When Prayer IS the Distraction

I once heard a rather remarkable story about a man who was interrupted by a demon while praying. It was nighttime and he was in a foreign city for a work trip. His body hadn’t recovered from jet lag so, instead of spending the night in his hotel room, he made his way toward the nearest Catholic Church to make due on a promise he made to spend one hour in prayer every day, a promise he had kept for 364 days. This would be his 365th day, a whole year’s worth of having a holy hour.

He had no real hope of entering the Church because it was the middle of night, he didn’t think it’d be open. But he felt it necessary to be close to God’s spiritual home. If worse came to worse, he’d place his hand on the front door, make the sign of the cross, wish Our Lord a good night, then make his way back to his hotel room to finish his prayers

When he arrived at the Church’s door, he pulled on the handle and to his amazement, it opened.

He walked in to the narthex and made his way down the main aisle where the altar was dimly lit. He looked around to see if anyone was present, a night guard, a maintenance worker, a priest, but no one was around. He genuflected then sat in the hardwood pew, praising God for this blessing of good fortune.

It was silent, which helped the man fall into prayer quite easily. After a few minutes, he began to hear things. He didn’t hear normal sounds like wind passing through the crevices in the windows, flickers of candlelight, or water drops dripping from leaking pipes. What he heard were unnatural sounds. They came first from the roof, a scratching of metal on metal. The man’s head perked to attention as he squinted his eyes to see if anything was there.


He continued his prayers.

The scratching continued above.

The man instantly knew what was going on. He doubted himself only a moment, but he persevered in prayer knowing that he had an unwelcome visitor from the realm of hellfire.

As he persisted, the noises evolved.

The scratching continued, but now the grunting began. Grotesque and phlegmy, the demonic sounds echoed off the Church walls and into the man’s ears, making it nearly impossible for him to concentrate.

“I know what you’re doing,” the man spoke, his words tackling the sound waves of the enemy in midair. “You’ll stop now.”

“You’ll stop now,” his echo sounded, but this time the demon took it over. He twisted its pitch to make it sound like a bratty 5 year old making fun of his little brother. “You’ll stop now. You’ll stop now. You’ll stop now.”

Then, more grunting.

And more scratching.

The man lost his ability to connect with Our Lord in everything but his wrote memorized prayers. He rattled off Our Father’s he could barely hear within his own mind, Hail Mary’s he recited on instinct instead of devotion, and then finally, just the name Jesus over and over and over again.






“You’ll stop now.”


Cold shrieks, lights flickering, wind buffeting the blackened stained glass windows.






When the man opened his eyes, he checked his watch. An hour had passed. He had completed his holy hour. He was tired. He returned to his hotel room and slept soundly until the morning alarm woke him. He was ready for work.

So, I ask you dear audience member, have you ever been distracted during prayer?

That’s a silly question, I’m sure, but let me do you one better: have you ever considered that maybe your prayer is the distraction?

Now, I don’t mean the idea of you taking time out of your schedule to pray when you are needed at home or at work. Nor do I mean when there is a life and death situation, and you have the power to save someone but instead you choose prayer. For example, you have an epipen, a loved one who is severely allergic to bee stings gets stung, you have the ability to drive the pen into their thigh and save them, but you choose to pray…NOT THAT (which is also horrible, I might add).

No, what I’m referring to is the prayers you make, their motives, their tone, and their meaning. I’m suggesting that the actual things you communicate to God can be the biggest distraction to your spiritual growth.

There are three prayers in particular that drive us farther away from the point of all prayers, God Himself. These three prayers are not only the most detestable, but they are also the ones we pray the most. I like to think that subliminally we have no idea we are doing it, but deep within our souls we know with the Psalmist that “sin speaks to the sinful man within his heart” (Ps. 36:1)… and like a deep cavernous void, we echo.

