Wednesday 16 June 2021

Making use of distractions

While we may all suffer from distractions in prayer and find them unhelpful, not all distractions in the spiritual life are bad.

When it comes to the moral life, we often feel that the way to deal with temptations — especially those that begin as a thought or feeling in our heads — is to pray about them. If we do find ourselves falling to temptation, giving in and allowing it to take over our thoughts or even our actions, so often we tell ourselves that if only we had prayed harder, or more, we would have found the strength to say ‘no’.

The trouble is that when it comes to the temptations that start in the mind, prayer is not always the answer. If we enter into prayer saying to God, ‘I will not think about X… I will not think about X… I will not think about X…’ It’s fairly obvious what we’re going to end up thinking about. It could be something that has upset us or someone who has made us angry, something we’re thinking about doing but know we shouldn’t, or doubts and anxieties that there’s just no point in revisiting.

St Philip used to say of such things, ‘Only cowards gain the victory; that is to say, those who fly.’ And while that advice was meant in the first place as literally avoiding bad company and the near occasions of sin, it applies just as much to all kinds of troublesome thoughts. When they occur, he says, ‘We ought immediately to make use of our minds, and fix them instantaneously upon something or other, no matter what.’ And it’s the ‘no matter what’ that is interesting. The solution is to distract ourselves — with almost anything.

When unhelpful thoughts occur, we should think about something else. We all of us have that topic we find completely absorbing — that specialist subject, that skill, that hobby, that TV show, book, or favourite film, that area of life that when someone mentions it around us, the people in the room who know us all roll their eyes because they know that once we get started, they won’t be able to stop us. Those are the things we should be thinking about. They’re not things that are, in themselves, holy or sacred, probably. But the wonderful thing with God is that he can use even the ordinary and everyday to sanctify us. Our hobbies and interests, which apparently have very little meaning in the grand scheme of our salvation, suddenly get elevated and turned into tools for our sanctification.

People used to complain to St Philip that he allowed his spiritual children too much freedom. They ran around playing games, they were allowed to do what they liked, they made too much noise while they were messing around, and they just weren’t serious enough. His response was: ‘Let them chop wood on my back, so long as they do not sin.’ Chopping wood, playing games, even watching TV — these can all become tools to make us holy, if we allow them to distract us at the right time.