How should we handle those stubborn, relentless, pesky distractions that seem to spoil our prayer time and fill us with mounting frustration?
The first thing that can be said about this thorny and troubling topic is that it is affecting every single person who engages in prayer from the beginner to the one who might be close to prayer of union with Jesus, “the Divine Bridegroom,” to borrow St. Teresa of Avila’s lexicon. Actually, what I am about to share with you on distractions can be read in a book by Sr. Vilma Seelaus, OCD (Distractions: Blessing or Curse?) on the teachings of St. Teresa on this subject. In this book we find out that distractions are a natural component of our humanness. No matter what we might be doing, at certain points, our mind wanders elsewhere. Jesus tells us that our mind wanders to where our heart is going and that our heart keeps going to where our treasure is. (cf. Matthew 6:21)
St. Teresa of Avila, one of the most outstanding Doctors of the Church, proves to us that distractions are not a curse but a blessing. I am sure that you are dying to know how St. Teresa can reach such a surprising conclusion. She shares with us that we should not try to chase away distractions as that effort would be totally fruitless. Indeed, how often we found ourselves distracted and went back to our praying only to realize that in matter of seconds, not minutes, but seconds, we found our mind and heart back to where they were before!
What we ought to do is realize that each distraction holds a message of loving care from God about the true condition of our being as he sees it. Thus, we should follow our distraction to wherever our treasure happens to be at that time. If we are still beset with vices, our distractions will point out to us that we should mend our ways. If we are attached to material things and/or to our reputation, to the image we project or we worry a lot about mistakes and past embarrassing situations, we will find our mind and heart right there, going over what is our true concern in spite of our attempts to pray. If we are decent believers trying to conduct ourselves virtuously, our distractions will lead us to those still unknown areas where our ego is ruling us and dictating our choices so that we might improve and interact with people in a self-less, loving fashion. Our praying will sail along only after we succeeded in deciphering God’s message in its details, and not just approximately, and we resolved, with the help of God, to seek the virtue opposite our vice, or we found a way to be detached from whatever was holding our heart captive. If the distraction returns again and again, it means that we have yet to zero in on where we are still wanting in being truly self-less and loving.
In the Book of Samuel (cf. 2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8-12, 14, 16), we can find an example of how distractions need to be interpreted correctly in order to discern God’s will for us and get closer and closer to our Lord. We assume that the prophet Nathan was a holy man, who gave King David a seemingly pious advice of planning to build a fitting House for the Lord. In reality, God had a different plan. In his nightly prayer, the prophet, finally, deciphered correctly God’s message and realized that he had been unconsciously beholden to the king when he should have known that God’s initiative of most generous love goes way beyond what one’s best intentions might be. Thus, through a correct interpretation of God’s message, Nathan learned true abandonment in perfect harmony with God’s supreme majesty and absolute sovereignty.
No matter how diligent and accurate we are in deciphering God’s messages, the fact remains that we will never be free of distractions for the simple fact that we will die still imperfect and wanting of pure love. Thus we shall continue to engage in praying without ceasing, and we shall try to decode the messages hidden in our distractions to carry out our solemn duty of engaging in intercessory prayer (cf. 1 Timothy 2:1) as best as we can with the assistance of the Holy Spirit.
To succeed we should do so with the help of as many intercessors as we can, especially our favorite Saints, always mindful, of course, that we have only one Mediator: Jesus Christ (cf. 1Timothy 2:5). Faithful to this heavenly framework, we know that the Father will be unable to refuse our entreaties if they are directed to him, through his Saints (i.e. the Church, Jesus’ Bride) and in Jesus’ Name.
Our prayers, too, will reach the throne of God mingled with the incense of our worship and the prayers of all other saints who set out to unleash the Gospel in the way most pleasing to God. And to show our resolve we should interwove our prayers with fasting (cf. Mark 9:29). All Saints (with the upper case S) recommend it and encourage us to do it. But fasting could be a tricky proposition. We might be tempted to show on the outside that we are fasting. Let me, then, suggest you some inconspicuous ways of fasting: eat food without adding any salt; cut in half your consumption of sweets; eat food that you do not like, and so on.
And let me remind you, again, that true prayer has to be founded, inspired and guided by God’s Word. Outside of the scope of God’s Word there is no true prayer. The best form of personal prayer recommended, among others, to those on the Intercessory Prayer Team, is the Lectio Divina. All the terminology relative to this form of prayer is in Latin; that by itself should tell us how ancient it is! It can be rendered by the English words: Divine Lesson or Divine Reading. Once the mind, heart and soul are readied to welcome God’s Word, we should read slowly the passage of the Gospel offered us for the day. For example, today it would be the Gospel of the Annunciation. Going over unhurriedly what we have just read, there will be phrases or scenes that appeal to us and have a message for us. This phase is called “meditatio.” After “resting” on those phrases and scenes, we should read once more the whole passage and then “rest” anew in “contemplatio” and “reflectio.” We must imagine this reflection as being led by the Holy Spirit to apply to our present situation what we have just read and meditated and contemplated.
If we happen to be doing the “Lectio Divina” as a group, this would be the time for “collatio” or sharing. We might read a third time the passage and allow the Holy Spirit to transform our feelings into “oratio:” our prayer/response to what God has just fed us. The final phase “operatio” is the active phase similar to the mission assigned to us by the deacon at the end of the Holy Mass, e.g.: “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord.” Assisted by the Holy Spirit we become missionaries, we carry out into our corner of the world the mission that the Lord will have assigned to us for that day.
Regarding our personal prayer lives, we should never be intimidated or embarrassed or think that we are too far behind to pray in the ways I have spoken of. Let each one of us, instead, show eagerness to pray led by the Holy Spirit and see first how we can pick the form of prayer that suits us best and, after that, adapt it to our availability of time, lifestyle, obligations and state.
If we are sincere in our eagerness to commit to prayer, the Holy Spirit will aid us fully and gently while the Lord will find new ways to talk to our souls.