The question is not whether we will fight distraction when we pray. We all will. The question is how we handle those distractions. There may be some souls who are granted the singular grace of being exempted from distraction in prayer, but I am not sure that I have ever met any of them. The fact is, as creatures who, while redeemed by Christ, still labor under the effects of original sin, our minds easily and quickly wander — sometimes innocently enough, at times actually seeking distraction — and sometimes even into trajectories of thought that are, well, far from charitable or chaste.
The fact of the matter is, when we pray we must ready ourselves for distraction and have strategies in place long before we sit or kneel down to pray, to preempt its onslaught and mitigate its effects.
First, give yourself some buffer time between whatever you’re doing prior to prayer and entering into prayer itself. Don’t race at the last minute into church, drop down on your knees and launch into prayer. Rather, give yourself a few moments upon entering church (or wherever you are going to pray) simply to slow down, catch your breath and settle. Only then should you begin to enter into prayer; it will make the transition much easier and alleviate some of the battle with distractions. Second, always remember that prayer is a grace and begins with God’s initiative. The Holy Spirit prays in us, St. Paul taught, so before any of us can offer anything to God, He is already holding us in existence and loving us.
Start by receiving: receiving His love, a love that has held you in being from the first moments of your existence, a love that is unconditional. He was loving you before you were even aware of our own existence, He was loving you in your greatest joys, He was loving you in your most embarrassing and sinful failures and He loves you whether you’re thinking of Him or not. Start by receiving His love. In the end, that’s all we have to offer back to Him anyway: His love, first received, then freely returned.
Inevitably, regardless of our best intentions and efforts, distraction will come. Don’t wrestle with it or seek to assault the distraction — that serves only to disquiet the stillness (what the Greek fathers call the “hesychia”) achieved in prayer and to discombobulate us further. Rather than immediately being annoyed by the distraction — or at yourself for being distracted — and aggressively grappling with it, think of how a young and skillful mother who, while talking with a friend, can simultaneously pick up her fussy child, quietly sooth him and put him gently down, all the while never removing her attention from her friend, with whom she is conversing. We’ve all witnessed it, and it’s one of the great maternal arts. That’s how we should confront distraction in prayer when it presents itself to us: graciously acknowledge the distraction, imagine ourselves gently picking it up and quietly, effortlessly putting it down somewhere to the side, leaving it there. This should help us maintain the stillness that is the condition for prayer and at the same time address the distraction, without becoming worked up over it.
Sometimes we need also to be discerning about our distractions. That is, not every “distraction” is, in fact, a distraction; it could be a prompting of the Spirit. For example, let’s imagine that you’ve plopped down to spend some time in prayer, and no sooner have you started than your brother-in-law (you know, the one whom you find so nosy and overbearing) floats into your mind. You immediately identify this as a distraction and push it aside (even if it recurs). With a little discernment, one might actually recognize this not as a distraction, but rather as a prompting from God to bring your brother-in-law into your prayer. The Lord may be suggesting that, rather than simply maintain a kind of unhappy détente in your impaired relationship, you spend some time praying for him and for yourself in regard to him. I sometime imagine that when we deal with such promptings of grace as a distraction, we end up saying to God, as it were: “Shhhh. I’m trying to pray to you, so could you please not talk to me while I’m trying to pray so dutifully.” Amusing, if we think about it. Of course, there are myriad distractions that are just that — genuine distractions — and we need to be ready for them: not in fear or apprehension, but shrewdly. One insightful writer has called our battle with distraction “the cocktail party going on in our head;” our own life, rehearsed or imagined, projected or regretted but all the while keeping us from the one thing that is needful: time and attention given to God. Such time and attention to God is what prayer, after all, is.
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