I don’t think that I’m wrong to say that we wish both to pray and to feel ourselves to be in prayer but that we blame “distractions” for not allowing us to achieve one or both of these aims. I do believe, however, that we are rather mistaken, in various ways, about what these “distractions” are and what they could mean to us. It might just be that distractions are far from being completely negative.
I suppose it is obvious that we do no really serious prayer in the middle of a committee meeting, or when we are helping kids with their homework, or doing anything whatever that needs our full attention and thought. While that is not entirely true, for reasons and in ways that I won’t go into here, on the whole we do at least need to ground our prayer in a habitual time and situation when we can block out those exterior concerns and really focus only on being completely and intimately open to the most important Persons in our lives.
This is why we seek a place apart, a silence, maybe even a certain actual darkness that helps us to center ourselves, perhaps along with a bodily position of some inaction (although for some people pacing a dimly-lit corridor can work as well). If we can still the body and quiet what our senses are reporting, we stand a much better chance of sensing the subtle presence of the Lord in our prayer, of hearing his words (consciously or not), and of responding to them appropriately.
For many of us that prayer time comes most naturally in the evening, when we have finished coping with the busyness of the material reality of our lives; for others, prayer must be at the start of their day. I myself much prefer the morning, when my mind and body are refreshed, but what is essential is that we each find that time and place where we are able to give ourselves to what matters most to us, and if we are willing to experiment a little, the Spirit will help us find it.
Assuming, then, that we have found this prayer place and time, that we can settle into it, and that we begin our prayer with a greeting to God, to a particular Person of the Trinity, or to a saint, we quite intentionally recollect and focus ourselves; we open ourselves to what it is that we wish to pray about—and the distractions commence.
These distractions are not so intrusive if we control our prayer tightly with a little list of what we will remind God of or ask him for, or if we use only prayers that we can read or have memorized: in a sense those can be distractions in themselves, keeping us busy by keeping us going through the motions of prayer—but is that really a prayer that satisfies us, the prayer which we actually seek?
The American bishops’ Baltimore Catechism of the 1880s (which appeared in several editions) describes prayer as essentially more passive, as “raising our minds and hearts to God,” as an opening to God rather than a matter of constantly talking to—or at—him. When Jesus said, “In your prayers do not babble on as the pagans do, for they think that by using many words they will make themselves heard” (Mt 6:7), he might well have been thinking of us when we pray only those prayers we have memorized or can read. Such prayers are good for getting us used to praying when we are younger or for showing us appropriate subjects, worthwhile approaches, and important words, and they are indeed valuable for prayer in groups, but they are not meant to be a steady and exclusive diet. We very much need to go beyond them at times.
Simply sitting in attentive silence before the mystery and the holiness of God can be terribly difficult for people who are as action-oriented as we Americans are, who enjoy mystery only in whodunnit novels or movies: how can it be prayer if we just sit there? But those who are deeply in love find no problem with this, for they can sit together in silence or walk hand in hand without speaking and yet feel completely filled with the beloved presence of the other.
Too often, when we do just sit there, the barrage of distractions comes in full force. Many other voices seem to speak within us, quietly clamoring for our attention, and they are not what we would consider at all prayerful or welcome in this place and moment. Let me just sketch a few such distractions to unpack what could actually be involved.
First, there are all those little human concerns about picking up the dry cleaning or calling someone back or remembering to . . . or . . . or. . . . Secondly, there are often people who enter our thoughts when we pray and seem to ask for our attention; usually we know exactly why they are on our minds, but sometimes they seem to have no connection at all with anything in which we are currently involved. A third sort of distractions entails outright temptations to things involving any of our deep feelings and hungers: impure thoughts or indulging in hateful thoughts or desires for some sort of revenge. And lastly, some distractions are ideas, thoughts, or certain concerns that don’t seem to really be subjects for our prayer but can’t be dismissed as easily as the first group: mentally reviewing a lecture we intend to give to a class, thinking of our favorite musicians, etc.
We think of all such distractions as bad and unwelcome because they interfere with our prayer, but I don’t believe that this is the case at all. We should not just try to drive them away by force of will simply to achieve the prayer that we want and that we think that God wants. Consider the first of these: the persistent but rather neutral thoughts which concern our daily human lives. We can get rid of these quite easily by keeping a pencil and a scrap of paper next to us and noting down a key word or two in regard to each. This will let our minds forget about such concerns until a more appropriate moment.
