We must all have had that experience before – we come to prayer intent on listening to God but our minds are running all over the place following distracting thoughts. Someone once said humorously, “If you want to remember the things that you easily forget or tend to ignore, start praying seriously.” Prayer time easily become time to remember the chores that must be done, all our unfinished business, our hurts, worries about the future, and regrets about the past.
How do we deal with these distracting thoughts, images or feelings? Some spiritual writers recommend that we merely ignore them. We can indeed ignore them when they are just fleeting thoughts or images that have little or no emotional effect on us. But we just cannot ignore them completely when they are persistent and have strong effects on us.
St. Paul writes to the Philippians from prison, unsure of how his life would end, but refusing to succumb to discouragement, regrets, or self-pity. Forgetting himself, he focuses instead on his Christian brethren to encourage them in their own sacrifices for Christ. Phil 4:4-9 shows us a way to focus on the Lord in the midst of countless thoughts that distract us in prayer.
First of all, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” This calls us to rejoice in the Lord’s loving presence in our lives. Most of the time our distractions are an indication of the people and things that we tend to find our greatest source of joy in e.g. respect, wealth, comfort, success, etc. We must ask, “What am I rejoicing in today? Am I rejoicing in the Lord and His presence in my life or in something else?” We might even find ourselves rejoicing in our success at prayer! Remember the words of Jesus, “For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.” (Mt 6:21) To check distractions, we must ask ourselves if Jesus is indeed the sole treasure of our hearts.
We also open the door to distractions when we tend to rejoice in the Lord only when our life conditions are favorable. Our prayer becomes more distracted when we do not accept the realities of our life condition. Unlike St. Paul, we do not rejoice in the Lord always because we are far from accepting the truth of our situation. No matter the worries, we must enter into prayer first with gratitude to God above all for His loving presence in our lives without worrying about the solutions to our problems or worries. In all circumstances, we must echo Mary’s words in her Magnificat, “My soul rejoices in God, my Savior.”
Secondly, “Your kindness should be known to all.” This calls us to examine those distractions that are rooted in sour relationships with others in our lives. Have we let resentments into our hearts and are we trying to pray while nurturing these resentful thoughts in our hearts? Jesus reminds us that resentments jeopardize our prayer life, “If you bring your gifts to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gifts at the altar and go; first be reconciled with your brother and then come and offer your gift.”(Mt 5:23-24) An act of kindness towards those who have hurt us, even if it is something as simple as praying for them, gives us power over many distractions in our prayer.
Thirdly, “The Lord is near.” This is a reminder to us that in Jesus Christ, God has drawn near to us, dwelling in our hearts by faith. We usually begin our prayer by becoming aware of the presence of God. But do we go to prayer with that certainty that we are in the presence of the God who is ever present to us in His unconditional love for us and not because we are good. We must come to prayer as people reconciled with God, without any shame, regrets, guilt or pretense, knowing that we have been reconciled with God through the blood of His Son Jesus Christ. Our pretensions and defenses only multiply and intensify our distractions.
In addition, our distractions may also point to areas of needed conversion or growth in holiness. True prayer leads to our purification and God will surely shed light on sinful areas of our lives for the sake of healing, setting us free and drawing us closer to Him. Since living with the certainty of being reconciled with God blocks many of our distractions in prayer, frequent reception of the sacrament of reconciliation greatly enhances our prayer life and minimizes our distractions.
Fourthly, “Have no anxiety at all.” How can we surrender all anxiety in our lives? One thing that can help is to enter into prayer with a sense of being in the presence of the one who is closer to us than those nagging thoughts and to know that we are not condemned to a life of perpetual fixation on our worries. Our anxieties increase and intensify when God appears distant from us or completely uncaring. The same God that was with St. Paul in prison is with us in all our circumstances too. This is the truth that liberates us from endless worries and anxieties.
Fifthly, “Whatever is true, what is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious…, think of these things.” Our anxieties are compounded by our unguarded imagination. This is a call to examine our self-talk and notice where the negative thoughts and feelings are coming from. Are these thoughts rooted in truth? Speaking to Jesus honestly about the deepest thoughts and desires of our hearts, no matter how embarrassing they may be for us, opens them to the light of truth and lets us see things more the way that He sees them.
Lastly, “In everything, by prayer and petition, make your requests known to God.” We do not make our requests known to God so that He fulfills them for us. But we “make our requests known to God,” so that He may conform them to His holy will which is to bring us deeper into relationship with Him no matter what we are experiencing in life. Our refusal or reluctance to submit to God’s will in prayer only exasperates our distractions in prayer.
Like Mary in the wedding at Cana we must make all our requests known to God with humble faith, “They have no wine.” But we must also be ready to do His will with love as she counsels us, “Do whatever He tells you.” Prayer is not about getting God to do our will but to bring us to submit to His will in all conditions and situations of our lives, especially in those situations that distract us in prayer. Submission to God’s will in all things focuses our attention on God and not on us and our problems and leaves us with that hope and peace that St. Paul speaks of, “Let the peace of God that surpasses all understand to guard your hearts and minds in Christ.”
Distractions will always be a part of our life of prayer as long as we are in this world. We cannot just ignore all of these distractions because they may be God’s invitations to look deeper into our hearts and learn something about Him, ourselves, and others. This is how we develop that self-knowledge that is indispensable for a deeper intimacy with God in life and in prayer. So, rather than letting this distractions hinder our prayer life, let our hope be rooted in the truth that the God who has given us this desire to pray and to be in a relationship with Him also permits us in His mysterious providence to have these nagging distractions in prayer.
The sufferings of the incarcerated St. Paul and his uncertain future did not take his focus away from Christ but spurred him on to encourage others to rejoice always in the Lord alone. Our distractions in prayer too cannot take away our focus from God if we begin today to face these distractions with that attitude of Mary that St. Paul calls us to, that attitude that says in all things, good or bad, success or failure, light or darkness, “My soul rejoices in God, my Savior…alone.”
Glory to Jesus!!! Honor to Mary!!!