In the 1941 British film Pimpernel Smith, Leslie Howard plays a seemingly-mild-mannered archeologist history professor who secretly rescues fellow intellectuals from the clutches of the Nazis. In one scene, at a high-society soirée, the professor refers innocently in the course of a conversation to the fact that the ancient Greek statue of Aphrodite he unearthed was (of course) nude. Shocked by his frank simplicity, the prim-and-proper bystanders are a bit flustered; the Professor, realizing their embarrassment, mildly replies; “Oh, well, to the pure all things are pure.”
When I saw this film for the first time, this quote fascinated me, so I determined to look it up. As it turns out, the line originates with St. Paul, who wrote in his letter to Titus: “To the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure; their very minds and consciences are corrupted.”
This little line struck me so deeply because, as I recently studied in a philosophy class on Ethics, there is a fundamental connection between the way we perceive things and our purity of heart. During the course, we reviewed the writings of Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper on chastity in The Four Cardinal Virtues. Selfishness is blinding, he argues, because it makes one see only one’s own private good as good. Unchastity, then, is uniquely blinding because it is uniquely selfish in an area—sexuality—where man is called to be especially unselfish. Our purity of heart or lack thereof, Pieper concludes, dramatically affects our moral vision. On the other side of the coin, chastity makes you see things clearly, as they really are.
Pieper’s point makes perfect sense, and coincides exactly with Paul’s. A person who sees things through the lens of purity will not see indecency or innuendo where there is none to be seen; but the man who sees all things by the light (or darkness, rather) of unchastity will see sinfulness in all things. Adam and Eve saw each other’s nakedness with pure eyes before the Fall; once their vision was altered by sin, they felt the need to cover themselves. Similarly, Michelangelo’s paintings that bedeck the Sistine Chapel have been condemned by various puritanically-minded groups and figures throughout history who felt they were more pornographic than sacred. But John Paul II reverently defended the artwork, calling the Sistine Chapel the “sanctuary of the theology of the body.”
As coming across that line from Paul in the context of the film made me realize, what Paul and Pieper say easily applies not only to art but to daily conversations and thoughts. The first incident that came to my mind was when I recently recommended a song to someone. “The lyrics are very sweet,” I said, “Except for one line which implies something inappropriate.” When my companion asked me what the line was, I told him; with a puzzled look on his face, he replied, “Um, that doesn’t have to be something bad. That could be interpreted as something wholesome.” I felt abashed by my friend’s purity of heart. Where I followed the trail of innuendo, his thoughts remained on a simpler, more innocent plane.
Impurity in our hearts can especially affect daily conversation in the realm of gossip—when a nasty rumor spreads quickly around a community and swiftly mushrooms completely out of proportion. One foul mind can defile a situation by its own perception, and pass it on thus contaminated to others. Take, for instance, the story of Marian the librarian in The Music Man. “She was seen going and coming from his house,” the chattering ladies of town begin whispering to each other, and the mutterings crescendo to wild misjudgments of her character: “She made brazen overtures!” As it turns out, Marian’s actions—paying a visit to a family friend—were completely innocent, but the society gossipers saw her only through their own tainted lens.
It is so easy to make similar misjudgments of others, to unfairly project motivations or actions onto the characters of others: to assume, for instance that the elderly lady in the back of church prays loudly for attention, not because her hearing aid is off; or that the person who leaves daily Mass early does so disrespectfully, and not because it is the only way he can both attend Mass daily and make it to work on time; or that the young woman in the supermarket dresses immodestly for deliberately sinful reasons, rather than out of simple ignorance.
But to the pure, all things are pure. So we must strive to be supremely careful in our judgments of others, because if we take a look at the way we see others, it will be a reflection not of their character, but of ours. Our sin clouds our vision of our neighbor—and that means that ultimately it clouds our vision of God. Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.