Q: Father John, how can I overcome distractions in prayer?
A: Since our divided hearts are the ultimate source of distractions in prayer, unifying the heart is the primary means for diminishing the number and intensity of involuntary distractions.
A unified heart is a simple heart, a focused heart. It is a heart that follows Jesus’ injunction to “set your hearts on his Kingdom first…” (Matthew 6:33). The main task of a Christian’s spiritual life is learning to love God “with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.” Our program of life, our prayer life, and sacramental life, our spiritual direction – these are all means to help us show and grow in that love, to strengthen our desire to please and glorify God (which is what we were created for), so that all other desires fall docilely into place behind that primary one. The more our affections are centered on Christ during the active times of the day, the more easily it will be to focus on Christ during our prayer times. This is why the battle against distractions in prayer begins the moment your daily meditation ends. If we spend the rest of our day indulging self-centered attitudes, thoughts, and actions, it will be more difficult to throw them off when we want to pray.
Most of us are already working intelligently and energetically to grow in our love for Christ and this is why we are so eager to keep minimizing the selfish streaks that erupt as involuntary distractions during prayer. Nevertheless, most of us suspect that we could be doing better in this area, we could be doing more to keep our hearts focused on Christ during the active parts of the day, which would help us focus on him more fully during prayerful parts of the day. Here are some practical areas where most of us can improve.
- Use of time: Time is a talent we have received from God, and we are responsible for using it productively. Making an effort to schedule one’s activities during an average week in accordance with one’s true, principled life-priorities goes a long way towards training the heart to love better. In past epochs, the demands of day-to-day life were so constricting that most people’s schedules were largely forced upon them by circumstantial necessities – if the yeoman farmer didn’t rise before dawn and work the fields until sunset, he simply wouldn’t eat. Likewise, before the industrial and technical revolutions, the possibility of extensive travel and around-the-clock work or entertainment was limited to a miniscule segment of the population. Now, however, we all have so many options about what we can do with our time that we tend to over pack; we squeeze so much into our schedules that we lead frenzied lives. However, this disadvantage of our post-modern era, is also an advantage, if we choose to make it so. For example, necessary shopping can take only a fraction of the time it took our grandparents, because there are so many large stores, they are open 24/7, and the Internet brings many of them right into our living room. But unless we decide intelligently and calmly what to put on our shopping list, we will turn this extreme convenience into extreme inefficiency. The same principle applies to every aspect of our lives, from meals to chores to vacations: if we take the time to set our own agenda according to our real, principled life-priorities, the extreme convenience of our consumer society will enable us to create larger blocks of time than ever for meaningful activities.
- Entertainment: As human beings, we need to take time to relax, socialize, and engage in healthy recreation. But these activities are not the purpose of our lives. It is not a sign of success or maturity when the “fun” activities of life take over the lion’s share of our schedules. Relaxation and recreation are meant to refresh our minds and bodies so that we can be effective in the more important things: building the Church, serving others, bettering society, strengthening our family. Loving God and loving our neighbor constitute our primary mission in life. We have to consciously choose entertainment and recreation activities that will help us fulfill this mission, not hinder us. That means knowing ourselves, planning ahead, and avoiding over-indulgence. Eight hours online every weekend is out of balance; an afternoon with friends once a month is, probably, much more reasonable.
- The Internet: Don’t surf the Internet, use the Internet. The Internet is a tool, like a hammer. We can either use it to help build up our life-project, or to smash it to pieces. Know what you are looking for on the Internet; find it; use it; and get back to the real business of life.
- News. Some personalities tend to become news-junkies. This can be a major source of interior noise. Following all the latest headlines just for the thrill of knowing what everyone is talking about is an unhealthy approach to the news. The news has a purpose: it keeps us informed of things we need to know in order to be conscientious and productive members of our society. Prior to the information age, a few news sources had the privilege of deciding for us what we needed to know. Now, however, the news industry has mushroomed, and every outlet is continually striving to convince us that every story is of the utmost importance, and if you don’t stay tuned, you will miss what you most need to hear. This exaggerated urgency is a downside of an authentically democratic culture. To avoid the tension and superficially it fosters, each one of us needs to intelligently and maturely decide what we have to stay informed about, and ignore the rest. Otherwise our minds become a clutter of flashy but useless information – an abundant source of involuntary distractions. The general headlines for our country and community, the major events and issues in the life of the Church, developments in our own area of professional expertise – these are legitimate things to keep informed about. But we all know how easy it is to pour two or three hours down the drain by reading twenty-seven opinion columns about the earth-shattering consequences of the latest
poll… That is not a behavior designed to keep the heart focused on loving Christ and neighbor (unless maybe you work for Gallup ). Gallup
Other points could be mentioned: the importance of eating and exercising prudently; the importance of choosing intelligently (not just according to fashion) which activities the kids get involved in… But in all these practical areas of day-to-day life, which are fertile ground for exercising all of our Christian virtues, the same principle applies: as much as possible, we need to exercise our love for Christ by setting our own agenda in accordance with our Christian principles. This kind of elegant, tranquil, joyful, and Christ-centered balance is what Cardinal Ratzinger called “the art of living.” On the other hand, passively letting the contradictory and seductive voices of popular culture set our agenda for us will fill our souls with secular noise, making it harder and harder to focus on Christ during prayer, or any other time.
One more set of issues needs to be addressed before we can leave behind the theme of distractions in prayer: concrete tactics for keeping our prayer time neat, clean, and elegantly ordered.
Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek