- - - - - -How do we deal with distractions in prayer? A distraction consists in any unwanted thought or image that invades our prayerful concentration, wrecking our attention. Distractions crop up in two forms: voluntary and involuntary. A voluntary distraction is a distraction caused through our own neglect by fantasizing, mulling on preoccupations, or by being lax about our recollection. When voluntary distractions become habitual, we become more predisposed to mind-wandering than to God-pondering. About these, Saint Thomas Aqinas warns, "To allow one's mind purposely to wander in prayer is sinful, and hinders the prayer from having fruit."
Conversely, involuntary distractions are those mental disturbances that arise spontaneously. Saint Thomas Aquinas says that "even holy people sometimes suffer from a wandering of the mind when they pray." This is because "the human mind is unable to remain aloft for long on account of the weakness of nature, because human weakness weighs down the soul to the level of inferior things." But, as Saint Thomas assures us, "to wander in mind unintentionally does not deprive prayer of its fruit."
Dealing with distractions
Father Adolphe Tanqueray, in his classic text The Spiritual Life, observes that "even if distractions are many and grievous, they are not culpable unless they are voluntary." Theoliptos (fourteenth century) says that "if voluntary distractions go on importuning you to be let in, confusing your mind, you may be sure that a prevenient desire for them on your part is giving them strength. Because the soul's free will has been overcome in this way, they now have a lawful claim against it, and so they pertub and pester it." The solution? "You should expose them through confession, for evil thoughts take to flight as soon as they are denounced. Just as darkness recedes when light shines, so the light of confession dispels the darkness of impassioned thoughts."
What about involuntary distractions that afflict us despite our best efforts? Father Taqnqueray tells us that "involuntary distractions do not constitute an obstacle to prayer as long as we strive to overcome them or reduce their number, for by these very efforts our soul keeps on its course toward God." Saint Basil advises: "If you are so truly weakened by sin that you are unable to pray attentively, strive as smuch as you can to curb yourself, and God will pardon you, seeing that you are unable to stand in his presence in a becoming manner, not through negligence but through frailty."
The renowned late spiritual theologian Father Jordan Aumann, O.P., offers further advice. It is true, he admits, that "there is no sure way of avoiding all distractions." However, "one can always ignore them. Indeed, this is a much more effective measure than to combat them directly. One should take no account of them but should do what one must do, in spite of the uncontrolled imagination. It is possible to keep one's mind and heart fixed on God even in the midst of involuntary distractions."
This conviction is verified in the teaching of the fourteenth-century English mystical masterpiece known as The Cloud of Unkowing. It is worth quoting at length the counsel of the anonymous author:
"It is inevitable that ideas will arise in your mind and try to distract you in a thousand ways. They will question you saying, 'What are you looking for, what do you want?' To all of them you must reply, 'God alone I seek and desire, only him.' If they ask, 'Who is this God?' tell them that he is the God who created you, redeemed you, and brought you to this work. Say to your thoughts, 'You are powerless to grasp him. Be still.' Dispel them by turning to Jesus with loving desire... A naked intent toward God, the desire for him alone, is enough. Gather all your desire into one simple word [like the name of Jesus] that the mind can easily retain. Use it to beat upon the cloud of darkness above you and to subdue all distractions, consigning them to the cloud of forgetting beneath you. Should some thought go on annoying you demanding to know what you are doing, answer with this one word alone. Do this and I assure you these thoughts will vanish. Why? Because you have refused to develop them with arguing."Distractions are good?
And also: thank God for your involuntary distractions. For, as Saint Peter of Damascus (eleventh century) writes: "If, when there are thousands of distractions, some still find opportunity to commit sins, how much more would this be the case if our lives were without distraction? In such circumstances, it is better for us to be superficially distracted, and so prevented from devoting ourselves to holy things and holy thoughts, rather than for us to do many other things which are in fact worse."
Our tussle with distractions makes us grow in virtue. As Father Tanqueray says sagely, "The effort made to repel involuntary distractions is a meritorious act. Shold they recur a hundred times and be a hundred times repulsed, the meditation will be excellent and worth far more than one made with fewer distractions but with little effort."
Saint Thomas gives us the final word of encouragement: "The kind of attention that attends to the end of prayer, namely God, is most necessary, and even the weak-minded are capable of it." I'm sure he wrote that for me.