“You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.” (Exodus 20: 17)
I recall a conversation I had with a business man friend a couple of years ago. He is happily married and loves his wife dearly. I am completely at home in my vocation. We were discussing the topic of how to deal with the feminine sensory temptations we were encountering in almost every social situation. We decided we needed a ‘mantra’ to say to ourselves at these times. We came up with one that works for both of us: “Look but don’t stare.”
This resolution to our predicament comes from the fact that there is a legitimate difference between appreciating another’s wife (or any person for that matter) and coveting her. To covet is to want ardently what the other person has; to crave it; to be ‘green with envy.’ Covetousness is linked to concupiscence, which refers to any intense form of human desire especially in the area of sexuality. The word, ‘lust’ comes to mind here, lust of the eyes, lust of the flesh; when desire overtakes reason. St. Paul makes the point in his letter to the Galatians that if we live according to the spirit we will not yield to “the cravings of the flesh” (5:13-16).
What is needed to live this commandment is a continual purification of one’s heart. The heart is the seat, or center, of moral personality. The significance of the heart is seen in all major religions: it is the unifying life-principle (Aztec); the temple of God (Hebrew); symbolized by the lotus (Hindu); the ‘eye of the heart’ is the spiritual center (Islam); the Diamond Heart represents purity (Buddhist); “Blessed are the pure of heart,” the sixth Beatitude.
How do we go about a process of purification of the heart?
- First, by asking God for help when I am tempted to covet.
- By practicing the virtue of chastity – by temperance, by modesty of the eyes (‘look but don’t stare’).
- By curbing my imagination when it concerns another’s wife.
- By honoring the dignity of the other.
- By honestly examining my feelings for the other and my intentions.
- By not putting myself in ‘harm’s way, especially when the attraction is mutual.
- By being satisfied with my life – ‘the grass is greener at home.’
- By practicing custody of my own heart.
In conclusion, the ninth commandment and all the others were given to humanity by a God who loves us and who wishes what is best for us and for our communal life. St. Thomas Aquinas believed that nothing bothers God about human conduct except when we bring harm on ourselves. James F. Keenan expands on this as he reflects on how the Jewish people viewed their moral code: “What offended God was not really disobedience to the law; God was not like some temperamental lawgiver who became insulted whenever God’s wishes and commands were not heeded. Thomas believed that our well-being has always been the aim of the love and wisdom of God.”
An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, by J.C. Cooper (London: Thames and Hudson, 1978), p. 82, for global reflections on ‘heart.’
Moral Wisdom, by James F. Keenan, S.J. (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004), pp. 113-114.
(February/March 2011 Newsletter)