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Prayer and the Reality of Distraction
If you’re anything like me, you’re easily distracted in prayer. I don’t think a day goes by when my mind doesn’t wander somewhere between the psalms and the readings when I pray the Divine Office, which is commonly known as the Liturgy of the Hours — the official set of prayers that marks the hours of each day so as to sanctify the day with prayer — that priests and deacons are obligated to pray daily.
At times like these, it’s not uncommon to become frustrated feeling that we’ve cheated God out of some essential prayer time. As a result, we can strongly identify with Hamlet’s King Claudius who, while attempting to repent of his brother’s murder, says, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”
While there is some truth to Claudius’ words, we ought not take them too literally. This is because God hears distracted prayers more intently than loving parents hear the words of their distracted children. Attentiveness in prayer is not for God’s sake, but for our own. Focus helps us to concentrate on the goal of all prayer which, if it’s from the heart, is intimate communion with Jesus Christ.
Virtually every saint dealt with distractions in some form or another. In our fallen yet redeemed state, coupled with our human frailties, it’s almost impossible to eliminate distractions completely. The best we can do is minimize those we can and constructively accommodate those we can’t.
The great Carmelite mystic, St. Teresa of Avila, understood this well. Writing in the 16th century, she observed:
“I was more anxious for the hour of prayer to be over than I was to remain there. I don’t know what heavy penance I would not have gladly undertaken rather than practice prayer….the intellect is so wild that it doesn’t seem to be anything else than a frantic madman no one can tie down….All the trials we endure cannot be compared to these interior battles…[Yet,] do not imagine that the important thing is never to be thinking of anything else and that if your mind becomes slightly distracted all is lost…think of distractions as mere clouds passing in the sky, momentarily taking your gaze from the Sun of Righteousness…”
Properly understood, distractions are anything that prevent us from giving our full attention to God. They are more noticeable when we acquire the habit of prayer as opposed to praying occasionally. Distractions sneak into our interiority, capturing the imagination and thereby diminishing the encounter with God.
They arise out of many factors typically categorized as the world, the flesh, and the devil. But there are a few things we can do to minimize the number of distractions and their negative impacts.
To start with, it’s quite helpful to begin prayer by finding the right place to pray. It should be quiet with just the right amount of light to allow you to see — assuming you are using a devotional, Scripture or even a holy object, such as a crucifix.
Posture likewise is important. For instance, too comfortable a position may lead to drowsiness. Conversely, too uncomfortable a position may lead to further distractions. Settling down is also helpful. To the extent possible, we should spend a few minutes before prayer in calming silence, placing ourselves in the presence of God. This disposes us to recognize His voice in prayer so that we may better accomplish His will.
With place and posture set, and the calming accomplished, you may wish to begin prayer by asking our Lord for the grace to stay focused. This is less a challenge with vocal prayer as opposed to mental prayer since the simultaneous “saying” and “hearing” can help keep us focused longer.
Timing our prayer may also be quite helpful. If you find you’re too tired to pray night prayer before bed, then do it an hour before bedtime. I can assure you that God doesn’t have a specific time frame when your prayer is heard.
There are a couple of other ways to deal with distractions. The first and most effective is just to ignore them as “mere clouds passing in the sky.” If, while praying, we become aware of a distraction, we should simply let it go and return to prayer.
According to St. Francis de Sales, “If all you do is return to God after distraction, then this is a very good prayer. Your persistence shows how much you want to be with God.” This persistence means that, despite the distractions, we are intent on seeking God. If we get distracted 15 times and we return to God 15 times, He is pleased with our steadfastness.
Sometimes, a distraction is not really a distraction. This is particularly true when we’re dealing with a major struggle that dominates our thought process. In this situation, we find it almost impossible to escape the struggle as it continually encroaches on our prayer time. Depending on the nature of the struggle, this could be the prompting of the Holy Spirit calling us to redirect our prayers to that difficulty.
This differs significantly from other kinds of interruptions. Where distractions lead us away from prayer into our drifting imagination, dealing with a struggle simply redirects the focus of prayer. The fact that we’re still praying ought to confirm for us the influence of the Holy Spirit and therefore not a distraction in a strict sense.
Looked at positively, distractions, far from impeding the spiritual life, can provide a means to draw closer to Christ. Though they remain an interior battle throughout life, by cooperating with grace, they become less an irritant and more a routine spiritual exercise.