The first non-prayer that we utter to our Lord is “Watch, my actions speak louder than my words.” In our postmodern world our mantra for quite some time has been the three P’s: production, progress, and, in order to ease the burden of my own ego, philanthropy. We are taught to work hard, which is as Christian of an ideal there ever was. After all, did not St. Paul tell us “if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat” (2 Thes. 3:10). So, how does action become a diabolic prayer? Simple: when action is your primary means of prayer you neglect the most important thing – contemplation. When Martha was busy putting her soul into actions, she neglected the presence of Our Lord while her sister, Mary, choose the better part by resting at his side. Yes, work is necessary, especially work that benefits our fellow men and women, but the whole idea that actions speak louder than words is not the pathway to God – it’s first words, namely the Word made flesh and our contemplation of Him, then action. You cannot give what you don’t first receive, and if we replace our mental and vocal prayers with action, we eventually forget God altogether. It is then that we succumb to the idea that we are the impetus of all the good we do. In other words, we become our own self-sufficient, do-gooding god.

The second non-prayer is a request. It’s a simple request, so simple we often find ourselves making it without really thinking. It’s the request for a sign or a marvel. Sometimes, the sign can be small and stupid like when we ask Our Lord “Lord, if You exist, make that bird on my windowsill tweet,” or “If Jesus was the Son of God, have him send me the biggest fish to catch while I’m on the boat with my buddies.”

Other times, the request for signs is of a higher calibre: “Lord, I just finished reading the story of Fatima and it would comfort me so much if you could send the sun down to dance before me right now, just like it did for the children visionaries,” or “I think my hand would look really cool if it had the stigmata. Lord, can you imagine how many people I’d convert if you gave me your wounds?”

The worst thing we can do is promise compensation for the sign we are asking our Lord to perform. “Lord, if you get me this job, I’ll pray a rosary a day for the rest of my life,” or “Lord, if you cure my son, I’ll quit my job and go into full-time ministry.” What’s stopping you from praying the rosary every day out of love for Our Lady and Our Lord? Why not keep your job and do a part-time ministry so that your family can be financially secure and the community you serve can benefit from your extra time? Why is your virtue contingent on God working wonders in your life?

Do we need wonders at all? Is not life wonder enough?

The request for signs and wonders is not prayer, but bargaining for a soul with little to no faith at all.

The third non-prayer is a twisted version of the lines in the Lord’s Prayer that say “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done as earth as it is in heaven.” The phrase as taught by Our Lord is perfect, but like most of the things God creates we warp to our own desires.

This is a political prayer because it creates a two party system. On the one hand, there’s God’s providence and guidance, the perfect King with the perfect Kingdom – one based on love of God and love of neighbor.

On the other side, the second party, the party of self, the democracy of the ego and all of its desires, is in constant debate with the King.

We are deathly afraid to pray for His will to be done because that would require our cross and crucifixion. We dare not renounce ourselves in prayer because in this third diabolical message to God, we attempt to renounce Him. We pray “thy will be done” with our lips but our hearts resound “MY will be done.” “Let me be envious just this once. Let me entertain these lustful thoughts. After all, you made me human, you gave me these desires, didn’t you? Let me be angry. Let me be a glutton. Let me sin and not feel guilty.”

Let my kingdom come, my will be done, on me as it is within me.”

Make my life prosperous, not difficult.

Sustain me economically, but not spiritually.

Provide me peace of mind, not peace of soul.

Chop down my cross, don’t nail me to it.

Make me a god without merit, if you don’t you’re no all-knowing, all-powerful, nor an all-loving God.

Actions, marvels, politics – the evil three.

You’ve prayed these before. I’ve prayed them before. Interestingly enough, one of Jesus’ most beloved disciples also prayed them, too.

If you seek a perfect example of what happens to a soul when they pray these three diabolic prayers, look no further than to St. Peter, the non-prayer par excellence.

