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What is Custody of the Senses?

I’ve heard about custody of the senses. What exactly is it and why should I practice it? Thank you Father. Your explanations always help.

Great question! Yes, we should all practice “custody of the senses.” The core meaning of this traditional phrase from our Catholic spirituality is fairly simple to grasp. It means taking care of what we pay attention to. Our senses put us into contact with reality. But in this fallen world, some realities can be unhealthy for us – these are the ones we want to guard against (“custody” comes a Latin word, “custos”, which means “guardian”). Our senses let ideas, feelings, and images into our minds and hearts. Just as we don’t let just anyone in the front door of our house, we should not let just anyone into our minds through the doorways of our senses.

Which Senses Do We Need to Guard?
The most obvious example has to do with what we look at – if we are always looking at sexy images, it’s going to be much harder for us to live a healthy chastity. If we are always watching shows and advertisements that depict a materialistic, superficial The5SensesGregoriusVanOosterlinckGoogleCulturalInstitutelifestyle, it’s going to make it harder for us to keep our hearts focused on God and our minds seeing things with the eyes of faith. If we are constantly filling our imaginations with images of wealth and indulgence, it will be harder for us to be satisfied with the simple pleasures and simple treasures of a humble and Christ-centered lifestyle.

Our other senses can also be occasions for trouble. Certain types of music or perfume may stimulate desires for harmful and sinful pleasures or even aggravate wounds by reminding us of past sins or hardships. And that, in turn, can make us more vulnerable to temptations. Over-indulging in pleasures of taste or physical comfort can also create a kind of imbalance in our souls, so that our natural inclinations to self-absorption are strengthened while our supernatural inclinations to self-giving and self-forgetfulness are weakened.

New Challenges
It’s worth mentioning in this context that we can also go to the other extreme. We can wrongly consider all sense pleasures evil, and so cut ourselves off from all of them. This can be a dangerous deviation in the spiritual life, because it can feed our pride. We purposely take on so many sacrifices and ascetic practices that we begin to feel superior to the poor, unenlightened people around us. Watch out when that starts to happen! Don’t require more sacrifice from yourself than God is asking of you, or else you may end up feeding spiritual egoism by trying to cut down on material self-indulgence.

In our society, custody of the senses applies in a special way to our consumption of mass media. It is so easy for us to imbibe way more than we need when it comes to news, entertainment, information, images, digital products, etc. Now that millions of hours of video and audio content are available at our fingertips 24/7, we have to exercise more intentional discipline in this regard than previous generations. How much news do you really need to drink in? How many people do you really need to follow on Facebook? How much do you really need to read/watch/listen to? We have to learn to be conscious and intentional in our use of these abundant resources. Use what helps you in your endeavor to live the life that God wants you to live, no more and no less.

Focusing on Jesus
The key is to live under the umbrella of God’s will. He can communicate himself to us through the healthy beauties and pleasures of this world – a magnificent sunset, a delicious meal, a spousal embrace. He created our capacity for pleasure and the realities that give us pleasure. He created our senses. Just because our fallen world and fallen nature have strong tendencies to misuse these gifts doesn’t mean that every use of them is dangerous. We need to keep our eyes “fixed on Jesus” (Hebrews 3:1), seeking to know him, love him, and follow him a little bit more each day, and he will guide us.

Thanks again for this question. I hope my answer helps, at least a little bit. God bless you!! Fr. John


Art: The 5 Senses, Gregorius van Oosterlinck, circa 1660, PD-US, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at

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  • Diana Marie Winkler

    AMEN, Father, AMEN!! There have been times when I mention to someone what the Church may have to say about a particular movie that is popular with the kids and I get a ” oh, they aren’t going to be practicing witchcraft, they know this is just fantasy.” I have heard the Quigi board is making a comeback as a harmless game!They don’t realize they are opening the door for Satan to slide in! Hollywood is making the “dark side” seem glamorous and appealing enough to make some “act it out.” We must be diligent in our prayer life and the Rosary.
    God bless you for explaining custody of the senses so that we know we must do our part for the Spiritual Warfare that is going on.

    • LizEst

      As well, the Lord has been admonishing us about custody of the senses for a long, long time. As Scripture says, “Who of us can live with the consuming fire? Who of us can live with the everlasting flames?” He who practices virtue and speaks honestly, who spurns what is gained by oppression, brushing his hands free of contact with a bribe, stopping his ears lest he hear of bloodshed, closing his eyes lest he look on evil…” (Isaiah 14c-15).

  • Liz G

    Thank you! We really do live in a world of too much sensory stimulation, some of it very good, but some of it not so good for us but presented in a way that we perceive as good for us. I guess all we really need to do sometimes is to ask ourselves “Is this going to make me a better witness to Christ in my world?”

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