

12/30/2006 12:59 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Brian and Amy, welcome!

Nancy, I was only practicing not looking up in meeting for worship, not the rest of the time. The sisters in Armstrong's order were under strict rules never to look up unless it was needed or requested by a superior, and this was very hard for new nuns to learn how to do.

On a somewhat related note, once as an assignment for a college linguistics class, I tried to walk in and out of a room where a friend was sitting quietly without speaking to her. It was very difficult for me, it felt so rude, even though that same friend was perfectly comfortable with silence, to the point that I had learned not to think she was angry if she didn't speak to me. But she noticed when I didn't speak, it was so out of character for me.

However, I think that, in meeting for worship, for me, it is important to practice deeper worship - my relationship with God is primary in this moment, no matter how gregarious I am in the rest of my life. And I am, basically, an extrovert.

For others, I could see how it could become a spiritual practice to look at other people, to engage them, to welcome them with your eyes.

There is a difference for me between the intentional holding of a speaker in love, even with the eyes, and the seemingly involuntary reflex to look up when someone walks into the room.

I think it is worthy to model good worship and that deep worship may not follow the mannerisms and rules of ordinary fellowship.

Kathy, taking the time to consult God in all matters, large and small: isn't that a classic Quaker practice? Reminds me a bit of the story about the Woodhouse, the ship where the Friends prayed over the compass every day, not knowing any other way to steer their ship. But so hard when I am full of my own will, my own plans, my own ambition and determination to have things a certain way. I fully don't believe that God plans things out for us, but God can help us figure out the meaning in various courses, to discern the loving and generous action or path.

Holding my tongue, or rather, not being flippant when I am nervous, that will have to be one of the next spiritual practices I work on. God help me, I pray. But I also know that the muscles I develop in the practice of custody of the eyes will help me along the way. Self-control is listed as one of the fruits of the spirit as well.

12/30/2006 9:41 PM  
Blogger D.M. said...

this is good stuff.

11/03/2008 8:30 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Thanks! Come back anytime...

11/03/2008 5:41 PM  

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