June 26, 2019

Multitasking is Not for Prayer

St Francis in Prayer (National Gallery, London)

I read the other day about a guy who noticed that whenever he reads Scripture and recognizes a passage, he quickly moves on without reading it. He realized that he was missing the nuances of the reading and promised to break this habit. This notion of missing the nuances takes me back to my St. Xavier days when I had a half hour commute to college. I would start my drive north on Pulaski and, upon arriving I couldn’t remember the details of my commute. I felt as if I had just left home. I was left to wonder, after coming through the mental haze, “did I run any red lights?” Was I speeding and cut people off??” I recalled the feeling we get when we get lost in the routine. Even today I still find myself arriving at destinations with this lost sense of time.

Vanishing time is just another signal of how we are too caught up in our rush and get lost in the routine. It is also a reminder that there is more to life than simply “existing.” For me, I find that a great example of my mindlessness can be found in prayer. When praying the rosary, how often do our minds drift away from the mystery at hand to something else going on in our lives? I know I am not the only one who thinks “oops, I just missed an ‘Our Father’ so I better say an extra one to make up for it.” Or, if I catch myself not saying “and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus” when I’m rushing through the cadence that I feel the need to make up for it. Credit my account Mary…  Then, of course, I wonder “how many beads I just did incorrectly – should I just start over?” Fortunately, I then start laughing at myself realizing medieval Catholicism has once again crept up upon me. Such legalism that I often argued against when my mother would tell me stories of fasting in her childhood… and here I am today marching down that same path! Well, if I am going to be a hypocrite I might as well be a “holy hypocrite.” Yet, I sincerely doubt there is an angel up in heaven counting whether Greg said exactly 53 “Hail Mary’s” this morning. As I remind our RCIA group, the goal of the rosary is bringing the ministry of Jesus to us in our day, not a merit badge for bead counting.

Another example can be found in praying the Liturgy of the Hours. The Psalms that we pray each day are not prayers that we typically relate to in 2017. These hymns to God are wonderful but again, a place ripe for Greg’s mind to drift. I say the words, but don’t find myself listening. This is no different than holding a conversation where we focus on where to hit with our next point or counterpoint rather than listening to what someone is saying. The challenge of the Divine Office is squeezing it in during a busy secular life. I’ve gone so far as putting reminders for each hour in my Outlook calendar. Imagine, what am I really saying here? “God, I need my computer to remind me to talk to you.” Now that’s pretty pathetic, isn’t it? If you don’t agree, try saying such a phrase to your spouse!

I have begun rethinking what I’ve been telling RCIA groups in regards to it being okay that sometimes our minds wander in prayer. It is not simply life in the modern era. Not only is it not okay, I propose it is a sign of a greater issue. For many of us, how often do we pick up a book at night only to read a bit and quickly doze off? I love the current observation that today’s young people have an attention span less than that of a goldfish. Watch any teenager and you’re likely to see how true this is. With an iPhone, several iPads, computers scattered throughout the house, and all of us now balancing too many calendars I wonder if my attention span is really that much better.

The prophet Elijah reminds us that God doesn’t compete with the noise. He speaks to us in the undertones, and if I can’t focus on the task at hand can I really hear his whisper above the background? No. We can’t and this is why we so often miss the message.

Today more than ever it is vital for us to get back to finding time for reflection. It is a lost art for us. The Enemy has lulled our senses. For even if we think to take a moment simply to gather ourselves and contemplate our place in the universe, our minds don’t know what to do with the quiet and so we often race on. One of the great interview techniques people use in business now is to let the conversation simply “pause.” Most people don’t know what to do with this time and “start filling in the gaps;” thus revealing things they might not normally discuss. This racing has taken over our lives. I realized after each downsizing I was so focused on getting job offers that I didn’t know what to do when the offer came. I was more focused on getting the offer than whether I wanted to work for that particular company. I raced without reflecting. Often to my wife’s dismay, I then turned down the job I just raced after when realizing it didn’t suit me. I never should have applied for many of them in the first place. I ran and won the wrong race and, unfairly took others with me down this wrong path.

Perhaps after all this, that is the key point. We’ve lost our focus. To paraphrase St. Ignatius, we are so focused on this world that we forget about the next. One does not need a business degree to see that too much focus on our limited existence without focus on our eternity is a lousy ROI. We all need to work harder find the “quiet.” Take a moment to listen for our heart beat. It takes a little focus yet, it has been there since birth. I know that if I can “hear” the quiet, if I can minimize the background scatter in my life, not only can I hear God’s whisper but I become more aware of his blessings as well.

So no, it’s not okay to multitask during prayer. If our minds are wandering we are not really present in the moment. We are simply “checking the box.” Jesus offers us more than that. He came to make us more fully alive. Join me in a new commitment in prayer. Let us first stop, wait for the quiet and let our minds quit racing. Let us take our foot off the gas and let the engine idle. When we feel that pause, and when we feel the tension leave our bodies, that is the time to begin our prayer. That is the time we can focus and to have a conversation where we listen without worrying about speaking.

The world can wait a few moments. Those texts are not going anywhere and that Snapchat probably wasn’t worth your time anyway. If we truly want to live the gift of life that God has granted us, we have to get out of the race that is pulling us away from living it. It will not only improve our prayer and our health, but our relationships as well.

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Written by
Deacon Gregory Webster

REVEREND DR. GREGORY WEBSTER is a permanent deacon of the Archdiocese of Chicago. He was ordained to the Permanent Diaconate by Francis Cardinal George in May 2014 and is assigned to St. Raphael the Archangel Parish in Old Mill Creek, Illinois. Deacon Greg holds a Ph.D. in Analytical Chemistry from Northern Illinois University, M.A. in Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary and an M.A. in Bioethics and Health Policy from Loyola University of Chicago. Deacon Greg and his wife have been married more than twenty-five years and are blessed with three beautiful daughters and two pretty cool terriers.

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Written by Deacon Gregory Webster