During the season of Lent, we are called to make a more focused effort on growing in the discipline of prayer. What we discover, rather quickly, is that when we add in more frequent prayer it then takes work and perseverance. This is one of the reasons many people give up on growing in prayer. In our impatience we forget that our progress is first-and-foremost up to God, not us.
Deeper intimacy with God is a movement that is guided by the Holy Spirit and cannot be purely willed by ourselves, even as our will matters in prayer. We must cooperate with the Holy Spirit and allow Him to lead our progress.
Second, we forget, or do not understand, that wandering thoughts and distractions during prayer are normal for all people, even saints. The journey to growing in prayer requires patience with ourselves and complete trust in God. He is more patient with us than we are patient with ourselves.
Dr. Peter Kreeft, in his book on prayer, describes the common battle we find ourselves in during prayer:
Here is what will happen when you begin to pray in earnest. You will begin to focus your attention on God alone when you pray, and this will give you a deep peace and a deep joy and a deep sense of rightness; yet after a very little while you will find, to your dismay, that you have not been focusing your attention on God at all for quite some time! As soon as you turned your back on your mind, it ran away from peace and joy and rightness and started fantasizing, or falling asleep, or worrying about other things.
You are dismayed at this. Good. This dismay means that it happened against your will. You did not want to stop focusing on God; you wanted just the opposite. But “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mt 26:41).Dr. Peter Kreeft, Prayer for Beginners, 77-78.
This scene should sound familiar to all of us because it has happened to every one of us countless times. The moment we seem to reach a place of peace and the presence of God, we find ourselves thinking about the things we need to get done later in the day. We want to stay in the presence of God, but in our weakness, we begin to focus on ourselves.
The danger we all face when we lose focus is we become too hard on ourselves. This is often a manifestation of our own ego or a temptation of the devil to keep us from prayer. If we are considering giving up on prayer because we can’t seem to do it, then we can be certain what we are experiencing is not coming from God.
God knows our weakness. He understands our Fallen state better than we do, which is why He is patient, merciful, and loving towards us as we seek to come closer to Him in prayer. He knows that we will fail constantly, and yet, He continues to call us towards Himself through the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
God is infinitely patient and understanding with our weaknesses, and we should be patient, too. We get in as much trouble when we are impatient with God’s patience as we do when we are impatient with God’s impatience. God is patient with us because what is precious to him is not our achievements but our intentions, our will, our heart. As Mother Teresa love to say, God does not demand that we be successful; God demands that we be faithful.Ibid, 78.
Increasing our prayer in Lent—and hopefully year-round—is not so much about our mastering prayer before Easter. It is about becoming more faithful in our relationship with God and seeking more time with Him, even as we fail constantly to maintain our focus on Him. Chances are slim that any of us are going to walk into Holy Week spiritual masters like St. John of the Cross or St. Teresa of Avila. Hopefully, we will be more patient with ourselves and with God in prayer by that time. Lord willing, and through our perseverance, we will be more prayerful, especially if we seldom prayed before Lent began.
Since we know distractions are an inevitable problem in prayer, what should we do about them? It should be clear by now that berating ourselves for our failings and weaknesses is not the correct answer. That does more harm than good and comes from our own pride or the temptations of the devil. The key to distractions in prayer is to not allow them to cause us frustration or to overtake us. Dr. Kreeft again:
The problem of distractions in prayer is universal, and many books waste much too much attention on it, thus making the problem another problem and another distraction—from God and from loving him. The best “method” of dealing with distractions is no method at all. Once you discover that you have been out of his presence, simply go back. Do not berate yourself. Do not give excuses. Do not plan how to avoid it next time. Do not think about yourself or about your distractions at all. Do not give them the attention they do not deserve. They are like a million little gnats that keep buzzing around your head whatever you do. You cannot kill them with a direct attack, as you can kill one big bug with a stroke of a swatter. So don’t try. Just ignore them and turn to the business at hand—prayer—again and again. Do it a million times if necessary. Get right back on the horse every time you fall off.Ibid, 79.
This is where perseverance in prayer is key. We must go into prayer understanding that we are going to fail repeatedly, but we cannot focus on those failures. They themselves draw us away from God’s presence. We must simply—through an act of the will—return to prayer every single time our mind wanders, no matter how many times this happens. Forget the distractions and return to God’s presence.
Christ is not expecting perfection from us. One of the essential lessons of prayer is in learning how to persevere in order to grow in greater trust in Him. He is the one who ultimately leads us in prayer, but He asks us to fight the necessary battles. By persevering we will grow in endurance in prayer through the power of the Holy Spirit, and over time, we will be transformed into a person of deeper prayer, but this does not happen over-night, nor does it happen without serious effort on our part.
We must be willing to engage against constant distractions, temptations, and a million other things that will seek to draw us away from God. We must keep our eyes fixed on God and the goal of prayer, which is deeper communion with Him. Growing in prayer is more like training for a marathon than the 100 meter dash. If we cooperate with the Holy Spirit and seek to grow in prayer, the rewards will be great and we will discover the true joy of deeper intimacy with God.