Distractions during prayer. We all have them. More often than not, having settled down to the business of praying (itself no easy matter), our minds suddenly become full of thoughts of other things, some of which may be valuable or good in themselves, but which are not God. They are distractions.
I find that much of my prayer time is taken up with these annoying thoughts, preoccupations, anxieties and such like; things I carry with me. But there are also other, external things which intrude themselves and interrupt the flow of our prayer. These are, for the most part, harmless: ‘Goodness, I really must dust this room!’, ‘I mustn’t forget the Wells-Nortons are coming for dinner tonight—she’s lactose intolerant and he’s a vegan.’ ‘What a dreadful hat she’s got on’ etc. You know the sort of thing.
Sometimes more serious thoughts will cloud the mind; our financial worries, concerns about our job or our lack of one, the people we love or hate. Bringing these things to God is surely good, even if they come to us in the form of a distraction. St. Thérèse wrote, ‘I have many distractions, but as soon as I become aware of them, I pray for those people the thought of whom is diverting my attention. In this way they reap the benefit of my distractions.’ Who else but the Little Flower could have thought of anything so beautifully simple? If we follow her in this way, we have the opportunity to hand over these people and situations to God, saying, ‘Lord, you take care of them.’ We are then free to continue our prayer, recognising the thoughts which distract us, but not allowing ourselves to become too involved in them.
Thérèse's namesake and spiritual mother, Teresa of Avila advises those trying to pray: ‘Never address your words to God while you are thinking of something else.’ Of course, she is right; and we are probably aware of the many times we have done just that and allowed thoughts about people or things we like or find interesting or entertaining to grab our attention, and sometimes we have even sought them out. It’s no good pretending to pray when our minds are on other things and we make no attempt to turn them over to God. Have you ever been talking with someone in a crowded room and noticed that they are looking over your shoulder to see if there is anyone more interesting to talk to? Surely not! But have you ever done that yourself; come to prayer, not engaged nor paying attention to what God may have to say to us during the time we are supposed to have set aside for the work of Prayer.
There is a story told of St Bernard, who was once stopped by an importunate beggar who asked the saint for alms. Bernard told him that if he could say the Our Father without a distraction, he would give him his horse. Thinking this transaction a done deal, the man began his recitation: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name, thy kingdom,..and do I get the saddle as well?
Lent begins next week. Perhaps in these days we might consider we have had penance enough. Whether that is the case or not, the opportunity to deepen our love for the Lord is still one to be grasped with both hands. The fruit of that love, based as it is on faith, will be a richer life of prayer. Yes, there will be distractions, but we can learn to move on through them, leaving them behind, because we are wanting to be with God, who is so much more than all the distracting thoughts we could ever have.
Have a good Lent and keep on praying and never lose heart.