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 noticed that the abbot kept his eyes cast downward. When the farmer asked why the saint wasn’t looking at the beautiful countryside, Bernard explained that he wanted to avoid distractions while praying.
In response, the farmer 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?”
Almost everyone experiences distractions of some sort while praying, as St. Bernard managed to demonstrate to the farmer (so the man ended up joining him in the monastery). Occasionally we hear of someone so deep in prayer that nothing can take his or her attention away from God. Much more common, however, is the experience of the seventeenth-century religious St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, who had difficulty meditating in the formal way expected of the sisters.
A more attractive method of dealing with distractions — and one much easier for us to imitate — was practiced by St. Francis of Assisi. Whenever he was about to enter church for Mass or to pray, he would say, “Worldly and frivolous thoughts, stay here at the door until I return.” Then he would go inside and pray with complete devotion.
St. Bernard, who sought to avoid distractions of the eyes while praying, once had a vision in which he saw an angel in Heaven writing down in a book the words of the Divine Office (the official community prayer of the Church) as they were prayed by his fellow monks. Some of the words were written in gold by the angel, and Bernard was given to understand that these represented the perfect fervor with which they were said. Others were written in silver, symbolizing the pure intention of the one praying, even if he was distracted. Still other words were written in ink, denoting the laziness that accompanied them.
There were some words written in water, which left virtually no trace in the book; these prayers had been offered in a spirit of lukewarmness and in the absence of all piety. Lastly, St. Bernard saw that there were some words that were not written down at all; instead, the words of Scripture came to him: “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). We must emphasize quality over quantity; a few minutes of genuine prayer are far more pleasing to God, and spiritually valuable to us, than several hours of merely going through the motions of praying. When someone asked Bl. Jordan of Saxony the best form of prayer, he said, “The way in which you can pray most fervently.”
Fervent prayer is truly focused on God. Sometimes, however, in spite of our best intentions, distractions come, and our efforts to force our attention back to God seem only to make matters worse.
A twentieth-century mystic, favored with conversations with Jesus, mentioned this difficulty to Him. Our Lord is said to have told her that distractions in prayer may be compared to a dog accompanying its master on a walk in the woods. The dog runs ahead, goes about sniffing and exploring, returns to its master for a moment, runs off again, returns briefly as if to check on its master, then runs ahead yet again. In the same way, Jesus explained, when we find our minds wandering away from our Master during prayer, we should gently return, without guilt or fear, and as often as necessary.
Being single-minded increases the value of our prayer in God’s eyes; 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 to the experience and not an afterthought.
In those times we set aside specifically for prayer, St. Peter Julian Eymard suggests, “Be natural in your meditation. Use up your own stock of piety and love before resorting to books. Remember that our good Master prefers the poverty of our heart to the most sublime thoughts borrowed from others. You can be sure that our Lord wants our heart and not that of someone else.”
When Others Distract Us
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; if it was not with her Rosary, it was with goodness knows what else. Maybe no one else noticed it; I have a very sensitive ear. But you have no idea how much it annoyed me. I wanted to turn around and glare at the culprit to make her be quiet, but deep in my heart I felt that the best thing to do was to put up with it patiently for the love of God first of all, and also not to hurt her feelings. So. 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; then I even tried to like this wretched little noise. It was impossible not to hear it, so I turned my whole attention to listening really closely to it as if it were a magnificent concert, and spent the rest of the time offering it to Jesus. It was certainly not the prayer of quiet!.”
This edifying story is one most of us can relate to, and it suggests a solution to our own difficulties: making our distractions part of our prayer. 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.” This simple approach is one we can easily follow; we need only get into the habit of consciously incorporating every thought that comes to us in prayer into our conversation with God.
Prayer doesn’t have to be only about “holy” and “spiritual” things; Jesus wants us to share with Him our entire lives, including our joys and interests, our plans and concerns, our worries and feelings. 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
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. Laugh at the noises the enemy will make outside. He cannot enter in.”