CUSTODIA- An Ancient Monastic Practice For Today

Custodia is a Latin word meaning “custody of,” more or less. To take custody of something is to exercise both care of and control of it. Custodia Oculorum, then, would be “custody of the eyes.” This was an ancient monastic practice encouraged by Saint Francis of Assisi and practiced widely throughout the Middle Ages. The idea was that one could temper the desires within one’s soul by being careful about what you looked at- both avoiding things that would encourage sin, and also being sure to focus one’s gaze upon things that were appropriately uplifting.


This, at first, can seem terribly old-fashioned, restrictive, and legalistic. Indeed, for every good example we can find of Custodia Oculorum in the Middle Ages, there are also several that would seem almost puritanical to us. Yet, there is something here worth considering in this day and age nonetheless. After all, the concept is biblical. Psalm 119 includes a plea to God that he would “Turn my eyes from worthless things,[1]” Ecclesiasticus (in the Apocrypha) reminds us that “The covetous eye is not satisfied with its share,[2]” and Jesus himself says that “But when your eye is unhealthy, your whole body is filled with darkness. And if the light you think you have is actually darkness, how deep that darkness is![3]” In an age of ever-present media screens and endless digital input, perhaps a return to Custodia Oculorum would make sense.


While it is true that our brokenness and sin come from within each of us[4], and that it is of real importance that we live in grace and forgiveness with ourselves, the purpose of this article is to consider the concept of Custodia as a modern spiritual practice especially suitable for our time. So much is coming into our hearts and minds in this hyper-connected age, that perhaps a reapplication of this idea will help us better manage our inner passions and turmoil, just as it did the monastics of old. For our purposes, we will expand on the original monastic concept to consider three areas: custody of the eyes, the ears, and the tongue. By holding ourselves accountable for what we choose to see, hear, and speak, it is hoped that we can achieve more inner peace, as well as being more available to both God and our neighbor.


Custody of the Eyes

We have already considered some biblical passages relating to the custody of the eyes. Let’s consider these facts as well: the average American household had over 2 televisions as late as 2015- even as TV sets had begun their decline.[5] 3.8 billion smartphones and tablets are estimated to be in use now in 2021.[6] The story behind these numbers is familiar to us all- we are not so much consumers of social networks and streaming media as we are consumed by them. More troubling even is the widespread use of online pornography and the ever-present blight of fake news and propaganda. How much money, and how many hours are spent turning our eyes toward things that are a distraction at best, and spiritually corrosive at worst?


So what can we do? While a case can be made for disconnecting entirely, as some have done, for many of us that is neither an option nor particularly desirable. Moderation and curation should then become key. Moderation can be helped by the devices themselves- we can turn off notifications and set time limits for our media usage. Curation can be helped by our daily examen. We can ask ourselves why we are consuming what we are watching, about the time we spend, and the sources we are drawing it from. If necessary, site-blockers and self-imposed parental controls can keep us away from those websites and the media we have no business indulging in.


Custody of the Ears

Much of what we have said about our eyes can apply to our ears as well. Jesus also encourages his followers to pay attention to what they hear[7]- the idea being that we should be filling our ears with his teachings. Today, however, our ears are full of so much more than that. In an age where talk radio, podcasts and even some music can stoke anger, cause division, or simply drown out the message the Gospel, it is also useful to reassert our custody over our ears. Again, both the controls on our electronic devices and a careful examination of how we spend our listening time each day can help us down the path of regaining control of our ears.


Custody of the Tongue

If the eyes and the ears are all about what we choose to let inside of us, custody of the tongue is about our output. Simply stated, what we say- or more broadly, what we create via our words online- matters too. James, the brother of Jesus, has plenty to say about the necessity of controlling the tongue[8] that is probably worth revisiting in these tense times for our global community. Do our words contribute to building up and making peace, or do they foster conflict and express anger? Are we a part of the solution or part of the problem?



Not just freedom “from” but freedom “for”

Custodia as we have considered it here can be seen as a specialized form of fasting. Fasting from all the images and words and sounds that distract us from God, leave us empty inside, and stir up what is least beneficial in our human nature. It seems to be a particularly useful form of fasting in the digital age.


Like fasting, however, custodia is best seen as a practice that not only removes something from us, but enables something for us. Better moderated and curated media content means that we- and others- will be enriched, as opposed to devalued. Better limits will also save time- time that can be spent in prayer, in the Bible, with family and in service to our neighbors. The goal is not so much total abstinence as it is appropriate balance between time spent in media consumption and with the real world. Not total silence, but proper speech. Not the absence of entrainment, but entertainment that is appropriate to the lives we live as followers of Christ.


We won’t get it right all the time- and we should be gentle with ourselves. However using our daily examen to check out just what it is we are seeing and hearing and saying will give us a good idea of both where we are and what the path before us looks like.

 

Les Martin is a participant in the A300 program and a long-term missionary in Nigeria. An Anglican priest, he is an Archdeacon and serves in the office of Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of Pankshin, while lecturing at Archbishop Vining College of Theology, Akure. He lives in Lagos with his wife Kate, and he believes that his marriage to her is far more important than anything else mentioned above.

 

[1] Tyndale House Publishers. (2015). Holy Bible: New Living Translation (Ps 119:37). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers. [2] The Revised English Bible. (1996). (Sir 14:9). Cambridge; New York; Melbourne; Madrid; Cape Town; Singapore; São Paulo; Delhi; Dubai; Tokyo: Cambridge University Press. [3] Tyndale House Publishers. (2015). Holy Bible: New Living Translation (Mt 6:23). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers. [4] “It is what comes from inside that defiles you, “ Mk 7:20, NLT [5] https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=30132. Accessed 1/29/2021. [6] https://www.thinslices.com/blog/smartphone-statistics-tablet-usage-patterns. Accessed 1/29/2021. [7] Mark 4:24 [8] James 3:1-12

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