Interestingly, the Catechism admits, “The habitual difficulty in prayer is distraction” (#2729). How easy it is for any of us to be saying our prayers, or reading Sacred Scripture or another spiritual book, and then to realize our minds were somewhere else thinking about all kinds of extraneous things. These distractions occur because we are people with senses– sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch– and what we sense can easily distract us. Moreover, we all have many responsibilities and may lead very busy lives; the agenda we face each day can easily lead to distraction. We could even think of other causes of distraction– daydreaming, remembering the past, on so on.
Therefore, in looking at this subject and focusing really on private prayer, we must realize the pitfalls that set us up for distraction and take preventative measures. First, we must guard our senses: Noise, other people, the smell of cooking, a hot, stifling room, or an activity going on where we are trying to pray can lead to distraction. Remember Jesus said, “Whenever you pray, go to your room, close your door, and pray to your Father in private” (Matthew 6:6). We need to find a quiet place by ourselves to pray. Sure, we could be by ourselves in a garden and pray, but one could easily be distracted by noticing what needs to be pruned or weeded. Nevertheless, it is in the quiet that the Lord speaks to us: For instance, the Lord told Elijah to stand on the mountain to await His passage; Elijah did not find the Lord in the strong wind, the earthquake, or the fire, but rather in a quiet whispering sound (I Kings 19:9ff).
Second, we must take good time to pray. We may be able to say a few prayers or talk with the Lord while we cook dinner, drive the car, ride on the bus, or wait for an appointment, but most likely we will not have the atmosphere we need for good, concentrated prayer devoted to the Lord. We ought to take time in our day, when we are not too tired or rushed, for prayer. Here again we have to be careful: Sometimes I am so busied from leaving what I was doing before starting to pray or thinking about what happens next that I find myself not really concentrating on my prayers as I should. St. Charles Borromeo (d. 1584), Archbishop of Milan, addressed this issue with his priests: “Another priest complains that as soon as he comes into Church to pray the office or to celebrate Mass, a thousand thoughts fill his mind and distract him from God. But what was he doing in the sacristy before he came out for the office or for Mass? How did he prepare? What means did he use to collect his thoughts and to remain recollected?” Along this line, each of us needs to prepare ourselves to pray. We need to take a few moments to call to mind the Lord’s presence, to put the extraneous thoughts out of our minds, and to calm our bodies to rest. In a sense, we have to get ourselves “psyched” to pray. A little preparation will help make our prayer life more fruitful.
Third, we need to focus on our prayers. Although memorizing prayers or having a regime of favorite prayers is a good discipline, we must guard against becoming lax or absent- minded in reciting them. We could easily “whip-off” the words but not concentrate on the meaning. I think all of us have probably said the Our Father, the Hail Mary, or a decade of the Rosary, finished the prayer, and then wondered, “What did I just say?” Again, these formal, memorized prayers are beautiful and essential to a good prayer life. However, we need to slow down as we say them and concentrate on the meaning of the words we are saying.
Finally, we need to open ourselves to God’s grace through the sacraments. The Sacrament of Penance cleanses our soul so that the union between ourselves and the Lord is in the best possible spiritual condition. The Blessed Sacrament intimately unites us with the Lord through the reception of Holy Communion and enwrapts us in His presence when we pray before the tabernacle. St. Thomas More (d. 1535) stated, “If I am distracted, Holy Communion helps me to become recollected.”
These are some preventative measures to arm ourselves against distraction. If we find ourselves being distracted, we pause, refocus our attention, perhaps repeat the prayer or the reading, and move forward. However, I think we must also at times take heed of the distraction. The Catechism notes, “A distraction reveals to us what we are attached to, and this humble awareness before the Lord should awaken our preferential love for Him, and lead us resolutely to offer Him our heart to be purified. Therein lies the battle, the choice of which master to serve.” For instance, if when we prayed, we always ended up thinking about work, about other people, about money, or some activity, we would have to ask, “Who is really the Lord of my life?” Just as we put aside everything to be with someone we love and share good time with that person, how much more so must we do the same with the Lord we ought to love above all things.
I think too that sometimes God puts a distraction in our mind. Sometimes while praying, I suddenly have a thought about a person or a situation enter my mind. I believe here the Lord is saying, “I have listened to you, now I want you to look at this person or situation and come to some resolution.” For instance, we may carry a hurt or a sin from a past situation, or have a difficulty with a particular person; our Lord may well be telling us to pray about the matter, because until we bring it to resolution we will never have a full union with Him.
Yes, we all face distractions in our prayer life. Nevertheless, we must be vigilant in our prayer and struggle to grow stronger in the discipline of our prayer life. St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower, captured a good prayer life: “For me, prayer means launching out of the heart towards God; it means lifting up one’s eyes, quite simply, to Heaven, a cry of grateful love from the crest of joy or the trough of despair; it’s a vast, supernatural force which opens out my heart, and binds me close to Jesus.”