For all men who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature; and they were unable from the good things that are seen to know Him who exists, nor did they recognize the Craftsman while paying heed to His works . . . For as they live among His works they keep searching, and they trust in what they see, because the things that are seen are beautiful. Wisdom 13:1, 7
St. Bernard was traveling with a poor, uneducated farmer, who boasted, “I’m never distracted when I pray.” Bernard objected, “I don’t believe it. Now let me make a bargain with you. If you can say the Our Father without one distraction, I’ll give you this mule I’m riding. But if you don’t succeed, you must come with me and be a monk.” The farmer agreed and began praying aloud confidently, “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name . . .” Then, after pausing for a moment, he asked St. Bernard, “Does that include the saddle and the bridle, too?”
St. Francis of Assisi, whenever he was about to enter church for Mass or to pray, would say, “Worldly and frivolous thoughts, stay here at the door until I return.” Then he would go inside and pray with complete devotion.
Sometimes distractions are caused by an insufficient dedication to prayer. Bl. Clare of Rimini was leading a carefree life in which religion wasn’t something to take too seriously. At age thirty four, she entered church one day, only to hear a rather blunt message from Heaven: “Clare, try to say one Our Father and one Hail Mary to the glory of God, without thinking of other things.” Chastened by this rebuke, she took her religious duties more seriously.
“These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”(Isa. 29:13) For this reason, the Franciscan priest Bl. Thomas of Cori insisted that the Divine Office be recited slowly and reverently, for as he said, “If the heart does not pray, the tongue works in vain.”
Jesus taught His disciples the importance of praying sincerely; indeed, He offered the Our Father as a model of such prayer (Matt. 6:9-13). When someone asked Bl. Jordan of Saxony the best form of prayer, he said, “The way in which you can pray most fervently.”
St. Edmund tells us, “It is better to say one Our Father fervently and devoutly than a thousand with no devotion and full of distraction.” In fact, St. Thomas Aquinas warns us, “Purposely to allow one’s mind to wander in prayer is sinful and hinders the prayer from having fruit.” If instead we try our best to remain focused on our prayer, we will not only please God, but also make great spiritual progress. According to St. Louis de Montfort, “He who fights even the smallest distractions faithfully when he says even the very smallest prayer, will also be faithful in great things.”
To achieve this, we should begin by following the simple advice of St. Teresa of Avila: “Never address your words to God while you are thinking of something else.” God is worthy of our full attention. It’s admirable to pray as we work or while we drive or do other things — as long as we make the Lord’s presence central.
There are times when the source of our distraction is another person — someone in church whose restlessness or activity makes it hard for us to pray. St. Thérèse of Lisieux wrote of such an experience in her autobiography, The Story of a Soul: “For a long time I had to kneel during meditation near a Sister who could not stop fidgeting. I kept quiet, bathed in perspiration often enough, while my prayer was nothing more than the prayer of suffering! In the end I tried to find some way of bearing it peacefully and joyfully, at least in my inmost heart.”
As St. Thérèse of Lisieux stated, “I have many distractions, but as soon as I am aware of them, I pray for those people, the thought of whom is diverting my attention. In this way, they reap the benefit of my distractions.” Talking to Him in a very loving and comfortable way, just as we would with any other friend or loved one, can be a helpful means of overcoming distractions.
For Further Reflection
“To set about hunting down distractions would be to fall into their trap, when all that is necessary is to turn back to our heart: for 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.” — Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 2729
“It is indeed essential for a man to take up the struggle against his thoughts if the veils woven from his thoughts and covering up his intellect are to be removed, thus enabling him to turn his gaze without difficulty toward God and to avoid following the will of his wandering thoughts.” — St. Ammonas the Hermit
“The Devil is never busier trying to distract us than when he sees us praying and asking God for grace. And why? Because the enemy sees that at no other time do we gain so many treasures of heavenly goods as when we pray.” — St. Alphonsus Liguor
Something You Might Try
·St. Teresa of Avila suggests that, at the beginning of prayer, we close our eyes “in order to open wider the eyes of the soul,” thereby lessening the chance of distractions.
·Some valuable advice on praying comes from St. Paul of the Cross: “When you want to pray, it doesn’t matter if you can’t meditate. Make little acts of love to God, but gently, without forcing yourself.” St. Paul also says, “Concerning distractions and temptations that occur during holy prayer, you don’t need to be the least bit disturbed. Withdraw completely into the upper part of your spirit to relate to God in spirit and truth..”
Ecclesiastes 11:4-5; Matthew 6:6-8.
God, help my thoughts!
They stray from me,
setting off on the wildest journeys.
When I am at prayer, they run off
like naughty children, making trouble.
When I read the Bible, they fly to a distant
place, filled with seductions.
My thoughts can cross an ocean with a single leap;
they can fly from earth to Heaven, and
back again, in a single second.
They come to me for a fleeing moment,
and then away they flee.
No chains, no locks can hold them back;
no threats of punishment can restrain them,
no hiss of a lash can frighten them.
They slip from my grasp like tails of eels;
they swoop hither and thither like swallows in flight.
Dear, chaste Christ, who can see into every
heart, and read every mind: take hold of my thoughts.
Bring my thoughts back to me, and clasp me to Yourself. Amen.
Editor’s note: This article is from a chapter in Fr Esper’s Saintly Solutions to Life’s Common Problems which is available from Sophia Institute Press.