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Prayer: Dealing with Distractions

Fr. Joel God & Faith

Anyone who has invested time and energy in prayer has discovered that it’s difficult. Prayer requires work, and it is often fraught with distractions. One of my most frequently asked questions is how to deal with distractions. Since I have mastered the art of praying without distractions, I will LOOK A SQUIRREL!

Where was I?

It seems to me that most of us, myself included, fill our lives will all kinds of distractions. Our days consist of one distraction after another, an endless succession of entertainments and interruptions. If you are never focused and recollected, how can you expect things to be any different when you go to pray? Staying recollected, attentive, and even prayerful the rest of the day is a key to being able to pray without distractions. St. Charles Borromeo gives us this advice:

Another priest complains that as soon as he comes into church to pray the office or to celebrate Mass, a thousand thoughts fill his mind and distract him from God. But what was he doing in the sacristy before he came out for the office or for Mass?…

Would you like me to teach you how to grow from virtue to virtue and how, if you are already recollected at prayer, you can be even more attentive next time, and so give God more pleasing worship? Listen, and I will tell you. If a tiny spark of God’s love already burns within you, do not expose it to the wind, for it may get blown out. Keep the stove tightly shut so that it will not lose its heat and grow cold. In other words, avoid distractions as well as you can. Stay quiet with God. Do not spend your time in useless chatter.

Distraction Discernment

Fr. Mark Toups in the Oremus program lists three sources of distractions and how to deal with each one:

  1. The stuff of life. Sometimes when we sit quietly, things we need to do pop into our heads like, “I forgot to send that email” or “I need to feed the dog.” Fr. Mark suggests writing then down in a notebook and going back to prayer again.
  2. The Devil. The Devil doesn’t want us to pray, so some of the thoughts that pop into our head are from the enemy. He gives us something innocent enough at first but his goal is to get us away from God.
  3. Stuff God really wants to talk about. Sometimes when we pray, we can’t help but think of that person I just had a fight with or the big contract I’m working on. Maybe these are the things that I’m not bringing to God and praying about, but I really should be.

When you are praying and a distraction surfaces, ask yourself: “Is this the stuff of life, from the Devil, or from God?” If it’s stuff of life, make a quick note and return to prayer. If not, push it away. If it comes again, bring it before the Lord. Simply tell the Lord what is coming to mind. Temptations should be exposed by bringing them to God. If the thought comes up a third time, consider whether this is what God really wants to talk about today.

The Right Attitude Towards Prayer

The Catechism warns us that sometimes we approach prayer as though it were all about us. If we say the right prayers, keep on track, or do the right mental exercises, we’ll “get it right” and produce “good” prayer times. But prayer is a conversation with God, an encounter. It depends far more on Him than on us. We need to be open to receive what God has to say, but we cannot by our own hard work produce good prayer. Sometimes we resort to rattling off rosaries and novenas like a train going by, or we pull out a devotion book and expect an instant answer to a question, because we want something to happen.

Once I took a retreat in the Holy Land. Every single prayer time was dry. Finally, after the retreat was over, I let God have it. I told him how hard I’d worked and how frustrated I had been that nothing had “happened.” That’s when suddenly all my prayer times came into view and I realized God had been there all along, I just hadn’t noticed. He was teaching me an important lesson about the Eucharist, but also that prayer didn’t depend entirely on me.

I find when prayer is “going badly” it often happens that I have stopped looking at God. I have turned my attention to myself and am getting frustrated. When I look back at God, it’s not so much that prayer goes better. Rather, I stop worrying about whether “my prayer” is good today and just enjoy time with the Lord. Then even the squirrels can help me pray.

More on Prayer from the Catechism

The Battle of Prayer (CCC 2725)

Erroneous Attitudes about Prayer (CCC 2726-8)