Q: Father John, how can I overcome distractions in prayer?
A: Ask yourself why you have distractions at prayer. Why does your mind wander when you are trying to converse with the Lord? Pause a moment and try to answer that question for yourself before you continue reading…
Here’s the Catechism’s answer (#2729): “… a distraction reveals to us what we are attached to.” In other words, you get distracted in prayer because your heart is divided. Yes, you care about God and want to converse with him, but you also care about a lot of other things, and you actually care about them so much – you are so attached to them – that they pull you away from your Creator, Savior, and Friend. You get distracted because your love for God is still impure and immature.
Now, before you get discouraged by that bitter truth, read this other phrase from the same section of the Catechism: “The habitual difficulty in prayer is distraction.” Feel free to breathe a sigh of relief – distraction is everyone’s biggest problem in prayer, from the newest convert to the oldest cardinal. If God wanted to, he could simply clear away all our distractions for us. In fact, sometimes he does that, for brief periods of time; he allows us to experience the deep consolation of his presence and his goodness with mesmerizing clarity. He gives us these moments when we need them (especially when we are beginning our spiritual lives, and again in the later stages of our journey). Yet what interests him more than our tasting his goodness now is the enlarging of our hearts so that we can taste more of his goodness forever in heaven. Our earthly journey is a period of spiritual purification and growth by which God increases our capacity to enjoy him, so that in eternity we will enjoy him as thoroughly as he knows we can. One of the means by which our hearts grow larger and purer is through battling our distractions in prayer. This is why he allows them to occur.
Think of two lovers sitting together at a large, noisy, boisterous party. The music is blaring, hundreds of people are dancing, laughing, talking, milling around. Some people are circulating with trays of drinks and snacks, others are playing games. Yet, the two lovers sitting on the loveseat are completely oblivious to all this swirling and cacophonous motion. They are engrossed in each other, speaking to each other about what is important to them, smiling, looking with love and devotion into each other’s eyes, getting to know each other better, enjoying each other’s presence. This is the ideal of our personal prayer. Our lives are filled with noise and activity (and worries and crises), and they don’t stop when we want to spend some time alone with our King and our Beloved. And yet, the friendship between us is so real, so strong, so important, that for those precious moments, the uproar recedes into the background. For now, we are all his and he is all ours. This is what St Teresa of Jesus meant when she defined mental prayer (Christian meditation) as “being alone with the one who we know loves us.”
That’s the ideal. But since our friendship is still growing and our hearts are still immature, the reality of our prayer is often different. Our attention goes over to the band, or the couple dancing wildly, or our friend who is getting another drink. This involuntary wandering of our attention is not sinful, nor is it an obstacle to authentic prayer. Rather, it is an opportunity. How does Jesus feel when, as soon as we catch ourselves being distracted (and that could be after ten seconds or ten minutes), we immediately look back into his eyes and say, “I’m sorry, Lord, what were you saying?” He is overjoyed whenever we come back to him! The involuntary distractions flow from our fallen, wounded, human nature. The voluntary return to him flows from our love, faith, and conscious decision to know and serve him better. In the face of the involuntary motions of our immature hearts, our voluntary returns to Christ are what gradually leads us towards greater spiritual maturity. When we exercise our preference for Christ, our friendship with him grows. Every involuntary distraction is an opportunity to do that exercise. That’s why he permits us to be badgered by distractions! Every time we turn our attention back to him, it is a victory of his love and grace, an advance of his Kingdom in our hearts, in the Church, and in the world.
Think about the consequences of this. Let’s say you are committed to a 15-minute meditation each day. Yesterday, let’s say, you experienced almost pure consolation for the entire time. Blessed be God! He wanted to give you an experience of his goodness, a Tabor moment. But today, you spend the entire 15 minutes being knocked every which way by powerful and even undignified involuntary distractions – they just keep battering away at your heart and mind, like thousands of arrows being launched in multiple waves over the battlements of your mind. Yet, throughout the extended barrage, you always turned your mind back to Christ and the matter of your meditation as soon as you detected the distraction. Was this meditation less pleasing to Christ than yesterday’s? Was it less fruitful for your spiritual life, for the maturing of your friendship with God? Hardly. In fact, today’s meditation may have been more pleasing and more fruitful, because you exercised your love more actively and deeply.
The only time we should worry about distractions is when we find ourselves voluntarily giving in to them. Then we need to confess and repent. When you are sitting in a one-on-one meeting with your boss and talking about top level issues, you don’t answer the cell phone to talk to your assistant, unless you want to offend your boss.
Those are some thoughts about the nature of distraction. We could also discuss practical tips for what the Catechism calls “vigilance of heart,” concrete things we can do to help minimize distractions and to help ourselves respond to them with tranquility and love. But that would take quite a bit more time than we have today…
Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC