Why They Looked Down

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February 26, 2013 by lucieromarin

So, today I discovered (‘discovered,’ in the sense that somebody else told me about him) a beatus who I believe I will like very much, despite the way his biography/hagiography has been written. You can read the whole thing here, if you like, or I can just tell you that his name is Bl. Januarius Maria Sarnelli, he was an eighteenth-century Redemptorist priest, and his many works included lending financial and practical support to women trapped in prostitution, even when giving this support caused some of his supporters to desert him.

This particular aspect of his apostolate is not the subject of this post, though I will say that I felt my hackles rise at certain points in the biography’s description of it. (Why are women driven by poverty to desperate means of survival  – in a society which forbad them most forms of employment – labelled ‘women of bad character’, and nothing said at all about the men who used them? Nice that there were missions preached to convert the women, but where were the missions for the conversion of their clients? In fact, when has there ever, ever, ever been any outcry at all about the persons whose habit of gratifying lust at any cost – talk about being trapped in a life of sin – is just taken as par for the course? Ugh.)

No, I was struck by this line: “Don Januarius manifested most pious dispositions from his very infancy; and he was even then remarkable for his angelic modesty, which caused him always to keep his eyes cast down in presence of women, even that of his sisters and mother.”

He’s not the first saint of whom I’ve read such things – St Aloysius Gonzaga is another, and St Gemma Galgani, too – and what struck me is that this motive (modesty) has been attributed to the saints by their biographers. None of the saints themselves have given this as their motive (have they???) I mean, seriously, what part of filial piety or fraternal charity would treating a blood relative like a source of sexual temptation be? (That sentence is not well-written, but you’ll see my point.) Someone who thinks that looking his mother or sister in the eye is going to cause one of them to commit a sin of impurity is either super-scrupulous, desperately afraid, or just plain creepy – and none of that is the mark of any saint. No, I think there are two alternative possibilities, neither of which lead us to think that saints must have been insane people with unwholesome minds:

1) It’s true that this kind of extreme behaviour can be a sign of mental instability. It can also be the sign of over-enthusiastic youth and untrained virtue. This eyes-lowered-don’t-kiss-me-family-members behaviour is usually practised in the saints’ youth – that is, at an age when they (especially if they were a bit choleric) were thinking, “I am so totally going to be a saint! I’m going to make sure I do everything the best the best the best I can. Yes, Lord, you can have my virginity. In fact, I’ll never even touch anyone. In fact, I’ll never even look at anyone. In fact, I’ll never even look at anyone even in my own family!!!!!” Later, the saints age and get trained a little, realise that holiness is compatible with acting normal…and that’s when you see the man who couldn’t look his mother in the eye suddenly committing himself to the rescue of exploited women, without any sign of temptation or fear. (I remember reading the Journals of Pope John XXIII, and being deeply annoyed by his decision as a seminarian never to look a woman in the eye because Woman is the Source of Sin. But guess what – that resolution didn’t outlast his determined youth.)

2) I do not know of any saint who has explicitly stated that his refusal to look family members in the eye was borne of angelic modesty. I do know of two saints who have recorded their reason for this habit – those saints were St Pio of Pietrelcina and St Therese of Lisieux. Both of them, after they entered religious life, took up the habit of restraining physical contact and conversation with visiting family members; both of them described it as a suffering, and both of them described it as a way of mortifying their natural impulse, which was to shower affection upon family. In other words, when a saint deprives himself of eye-contact or touch with a family member, it has nothing to do with modesty or fearing sin, and everything to do with mortifying an overflowing natural love for a small number of people in order to turn it into a supernatural love for a large number of people.

Think about it. St Therese was able to get along with people she couldn’t stand – so much so that they believed she loved them deeply. Even St Paul and St Barnabas couldn’t manage that! St Pio was able to hear hundreds upon hundreds of confessions, day and night, and to care about each one of them. St Gemma noticed what the household servants needed, and had no qualms about doing their work alongside them; the children of the house did not know she saw Our Lord, knowing only that they liked to have her babysit them. Bl Januarius cared enough about the most neglected women in society to embrace poverty and contempt for their sake. That is, these people knew how to love – and that came, not from fearing other people, but from mortifying their attachments to their favourite people. That’s what the ‘no eye contact’ is about!

Angelic modesty, forsooth. Of course, it could also have just been great shyness. Nobody ever thinks of that.

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