Distractions During Prayer
Brother John Raymond
Many people complain of distractions during prayer. One must not
think that this is only a problem for people of today. Shakespeare
writes the following for one of the characters in his plays:
My words rise up,
My thoughts remain below.
Words without thoughts
seldom to Heaven go.
What is a distraction? Let me describe some. I start praying
perhaps by meditating on a Mystery of the Rosary. I am thinking
about the Presentation in the Temple while praying the Hail Mary
when all of a sudden I am thinking about a baseball game, what's for
lunch or what I'm going to do the next day. Now if I did not mean to
think these distracting thoughts then my prayer has not been in
vain. Remember that prayer is not an intellectual exercise but a
conversation or a desire for a relationship with God. Still, many
people would like to have less distractions during prayer. Here are
some suggestions that might help.
When you realize during prayer that you are no longer in the
Presence of God but have wandered somewhere else then throw the
distraction out. But one must do this gently and not with violence.
A violent return to prayer can be a bigger distraction than what one
is trying to throw out. The spiritual writers of old used to advise
that one simply brushed distractions away as if they were annoying
flies. This is a good analogy for the problem. I know that when I am
talking to someone and a fly takes a great interest in me I am only
momentarily distracted from the conversation. But let a bee instead
of a fly landed on me and we have a totally different story. The
conversation with the other person would be abruptly stopped while I
tried to avoid being stung. My total concentration would be on the
bee and not on the person I was talking to for some time. So treat
distractions lightly and don't worry about them.
Another technique to overcome annoying distractions is to make
them part of one's prayer. For instance I remember once while
praying the Rosary being distracted by thoughts of my sick cousin.
Instead of throwing this out I began to pray for my cousin. Even a
distraction as unrelated as a baseball game still involves people
who could use one's prayers. Mention these people to Jesus and ask
Him to help them. Jesus told Sister Mary of the Holy Trinity, a Poor
Clare, concerning distractions to "use them by praying for what is
presented to you."
Health and environment do effect the number of distractions one
has during prayer. Being sleepy or tired causes the mind to wander
much more easily. Other factors such as not eating properly,
tension, worries, etc. can lead to a very distracting time. I
remember being told once to pray now while one is healthy because it
is almost impossible to do so when you are sick. A bad headache can
make just thinking, let alone praying, a very challenging task. If
possible try to minimize these problems. If you can't then pray
about them or pray for the grace to pray with them.
In passing I must say that our present world environment is not
conducive to prayer. Our minds are overwhelmed with images from the
television, sounds from the radio, horror stories from the
newspapers, etc. The media feeds our minds with many thoughts for
distraction during prayer. These things whether we like it or not
become impressed upon our minds. They make it difficult for one to
raise one's mind to God."
St. Therese of Avila, a Doctor of the Church called the Doctor of
prayer, taught that most of the problem one has during prayer is
related to what one does when one begins to pray. She really
emphasizes the importance of beginning prayer by placing oneself in
the Presence of God. Another term for this recollection. This fancy
term means nothing more than collecting your thoughts. Give yourself
time to settle down to prayer. Breathe deeply, find the best
position, forget about what you were doing a few minutes before,
etc. Don't begin your prayer already distracted. In whatever way is
best for you, maybe a picture of Jesus, imagining Him before you or
by another method place Him before you.
There is a Saint to pray to for help in this area. The French
Carmelite nun Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity said before she died
that when she was in Heaven she would help people to be recollected.
Finally, consider praying out loud when distractions are really
bad - if you are alone. This technique is especially helpful while
doing what is called "conversational prayer," that is talking to
God. By praying out loud at least if you get so distracted - and
stop praying - you'll notice it!