The heart pulses through the eyes

The images remain horrifying.  Clashing groups of fellow citizens, illumined by torch lights reminiscent of dark ages past, come to blows with each other.  Cries of domestic terrorism ring out after bodies fly in the streets due to vehicular homicide.

Racism rears its ugly head – again.

Published statements decry the hatred and violence.  In his own response, Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia not only called for prayer but dared to challenge the masses.  “We need to keep the images of Charlottesville alive in our memories.  If we want a different kind of country in the future,” he continued, “we need to start today with a conversion in our own hearts, and an insistence on the same in others.”

Rightly identifying the deeper problem as a matter of spirituality, his call for conversion links physiology and photography, hearts and images.  Echoing the profound thought of another bishop from ages past, we might put it this way:  the heart pulses through the eyes.

In his classic best-seller, the Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) made the seemingly outlandish claim that “our heart breathes through the ear.”  He was speaking of the dangers of evil friendships, especially the flirtatious games people played in search of conjugal conquests.  “Let us keep close watch on our ears against breathing in the fowl air of filthy words,” he warned, “for otherwise our heart will soon become infected” (part III, chapter 21).

In today’s world of mass media, the ugly poison of racial unrest is more likely to come via the eyes.  Bombarded, as we are, by images on news feeds and social networking sites, we can’t seem to escape the chaos.  Pixels quicken the pulse of horror; more images increase moral outrage.

With the help of digital technology, some are now responding with other images.  Facebook posts, Twitter accounts, and other websites are being created to expose the perpetrators by making public their photos, profiles, and other publicly accessible information.  “Doxing” the alleged culprits in this way compels accountability, they say.  Or does shaming merely instigate further unrest, this time justified as righteous indignation?

Public anger at the obscenity of what transpired in Charlottesville is, indeed, warranted.  But starting an online offensive hardly seems a path to the conversion we so need.

Rather, one step in the right direction would be to initiate a digital custody of the senses.  This ascetical practice of being careful, and intentional, about what one views, recognizes that what goes on in our mind often begins with what we see and hear.  Reveling in, or posting, incendiary comments does little good to ease the unrest.  Sharing gruesome or guilt-laden images only furthers the fighting.  Shaming brings no solace.

Only when we begin to break out of our filter bubbles, created in no small part by the online images that we see and share, will we begin to mend what the archbishop rightly calls “our public unraveling into real hatreds brutally expressed.”  Only when we regain the ability actually to be in the company of others and speak with them, and not simply connect via devices we look at, will we start to rebuild from what he aptly describes as the “collapse of restraint and mutual respect now taking place across the country.”

For a conversion of hearts, a change in our social communications might be one good place to start.

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