Sunday, October 24, 2010

St. Frances De Sales and Christopher West

Earlier this year, I had went to lunch with a friend and his girlfriend before a baseball game.  At another table near us sat around 5 or 6 very attractive women our age.  My friend was fixated on them the entire time.  I could tell his girlfriend was not too thrilled about it.  When he stepped away for a smoke, I followed and we talked about it.  When I expressed dismay at his behavior, his response was telling:

Were you not looking at them as well?
I tried pointing out to him the difference between a single person noticing them in passing, and someone committed to another staring at them.  This was lost on him.  Of course, my friend is not Catholic, so I'm a bit more indulgent with him.  (Though not too much of course!)

I mention this story because I believe it sets the tone properly for the discussion I wish to have.  My friend would honestly fit in right at home with my friends across the aisle in their defense of Christopher West.  In civil society, my friend was being a pig.  Yet if he only knew the truth of the Theology of the Body (according to Christopher West) he could simply tell his girlfriend "relax baby, I'm simply admiring the beauty of woman as God created them!"  Some may think I'm exaggerating.  I believe the evidence will be with me though.  After establishing that evidence, I would like to focus on what I believe is something Mr. West cannot overcome:  the teachings of St. Frances De Sales.  Indeed, to some of West's defenders, St. Frances' admonitions smacked of prudery and "suspicion."  (See this thread, where Mr. West's editor and a very vocal lay defender of him state precisely this.)

First, let us go to the evidence, we will be discussing the story of the "two Bishops" as Mr. West presents it, and a certain incident that Mr. West claims happened to him at Holy Mass.  In discussing "mature purity" as opposed to mere "continence" Mr. West gives the following "historical" example.

The following story illustrates what mature Christian purity looks like. Two bishops walked out of a cathedral just as a scantily clad prostitute passed by. One bishop immediately turned away. The other bishop looked at her intently. The bishop who turned away exclaimed, “Brother bishop, what are you doing? Turn your eyes!” When the bishop turned around, he lamented with tears streaming down his face, “How tragic that such beauty is being sold to the lusts of men.” Which one of those bishops was vivified with the ethos of redemption? Which one had passed over from merely meeting the demands of the law to a superabounding fulfillment of the law? (Theology of the Body Explained, Revised Edition, page 215)
When I first read this passage, I thought "certainly West isn't asserting that a holy man is to spend his time looking at a half-naked prostitute!"  Apparently I was the "other bishop" in this story.  Claiming a fascination with a prostitute's (half-naked in West's eyes) body is a path to holiness doesn't sound right.  Yet this is exactly what Mr. West is saying:

...It is generally reported that upon seeing the half-naked Pelagia parading through the streets of Antioch while his brother bishops turned away, Bishop Nonnus looked upon her with love and great delight. She noticed his look of love and was eventually converted through his counsel and preaching. She is known as St. Pelagia of Antioch.
In short, when you see a woman, stare at her, become fascinated with her body.  Of course, do so with purity.  Who knows, she might notice and convert!  If this sounds silly and absurd, it is.  While it might seem like an interesting story, it is only that, a "story."  The real life example of St. Nonnus happened nothing like this.  As Dawn Eden relates in her masters thesis:

In a footnote, West cites Helen Waddell’s account of Nonnus and Pelagia in The Desert Fathers.  However, the story she relates, translated from Eustochius’s Latin version of James
the Deacon’s Greek account, differs from his own on many key points. Nonnus’s tears are not
because “such beauty is being sold to the lusts of men.” Rather, the bishop feels ashamed upon
witnessing the effort that the harlot puts into preparing her appearance for men, for he believes
he has not put nearly so much effort into his appearance before God. Returning to his chamber,
he flings himself upon the floor and repents to Christ: “for a single day’s adorning of a harlot is
far beyond the adorning of my soul.”

The original story also counters West’s implication that casting a look of “mature purity”
upon a “scantily clad prostitute” may cause her to notice the loving gaze and so discover God’s
love. Pelagia, in Waddell’s account, does not notice that Nonnus looks at her on the street; her
conversion comes about afterwards, when she hears him preach. Most significantly, when
Pelagia then writes to the bishop and asks to see him, he agrees only on the condition that there
be other bishops present. “[S]eek not to tempt my weakness,” he writes.
Mr. West continues his very curious views when he relates a story that occurred during Mass.  He discusses an experience where he felt a rush going through him during Mass at the sight of a beautiful woman not his wife and her hair.  In prayer, he believes God told him that such attraction was given to point Mr. West to the power of the Eucharistic sacrifice.  (The account is told at length in TOB Explained, 398.)

