Distracted? A Gentle Return

How to turn from the constant distractions of prayer

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Deacon Joseph MichalakAny honest deacon or priest will admit it. The shocking realization, the I-can’t-believe-I-just-did-that awareness, the wide-eyed moment of reality piercing the fog in the middle of the liturgy when I awake (gasp!): “Has the consecration happened yet?”

I’ve totally ditzed. I’ve been orbiting Pluto. I’ve got no clue where I’ve been, and here I am standing or kneeling as if naked, entirely inattentive to the Divine Presence, the Consuming Fire, the Holy One upon the Throne before whom angels cover their faces — heck, I didn’t even realize the organ had stopped. In my imagination, I’ve been rewiring the garage, wondering about the meeting agenda or pondering whether you really can taste the sea in Islay malts. But sure as the day is long, I haven’t been here. I’ve not been present to the Presence ever-present and giving himself to me. I’ve been distracted.

Distraction in prayer (or in liturgy or conversation) is perhaps the most commonly experienced “difficulty in prayer.” No sooner do we make the noble effort to embrace the discipline of prayer than we readily find ourselves plagued by the wandering mind, with the imagination (or memory) fixed elsewhere — anywhere — other than with the One with whom we have to do.

Now, the remedy to distraction often lies elsewhere. Prudence says, “If there is disorder in life, there will be disorder in prayer.” So, consider truthfully my overall daily and weekly pattern of rising and sleeping, of activity and relations, of focus or dispersion of energy, of silence, of receptivity to the Word — in short, my “rule of life,” or lack of one.

Note, too, whether I have elsewhere genuine time to think, prioritize prayerfully, encounter the beautiful, to, as the Germans say, die Seele baumeln lassen — that is, to “let the soul dangle.” Regular time elsewhere in which the soul — the mind, will and affections — has space to engage all those things that occupy my life and, indeed, has space to wander creatively and then has freedom simply to “think of what is above” (Col 3:2). If I do not have such space, if life is disordered in constant activity, when I do try to turn to my Beloved in prayerful gaze, I experience the “rush of everything.”

Then, of course, wisdom recommends a steady diet of sound spiritual reading, both outside of prayer and, when needed to assist our focus, even during times of prayer. Lest the text about God would itself become a distraction from God himself, when in the course of reading we become aware of him, the rule is to set aside the text and remain with him. The living and active “word of God” (Heb 4:12) naturally is the best spiritual reading possible, for the author himself is with us in the lectio.

And yet. Despite all discipline and recollection, distraction in prayer remains a constant battle. Here is the key: As soon as I become aware — that shocking realization in the middle of liturgy that I’ve been elsewhere in my mind — simply, gently return to loving focus on him. Rather than self-recriminate (the evil one’s desired response) or fixate on how this could have happened, or even, “Why am I so distracted?” — note the interior agitation in all these responses — simply say: “Oh, thank you, Father, for the gift of making me aware. How merciful you are! Thank you for loving me; I love you, too.”

This gentle return is itself a movement of prayer. And if I find that I am again distracted by the same thing or the same sort of thing (rewiring the garage or redesigning the curriculum), perhaps I should talk to God about the distraction: relate it and my experience just now to him. Tell him what’s going on in my heart; such relating opens me to receive him. Finally, if I find that the same sort of thing again distracts me, perhaps now the Holy Spirit is trying to draw my attention to a genuine disorder of the heart: perhaps I love this (accomplishing and building) more than I love him. Let him reveal my heart to me.

Regardless: Allow a gentle return to him who is never distracted from me (cf. Ps 73:23).

DEACON JOSEPH MICHALAK is the director of the Institute for Diaconate Formation, the Seminaries of Saint Paul in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

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