Distractions in prayer
Have you ever been praying, or trying to pray, and found that your mind has been engaged on some other train of thought, without your wanting or intending it? Distractions can plague us at almost level; indeed, praying without distractions is, for most of us, impossible, and it worries us. When this happens, our business is to gently shepherd those wandering thoughts back the centre; no need for fuss or anxiety, just a word or phrase will do, a sentence held in the heart.
The Carmelite Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection in his Spiritual Maxims advises his readers to ‘formulate a few words interiorly, such as: “My God, I am completely yours,” or “God of love, I love you with my whole heart,” or “Lord fashion me according to your heart,” or any other words love spontaneously produces.’ Two centuries later, St Thérèse of Lisieux, also a Carmelite, echoed these words with the simple admission that when she found herself dry or distracted in her prayer, she simply told God she loved Him, adding, “It’s not much but it keeps the fire going.”
Distractions come in many guises and from different sources, some are from external events acting on the senses, such as a noisy child, an itchy nose, the smell of cooking or the décor of the place in which you might be praying (“However did I think those curtains could go with that carpet?”) But there are those distractions that come bubbling up from within us, and these can be even more troublesome, because we carry them wherever we go; things like jealousy, an unhealthy attachment to something or someone, or an unchecked passion or a fear. These ties have to be cut, and quite often, it is only God who can loose the tie. We come to pray and find we can’t in certain circumstances and that is because our prayer is not yet wholly centred on God, which it must always be. It must begin with God, not with ourselves, not even with our spiritual wants. Our first words must always be words of worship. We must seek to know God as God; to know that He is Love, Truth, Life and Holiness, the object and end of our adoration.
Simplicity is the key-note here. Words can be so tiresome, for one can spend too much time trying to find the ‘right’ words with which to speak to God, to impress Him or win Him round to our way of thinking, knowing all the while that this is rather silly and futile.
Yet distractions will persist, like flies busily pestering us and spoiling our enjoyment of the sun. Perhaps, we have to learn to live with them, knowing that they are unimportant, whatever they seem to do to try to claim our attention.
I’ve always found the story of two Zen monks helpful: these two young men were returning to their monastery and needed to cross a river in order to reach it. ‘When they reached the ford thy saw a beautiful young woman who feared to make the crossing lest the waters were too strong for her. Young Zen monks are not supposed to have dealings with young women but the elder one, seeing her plight, put her on his shoulders and carried her to the opposite bank. After he had set her down, the two monks continued on their journey. They walked in silence for a mile or two, after which the young one exclaimed, “Whatever made you carry that young woman across the river?” “Good gracious,” came the reply, “are you still carrying her?” The older man had a level of detachment which freed him to render a kindness and a useful service to another. He deposited the woman safely on the other side and passed on without a further thought. More often than not, we are more like the younger monk, carrying our burdens and worries from one situation to another, never laying them down, so that they will always be a distraction when we come to our next occupation, which might well be prayer. These internal distractions, which come welling up to the surface just when we don’t want them, may well be worrying, tiresome and unwelcome, but they are there nonetheless and will usually remain with us until we face them, challenge them and offer them to God, even though we may be heartily ashamed of them, that He might extend his loving hand over us and heal them.