Custody of the senses: Path to sanity.
Think about these words for a second. The word “custody” connotes legal guardianship: We understand it to mean supervision or in charge of a person, child or entity. Therefore the phrase, “custody of the senses,” means that each of is guardian of our senses- what we decide to touch, smell, hear, taste and see.
That is more than an arresting thought, isn’t it? And calls into question all that we permit to enter those five sensible gates of ours.
Fr. Marc Foley writes that curiosity,
… increases our distractability and destroys the tranquility and quietude of our souls. It is an inner restlessness that is dying to know the latest gossip or dying to tell a juicy tidbit of news. It is often a symptom of a very corrosive spiritual syndrome that the desert writers of the fourth century called acedia (sloth). Curiosity is an indication that inner alienation is taking place…Consequently, the mind is easily distracted. But this is what it wants.
As exhausting as it is to be fitfully yanked around from object to object, from fantasy to fantasy, from impulse to impulse, it is nevertheless less painful than to be with oneself. To paraphrase the poet Yeats, because we are not being held by our center, mere anarchy is loosed upon the mind. But acedia is not just anarchy of mind, but anarchy of life. For when a person is no longer centered in his own life, his life becomes dissipated in the lives of others. Curiosity, gossip, eavesdropping, a voyeuristic bent of mind, always having one’s ears attuned for the latest scandal dal or Byzantine intrigue-these are symptoms of vicarious living. Meddling in everyone else’s business is a symptom of not having one’s mind on one’s own business.
The Book is sub-titled, “Living the little way of St. Therese of Lisieux”
St. Therese has never been a saint I’ve felt drawn to. However, early in this simply worded book on the Carmelite nun who died at the age of 24, one sees instantly that author Foley’s perspective is radically different.
“Many books have been written on the “little way” as a means to holiness,” he writes. “This is not one of them. This is about Therese’s spirituality as a means of preserving sanity in an often insane world.(Italics mine.) Perspective was at the core of Therese’s sanity. She saw all things in the light of eternity. This vision gave her a sense of proportionality that kept her sane.”
I’ll wager I am not the only one who sits up straighter when reading those words. Apparently the saint would have disliked the saccharine, sentimental books I had read before. The woman presented in this book is my kind of girl: a warrior.
I wrote those words in an article I called Sanity: Stillness, Addiction and Love two years ago after reading the book the first time. Recently, though I came across it in my Kindle laptop library and decided to read it again.
In the relentless cultural assault of need to know, herein lies wisdom.
Therese “minded her own business.”
“I noticed that she never asked for news. She never asked a question to satisfy her curiosity.” Therese’s sister Celine states this about the sister thought to be a poor example of a Carmelite by most of the nuns who knew her.
These practices of restraint, which traditional spirituality has labeled as “custody of the senses,” may sound archaic to the modern ear; they smack of an outdated spirituality. But if we practice them rightly, we will discover that they can help keep us sane.
Custody of the senses helps keep us sane because it curbs curiosity and helps heal the impulsiveness that underlies it.
Impulsiveness is a form of insanity that deprives us of self-determination because it robs our choices of intentionality. In his book Neurotic Styles, psychologist David Shapiro writes the following of the experience of impulse: It is an experience of having executed a significant action, not a trivial one, without a clear and complete sense of motivation, decision, or sustained wish. It is an experience of an action, in other words, that does not feel completely deliberate or fully intended.