AND SPEAKING of bare skin, a reader writes;
"I was reading your little piece regarding nudity and art..and I was wondering if you could comment some more on the subject."
Happy to, and I can only hope it will be of some help. I have to say right up front, though, that asking me for advice on holy living seems to me like asking John Madden for dance lessons. I highly recommend you seek the help of a trusted priest or spiritual adviser. I know, I know... how one goes about finding a trusted spiritual adviser is a whole 'nother kettle of eels.
Since I was a kid -- I had a problem with 'nude statues...paintings etc' when I went to the museum. Things have much changed some twenty years or so later... but it is still somewhat a difficulty for me (also due in part to exposure to pornography from a young age).
Welcome to the club! It can be difficult, and I wouldn't expect that will ever go away, though it may continue to improve. The reasons for that are many, one being our fallen nature and the resulting distortion of our natural desires, another one being the pervasiveness of pornographic attitudes and images in the culture. As you point out, exposure to these things at a young age can be especially damaging, and can set a pattern that can be monstrously difficult to overcome later in life, even with the best intentions. Trust me, I know. Things are much better for me now than they used to be (thanks be to God), the tide turned in the battle a long time ago - as it seems is your case, as well - but the enemy continues a nasty guerrilla campaign, and skirmishes still break out here and there at unexpected times.
But again--I have progressed a great deal. At times now I can prepare myself and then look at a very well proportioned say statute of a nude woman and see the beauty and not be too stressed (I even had difficulty more so in the past at simply seeing well proportioned girls with clothing...but this though this can be still a problem especially in spring/summer...it has gotten to the point where I see more the person and beauty and the 'fear' has been lessened greatly).
A continuing concern for me, too. God made us men to be attracted to the female form (I consider it his best work, the pinnacle of physical creation), so that is something to accept and to be grateful for. To acknowledge the attraction and the beauty is no sin, in itself. Problem is, our desire to have that which we see, to possess it, is deeply rooted. I see, I want, I take. There is a sense in which this might be confused with the healthy impulse to pair off and marry, but Christ models for us what real love looks like; giving your all for the sake of another. Marriage is not about possession, it is about constant self-giving. Lust is all about ME... what I want. It isn't even that hard to spot, but the thing is, by the time it's spotted it can be difficult to control, so your tendency toward caution is very prudent. There is no need to subject ourselves to temptations we could avoid with a little thought.
I look at it as being similar to alcoholism. I don't consider that I can ever declare my battle with lust over and done with, any more than an alcoholic could declare that he had finally beaten his drinking problem and that it was therefore okay for him to hang out in saloons and knock back a few now and then - even though this might be perfectly fine for a lot of other people.
I would like very much to be able to see such art etc and see the beauty and be at peace with it. I suppose I fear sin in looking at it. For of course I like it and there can be some concupscience stirred up in looking.
The fact that you have this healthy fear of sin is really something to rejoice in... the battle is half won (but only half). If in your heart you want more than anything to do what is pleasing to God, you will glorify him, in the end, though you may struggle. It may be that he will be glorified through your struggle.
Am I right that a Christian man can simply look and 'enjoy' the beauty and form --even the attraction of such art--without sin so long as he does not seek to arouse himself or consent to sexual thoughts or imaginings? And just ignore any 'concupscience' that may stir. Judging as he goes along as to how much and how long?
I'd say "yes", given the background information you have given. I sure hope it's possible, because the Vatican art collection (and the history of Christian art in general) is just lousy with nudity. Where the line is for each individual will be a matter of conscience, but, as I said, I see your caution as a very hopeful sign.
I want to simply be able to see beauty --including the female form.... I am a person who very much has an eye for "beauty" and as one priest long ago told me those who have such struggle more in this area.
I know what you mean. I'm a very visual person (as you might guess), and I would not be surprised if that does make me more vulnerable to temptations of a visual kind. I'm often distracted by little details and patterns of nature... sometimes to the point where it can be hard to carry on a conversation. As far as our normal, daily visual life is concerned, the trick may not be to avert our eyes so much as to consciously allow the renewing of our minds (a great thing to pray for) to redeem our vision. I hope this is why now, rather than panting after them, I often feel sorry for these pop divas who debase themselves in order to gather an audience. Having a daughter has probably changed me a bit in that regard, too. The older I get, the more these young ones seem a little like my own kids. I worry for them (as an aside, the next time anyone is tempted to look at porn, let them think about the fact that this is someone's daughter).
On the whole, I'd say definitely pray about your concerns looking at nudity in art, but definitely don't obsess or scruple over it. Lay your concern at the feet of Christ, resolve to do your best, and then leave it with him. It occurs to me that Satan would like to see you get yourself all in a twist over this. Don't let it steal your peace.
Thanks for your thoughts!
Don't mention it. My thoughts are cheap and plentiful. Any further thoughts or helpful suggestions from readers are welcome in the combox, too. Good references on the subject of handling lust - especially by a saint or Doctor of the Church - would be much appreciated.
(Putti from a detail of The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine, by Italian Baroque artist Sassoferrato - 1609-1685).