I have many, many faults. This should not be news to anyone who knows me.
This is especially true when it comes to my spiritual life. I have been graced with a number of mentors and spiritual directors that have helped me over the years. However, one of the biggest struggles I still have day in and day out is the problem of distraction.
To my understanding, this is a common problem, especially in our fast-paced, multi-tasking world. Prayer often requires us to slow down and concentrate. If you are anything like me, my thoughts constantly drift to projects that need completing, daydreams that are entertaining, or worries that are pressing.
Prayer requires us to slow down and silence these thoughts and lay them at the foot of the King. I am quite terrible at this. In fact, I would say that in an hour of prayer time set aside, I might have 5 good minutes of prayer.
Even saying this, I must caution against being too critical of your prayer life. We often judge how “successful” we are at prayer by the feelings we have from the experience. If we feel peace or elation, we think we prayed well. If we feel spiritual dryness and discomfort, we think we are doing it badly. But it is important to remember that prayer is not a feeling. It is a relationship.
Think about your relationships, especially with your family. The bond you share is not primarily emotional, though the emotional component may be strong. What holds you together as a family is more than blood or sentiment. There is the bond of a life lived together. With your lives so interwoven, a separation would feel as though your life has come undone.
When it comes to prayer, it is the same thing. It is about letting God interweave His life into ours. And I’m sure that there are times in your families that aren’t filled with peace and elation, but turn out to be some of the most important memories you have. The things I remember the most from our family vacations were all of the disasters along the way, the cramped cars, the getting lost in Busch Gardens, the nearly getting drowned at a pool in Orlando. While these may not have been the most fun, they bound our lives together.
In prayer, it isn’t always about having a positive emotional experiences. As CS Lewis said, sometime the prayer times that we thought were the least fruitful were actually the most fruitful.
But what I want to address today is this constant distraction. Prayer is best when we are single-minded. A divided mind in prayer is a problem.
Many years ago when Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace came out, I saw the movie several times in the theater. I was completely mesmerized by the lightsaber fights, particularly the Obi-Wan/Darth Maul fight at the end. The reason I bring this up is that it was during this time I began to pray the rosary with my mouth, but my mind was completely transported to this dazzling fight choreography. What I discovered is that I was able to divide my mind between what I was saying and what I was thinking.
This is a true problem because it prevents me from being present to the presence of God.
The people in your life know when you are not truly present. My wife is keenly aware when she is telling me a story whether or not I am truly listening to her or if I am thinking about my next mission on Fallout 4 (I know the game came out awhile ago, but I’m just getting around to playing it now). I am physically hearing, but I am not presently listening.
The same thing applies to prayer.
A book I highly recommend is Peter Kreeft’s Prayer for Beginners. Kreeft is fond of saying that lesson one from Socrates is “I am not wise.” Lesson two is “See lesson one.” In philosophy we are always beginners. When it comes to the Lord’s prayer, we pray “Lead us not into temptation,” because Jesus is reminding us that when it comes to prayer, we are all still beginners.
In the book, Kreeft has very practical advice regarding this problem. There are three habits to develop when distractions come:
We must be as conscious of our thoughts as possible so that we can be aware when the wander from the path of prayer. We must recognize our thoughts going off the path as soon as possible.
Once we recognize, we must repent and tell God we are sorry for not being present.
And then we must recommit our minds and hearts to being present to God.
We must do these three things every single time they happen. This is true even if this happens over and over in a single prayer experience.
If you are like me, you can become disheartened by how many times you find yourself going through this cycle. But Kreeft warns against the twin problems of despair and complacency.
When we feel like we are not making progress, it is tempting to throw in the towel. But Kreeft assures us that every time we make a small step and trying to improve our prayer life, God is pleased. But we must also not become complacent and be content with our distraction and think that we are “good enough” at our prayer life. This is a spiritual laziness that will kill the spiritual life.
As Kreeft says, “God is easy to please, but He is difficult to satisfy.”
Like a good parent, God will be infinitely patient with us and cheer us on with each small victory. But He loves us too much to leave us in a state less than our best.
If we can keep our minds from being divided, we can make ourselves truly present to the presence of God
Copyright 2021, WL Grayson