I'm not going to comment at length on this particular incident.  Speaking personally, I find it highly unlikely, if not outright laughable.  Yet that's just me, and if someone seriously made that connection and this caused a far higher bit of reverence at Mass, more power to them!  Color me suspicious.  While West indeed notes that if people are impure, they shouldn't be thinking these things, he believes his purity gave him the power to do so.

Here's my only question:  Where was his wife during all of this?  What does she think about Mr. West and others who claim that the best way to overcome impurity is for her husband to constantly stare at another woman at Mass?  Mr. West nowhere expresses sorrow for this incident.  Rather, it was incredibly revealing for him he says.  Fr. Thomas Loya gives similar instruction when he tells someone who struggles with impurity:

Alright Look at her!!  That's right, look at her!  Look at her butt, her breasts, but don't stop there.  Look at every aspect of her magnificent femininity!  Take her in completely and say "How many are your works O Lord, in wisdom you have made them all!"  (Psalm 103)
I speak only as a brother who has a sister.  If someone told a man in an audience to learn who my sister is as a woman by staring at her butt and breasts, we would be having some problems!  If I were in that audience, I honestly would probably say something along the lines of "be glad you are a priest."

Is my repulsion evidence of some nascent prudery or disgust with the human body?  To answer this and the story above about Mr. West, I bring forth St. Frances De Sales.  In writing on marriage, St. Frances says the following in his masterpiece Introduction to the Devout Life:

The first effect of this love is the indissoluble union of your hearts. If you glue together two pieces of deal, provided that the glue be strong, their union will be so close that the stick will break more easily in any other part than where it is joined. Now God unites husband and wife so closely in Himself, that it should be easier to sunder soul from body than husband from wife; nor is this union to be considered as mainly of the body, but yet more a union of the heart, its affections and love.

The second effect of this love should be an inviolable fidelity to one another. In olden times finger-rings were wont to be graven as seals. We read of it in Holy Scripture, and this explains the meaning of the marriage ceremony, when the Church, by the hand of her priest, blesses a ring, and gives it first to the man in token that she sets a seal on his heart by this Sacrament, so that no thought of any other woman may ever enter therein so long as she, who now is given to him, shall live. Then the bridegroom places the ring on the bride’s hand, so that she in her turn may know that she must never conceive any affection in her heart for any other man so long as he shall live, who is now given to her by our Lord Himself.
So I ask again:  Where was his wife?  Was Mr. West honoring the wise counsel of this great spiritual master?  What does Fr. Loya say to the married man who took his advice?  In light of this wise teaching, would it be okay to do this simply if the girl were single, since before the foundation of the world, a man was made for her if her vocation is marriage?  It should be a blatantly obvious truism that a man looks upon his wife differently than other women.  Of what purpose and benefit is another woman to him?  God did not make that woman for him and his sanctification, only his wife.  What compelling reason is there to reject the sound principles of St. Frances here?

There are those who will read this statement, and will respond "this is impossible."  They will reason that men, as visual creatures, will always turn their gaze towards that which is around them.  There is indeed a certain truth to this.  Yet even if true, it is not to be commended.  We are fallen creatures.  While we make such oaths, nobody ever fulfills them perfectly.  While a man's gaze might in passing notice a woman not his wife, he should not focus his gaze in this instance.  If by chance he finds himself focusing his gaze on her, he should immediately call to mind the oath that he made which was signified by that ring.  He should then also immediately call to mind the pearl of wisdom St. Gregory of Nazianzen teaches: you cannot expect your spouse to fulfill obligations you yourself are refusing to fulfill.

We should never set the standard aside because we view it impossible.  With God, all things are possible.  Mr. West often declares he refuses to limit the power of the Cross in transforming our desires.  I will agree with him.  For those who find the counsel of St. Frances impossible, grace makes it possible.  In the end, a true love illuminated by divine grace makes up for our shortcomings, we fulfill our obligations through that love.
I would say this is the tradition of the Church in these matters.  It is impossible to understand the mystery of "man and woman He created them" apart from this tradition.  Those who say likewise may indeed "know" the teaching, but they do not fully understand or comprehend it.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Do you think a student of West would have done the same as your friend?

    And do you think a female student of West would have been okay with her boyfriend doing that?


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