If instead it is people who are coming to our attention and interrupting our prayer, I would say that it is at least indirectly the Spirit who is asking us to look at them and to deal with them prayerfully. Whether these people are seriously ill or have even died, we will want to commit them to God’s love; we can even imagine ourselves lifting them to God in our hands and placing them completely in his own great hands, trusting that he will do what is best for them. They could be loved ones distant from us, friends in a very difficult situation, the victims of disaster, or whomever. With these people it is not a matter of thought for us, of considering them intellectually or of somehow analyzing them or their needs, but simply of handing these people individually or as a group over to God’s wise and loving care. We might also feel moved to drop them a note afterwards to ask how they are or tell them we were thinking of them and praying for them.
In every case there will be some sort of unfinished business between us and each of these people, and our emotions will give us a strong sense of how we need to deal with and pray for each one. In some cases that emotion is guilt or shame, and then we need to pray not only for them but for ourselves, and we might even need to look for some sort of action to perform in order to heal our relationship. Dealing with these people is most certainly not taking us away from prayer; quite to the contrary, they call us to a much-needed exchange with God, whether it is the prayer we sought to pray or not.
We can extend this to the people we expect to meet that day, naming them one by one and choosing how we will welcome them in Jesus’ name and how we will try to treat them. And we can even broaden this attitude and desire to include all those who will come into our lives, however simply or briefly. If our principal prayer time is in the evening, of course, this is more of a review, with appropriate prayers, of the people we have actually spent time with and of how we treated them; we can still pray about what we might do the next time we meet them.
As for temptations of any kind, we need to simply set them to one side and hold them there—not ignoring, stonewalling, or denying them, since that does not address the problem much less solve it. This is not easy, but it is certainly easier than trying to just drive them completely away. Keeping them away from our direct attention, then, the first thing that we need to do is to turn to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in order to ask specifically what it is in us that makes us feel drawn in that particular direction. This prayer calls for immense humility, courage, generosity, and trust in God’s love and care for us. No one, absolutely no one, knows better how to help us or is more capable of doing so than God is, but we must open to him and ask—in absolute hope—for his divine help.
This can be a very difficult prayer, since it can call us (or who we think we are) into question in a most radical way: such prayer asks us to look not only at our choices and actions, but also at the very values and principles by which we direct our lives. It calls us to look as well at how we see other people, at our deepest flaws and weaknesses, or at that past that we would like to forget. This attention to our imperfect state is not simply a tourist’s glance but is in fact a hopeful and even loving confrontation of our inmost selves and a plea to the Holy Spirit to help us decide what we will do about what we see.
The last of the categories I mentioned above concerns those neutral but rather extended ideas which occupy our attention and so keep us from spending any sort of real time with God. This can be a sort of willful daydreaming, little more than a self-indulgent attempt to escape from the reality of a prayer that we find boring and pointless. If we can recognize at any moment that this is the case we have a very good subject to bring to God in prayer.
However, such ideas can also concern difficult decisions, encounters, meetings, or undertakings which cause us turmoil of soul, and as such, they can form the basis for a very prayerful abandonment of one’s self and fears to God—an attempt to yield to God’s guidance and his peace. Because these concerns are significant and have a strong emotional hold on us, this is a prayer that will need to be repeated, maybe over several days or maybe even at different points during each of those days. Opening and listening are important here, letting go and receiving what God wants to give us.
These four categories which I present are certainly not the only possible forms of distraction, nor are they necessarily the most important, but I offer them in order to stimulate some thought about just what is happening to each of us in our personal prayer so that we might each develop ways of using what is happening in order to grow spiritually.
Once we have dealt with these distractions, it would be nice if we ordinarily experienced a period of relative peace where we could sit in serenity and just listen to God. We would know what this silence is if we imagine ourselves to be on a high mountain, quietly watching the next peak, or sitting at the side of a lake at dawn before the winds begin to raise ripples and wavelets. We would listen, knowing that God was aware of our openness to his word, and Father, Son, and Spirit would all know just how to make us hear that word deep in our hearts, ready for us to remember and respond at the proper moment and in the proper way. And in this peace and self-forgetfulness we would just speak as purely and wordlessly as we feel the Spirit calls us to do.
In reality, however, we simply advance to a new level of difficulty in our prayer. It truly is advancement, but we might not feel that way: I found it daunting, when I finished first grade, to think that I had another seven years of such terribly hard work ahead, and that then I would have to go on to high school. Just so, our dealing with these basics only prepares us to be ready to deal with more significant difficulties in prayer, to pray more and more as our God’s adult children. But we do advance and grow.
When it comes to all that makes us uncomfortable or draws us away from God, it may be tempting to credit Satan, who does indeed deserve the blame for many things. But sometimes, even often, the Father and the Spirit need to give us a holy discomfort which will keep us alert, eager, and growing closer to the image of the Son; it is up to us to greet that discomfort as a welcome gift from God.