1) Garden of Gethsemane: Action

We start  not at the shore when he was first called by Our Lord, not during the beginnings of his fellowship with Christ and his mission, but in the Garden of Gethsemane. The first fruits of conversion are powerful, capable of sustaining spiritual fervor for great periods of time. It isn’t until the initial urgency of conversion wears off that the devil begins his battle for our souls. Just as a fighter waits until his opponent has thrown enough punches to make him weary, he waits until we are tired, weak, and exposed.

Tired, weak and exposed is where we find Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane. Our Lord was within a stone’s throw of Peter and His closest disciples, sweating blood over His agonizing prayer in the Garden. Peter and his friends lay asleep. Tired, weak, and exposed. When the hour came and Judas was about to kiss Christ and turn Him into the authorities, Peter took action. He grabbed his sword and cut off the servant’s ear.

He thought action spoke louder than words, but the Word made flesh corrected this error. “He who lives by the sword dies by the sword,” (Mat. 26:52), he who lives in action dies without contemplation. Without contemplation, there is no heaven, for contemplation is our eternal state after we die.

2) Walking on Water: Marvels

Earlier during Christ’s ministry, the disciples found themselves traveling by boat when a tempest came about. It tossed the boat between mountainous waves toppling the men within, seizing them in terror. Amidst the storm clouds and thunderbolts, Jesus walked upon water and they recognized Him. They called out for Him to rescue them, but not before Peter made his non-prayer request:  “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw how [strong] the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Mat. 14: 28-31).

Peter sought a marvel, a wonder, a cool party trick to show the boys in the boat – he didn’t seek a Savior.

3) Politics over Suffering

It was foretold by the prophets that a Savior would come to Jerusalem and weed out its evil. For centuries, the Jewish people envisioned a powerful king with armies so numerous they could not be counted. The imagined him riding on chariot and clad in golden armor, ready to take down those who perpetrated injustices, lies, and the rest of the devil’s works.

What they didn’t expect was a crucified Christ, a weak and humble servant. Peter and his disciples were expecting Jesus’ horse and chariot to come down from heaven like it did for Elijah, and His army of angels to swoop down and eliminate the evil-doers like the spirit did to the Egyptian first-born sons at Passover.

Instead of Peter’s dreamt up plans, Jesus shared with him His own plan: From that time on, Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised. Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Mat. 16: 21-23).

Get behind me Satan.

A true and perfect response to Peter’s political, diabolical non-prayer.

Get behind me, Satan.

Peter was Satan.

Was not Jesus temped by Satan three times in the desert?

First temptation – Make bread, feed the hungry, eliminate poverty – actions.

Get behind me Satan.

Second temptation – Cast yourself down and the angels will catch you – marvels.

Get behind me Satan.

Third temptation – Bow down before me and receive the kingdoms of the world – politics.

Get behind me Satan.

Peter, get behind Jesus, for you are Satan.

TJ, get behind Jesus, for you are Satan.

Reader, get behind Jesus, for you are Satan.

Make your prayer perfect, just as God is perfect. Use the perfect words in the most perfect order that He taught us. Lord, Thy will be done, Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven when I will contemplate You for eternity and here I can start contemplating You now.

Just like St. Peter who cried at Your gaze after he denied You one, two, three times. And you forgave him, asking him if he loved you three times. You chose him to lead Your Church. Not John who never denied, but the sinful man who was repentant.

For only a humble, repentant sinner could lead people like us through the centuries in understanding the true essence of prayer, that “the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast” (1 Pet. 5:10).

Be vigilant in your prayers, young Church.

If you’ve said these three non-prayer like I have, like Peter had, know that there’s a deeper conversation to be had with Our Lord, one that starts with gazing upon the crucifix in humble adoration.


T.J. Burdick the author of several books and articles on the Catholic faith. He writes and speaks on how to grow in holiness amongst the distractions and difficulties of the current age. When he is not spending time with his family or writing books, you can find him teaching courses on the Catholic faith through Signum Dei (signumdei.com). For more about T.J., visit his site at tjburdick.com

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