Orientation for new Cabrini Mission Corps volunteers included a day focused on staying emotionally and psychologically healthy. Most of what Sr. Mary Pat talked about was familiar to me, but my ears perked up the first time I heard her use the expression custody of the eyes.
Custody of the eyes was something she was taught during her formation as a sister; it is another way of saying, “mind your own business.” When I first heard it, an image of a horse wearing blinders popped into my mind.
Horse-drawn carriage rides are one of the tourist attractions in historic Philadelphia. The horses have blinders on to keep them from being distracted and giving them a narrow line of vision.
When I first saw those horses, I remember wishing there was a human equivalent, some apparatus that I could wear to keep my focus on what was right in front of me instead of looking at what was happening around me. I wanted to be content with what was on my path, but I often fell prey to the temptation to look at others.
When I lived in l’Arche, the negative aspects of comparing myself with others became abundantly clear to me. I frequently let my vision wander to what others were doing—or not doing—rather than staying focused on my own actions.
Critiquing others’ behaviors did not change anything and while it might have given me some momentary, smug satisfaction, I was usually left with a decidedly negative after-effect.
I could see that letting my vision stray from my own path was not helpful and could be downright destructive; gossip has to be one of the biggest threats to healthy community living.
And I quickly realized that only by focusing on myself would I be able to change what I needed to change so that I could add something positive to the community. What others did or did not do needed to matter less to me; I needed to pay attention to my own actions.
Of course, looking at what I was doing, admitting my weaknesses and mistakes, confessing my breaches against the community—those were all terribly difficult. I still squirm a bit when I think of how judgmental I was, how quick I was to speak out against someone else’s faults and actions—as if I had the corner on all truth and wisdom. I still shutter when I remember how defensive I was when I was called out for my bad behavior.
Ten years after leaving l’Arche, I learned the expression custody of the eyes and had flashbacks to my behavior in l’Arche. Since then, using this expression as a mantra, coupled with the image of the horse blinders, helps keep me focused on my own path, watching myself put one foot in front of the other.