Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 25, 2000
The role of distraction in prayer
Prayer may nourish us even when we think it doesn't
By BISHOP FRED HENRY
Sept. 3 is the feast day of Gregory the Great, who in 590 was elevated to chair of St. Peter.
In one of his homilies on Ezekiel, he sounds very contemporary: "Since I assumed the burden of pastoral care, my mind can no longer be collected; it is concerned with so many matters. I am forced to consider the affairs of the Church and of the monasteries. I must weigh the lives and acts of individuals.
"I am responsible for the concerns of our citizens. I must worry about the invasions of roving bands of barbarians, and beware of the wolves who lie in wait for my flock. I must become an administrator lest the religious go in want. I must put up with certain robbers without losing patience and at times I must deal with them in all charity.
"With my mind divided and torn to pieces by so many problems, how can I meditate or preach wholeheartedly without neglecting the ministry of proclaiming the Gospel? . . . So who am I to be a watchman, for I do not stand on the mountain of action but lie down in the valley of weakness?"
Unfortunately, for more than a few people, especially overburdened leaders, their prayer time will feel like a long string of distractions.
For burdened and discouraged individuals who are painfully and constantly aware of their limitations, prayer might feel like one more task at which they are failing. Rather than entering into prayer only to be beaten by a thousand distractions, they are all the more tempted to become absorbed in their work.
An encouraging source of instruction in these matters is Teresa of Avila's Interior Castle, in particular the section on the fourth level, or dwelling place. Teresa recognizes that in prayer, there is a state in which the mind is in "rapid motion" and we cannot stop it. When the prayer time is ended, she says, "We think we are lost and have wasted the time spent before God."
But this judgment may not be true. Teresa suggests that there may be more going on during this unique time of prayer than one may recognize. She makes a distinction between what is occurring in the mind and what is happening in the soul.
She knows that this prayer may feel like the "mind is suffering from a thousand wild and poisonous beasts." However, "the soul is perhaps completely joined with him in the dwelling places very close to the centre." The conscious experience is one of complete distraction, but the inner self is joined to God.
Teresa tells us that people in this state may become disturbed by the distractions, as she herself apparently did until her spiritual director helped her to understand the truth about her prayer. She also noted that people in this state may be tempted to abandon prayer.
Of course, it is important to distinguish a completely distracted state of attempted prayer from the deeper experiences to which Teresa refers.
Such persons should attempt to discern whether or not their distracted prayer is truly how God is calling them to pray. If they are indeed being called to this type of prayer, they will discern signs of grace resulting from the prayer time itself.
There are several important signs that one's prayer has been a fruitful time of nourishment. Some of these signs include leaving the prayer time feeling:
1. Energized. An unfruitful time of prayer will be dissipating and leave the person tired. On the other hand, if the person in prayer feels refreshed and energized at the end, it is more than likely that the inner self has been united with God for at least part of the prayer period.
2. Filled with inner calm and peace. A completely distracted experience pulls apart the human spirit and leaves the person agitated. But when the deepest self is united with God, the person feels a sense of inner calm and peace, regardless of how the conscious mind is distracted.
Ending prayer with a sense of inner rest and a feeling of being centred is a good indication that God has touched the person in a hidden part of the human spirit.
3. Positive. Without the presence of Spirit, we can sometimes sink into discouragement. When we are united to the Spirit, we are filled with Christian optimism and hope. In prayer we are regenerated and renewed by God's presence.
4. Inspired. A true prayer will occasionally bring us inspired thoughts and feelings. We might have a desire to reach out to a hurting employee, or a new project might come to mind. We might have a spiritual insight or simply end the prayer with a feeling of thanksgiving. In a fruitful time of prayer, God often inspires us.
These are a few examples of ways to discern that one's time of prayer, although thoroughly distracted, may actually be a time of grace. The assistance of an experienced spiritual director may be helpful in this discernment. Each person, it is hoped, will come to recognize his or her own signs that God's Spirit has been active during times of prayer.
For those struggling with conflicts and problems that surface during prayer, it is important to discern if God is calling them to bring those problems to prayer. While divinely inspired solutions may not be forthcoming, God sometimes inspires us to see problems from the divine perspective.
At other times, God simply lets us know that we are not alone in the struggle. While the presence of distractions is sometimes God calling us to bring problems to prayer, some distracted persons deal with a flood of problems every day; they cannot all be brought to prayer.
Each day, when their time of prayer has ended, distracted persons may feel pleased to cease the apparent struggle and glad to resume their administrative duties. However, when they reflect on their experience of prayer over a long period of time, they may come to realize how central their daily prayer time is, despite its seeming aridity and uselessness.
Many burdened individuals have a deep awareness that without it, they would lose their inner strength and direction. Obviously, such enlightenment does not happen overnight but it is a beautiful discovery!
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.