Sight is the most regal of the senses. According to the theologians, sight is dependent upon the soul though related to the mind. As St. Basil the Great puts it, the eyes are the two “bodiless arms” with which the soul may reach out and touch from afar the visible things it loves. For whatever we cannot touch with our hands, we can touch and enjoy with our eyes. The sense of sight, after all, is a touch of the imagination and of the mind. St. Basil goes on to say, “With these bodiless arms we can touch from afar whatever we desire. And the things that the hands of the body do not have under their authority to touch, the eyes can nevertheless embrace passionately.”
Therefore I beg you to put all your attention upon this sense of sight. The eyes are like thieves, or rather the chiefs among thieves. The eyes can distract the mind very quickly and cause it in a flash to slip into sin. So often the eyes look upon things passionately. When they fondly dwell upon a thing like the idol of beauty, the vision is impressed upon the mind, the soul is pleased by the sight, the mind transmits its appetite and desire to the heart, and the sin is committed in secret.
Guard your sight well, then, for it is refined and knowing, and is most beloved by the mind. It makes deeper impressions with its images upon the imagination. And because they are deeper they are also more difficult to forget.
Impressions we have received through other senses, we can wipe away much more easily. But those images which we receive through our eyes, and curious eyes at that, we either cannot wipe out at all or can only do so after much time and great effort. Whether awake or asleep, images do not cease to attack us. In most cases they never cease to bother us. In short, we grow old with them and we die with them.
But what will you say to all this? “If you do not permit me to look upon the beauty of men and women, if you do not permit me to look into mirrors, what have I left to console and please my eyes with?” Dear friends, you have many things worthy of bringing joy to your eyes. Look up there at the suspended, sapphire-like, and most pleasant face of the expansive heavens that is the throne and a visible mirror of the invisible God. Look at the most bright and golden sun, the center of the planets, the sleepless eye and unwaning candle of the world.
Look also at the luminous and silvery moon with its monthly phases. Look at the harmonious dances of the night lights and sparkling stars. Look also down there below at the majestic mountains and the flower-decorated fields, the green and verdant valleys, the cool meadows and gardens, the many-colored herbs, the azure and peaceful surface of the sea reflecting the rays of the sun. All these are objects to see and mirrors which do not merely console and please the eyes, but actually nourish them.
If you wish to add to these natural beauties some more technical ones, then look at the holy icons, at the harmony and symmetry of the sacred churches. Hold all of these things as a consolation for the guarded eyes.
John of the Ladder says, “There was an ascetic who, whenever he happened to see a beautiful person, whether man or woman, would glorify the Creator of that person with all his heart, and from that mere glance his love for God would spring afresh and he would pour out a fountain of tears. And one marveled, seeing this happen, for a sight that would cause the soul of most men to sink had become a reason for crowns and an ascent above nature for him.” Whoever perceives beauty in this fashion is already incorruptible, even before the dead have risen in the general Resurrection.
— St. Nicodemos, Handbook of Spiritual Counsel