These past six months, my husband, Ben, and I have had very little quiet time. Now the parents of four young children under the age of eight, we intend to enter Mass with a few moments of meditation beforehand, but we’re instantly interrupted with a crying baby or a toddler wandering off by the baptismal font.
The same is true for daily prayer. We were discussing this a while back: we sit down with fifteen minutes of what we anticipate will be uninterrupted time spent with God, and inevitably something unexpected happens. This could be very early in the morning, very late at night, during the kids’ naptimes, or any time in between.
The Quality of Prayer
We all know that distractions happen. And we often blame ourselves for them. Others will tell us repeatedly that desolation is directly related to the reality that we need to increase our prayer time, or at least the quality of it. That means meditating on Scripture and quiet contemplation, not just rote rehearsal of memorized Hail Marys, right?
Well, yes and no. A friend of mine, who has a grown son with autism, told me several years ago that there were seasons of life when Stephen was young and she was so exhausted that all she could do was turn to the rote prayers she knew — the Hail Marys, the novenas, the chaplets — and try her best to be faithful to them.
Since then, I can empathize with her. Up until a few years ago, it wasn’t difficult for me to find time for prayer. But we have had two babies in two years, and as any parent knows, babies need what they need when they need it — no exceptions. Ben and I are always on the edge of burnout for many reasons: we are older now, we have more children to care for, and Sarah, of course, has one of the most complex rare diseases her geneticist has seen.
Sometimes the rote prayers are all we have, and that’s okay. The point doesn’t seem to be how creative we are in spontaneous exhortations to God, but rather in the intention of the heart. St. Teresa of Avila explained that there are involuntary distractions and willful distractions.
Involuntary Versus Willful Distractions in Prayer
Involuntary distractions are those thoughts and images that pop into our minds by surprise and always seem to arrive while we are praying the Rosary or at Mass. Sometimes we find ourselves drifting from being engaged in prayer to, Did I remember to write down the doctor’s appointment next Monday? or I forgot to thaw the hamburger for dinner tonight! or I need to call so-and-so and check up on how she’s doing after her surgery.
Here’s the thing: involuntary distractions happen. We can’t control them. If we feed them by entertaining those thoughts (just like any temptation), then they can become willful distractions, which is sinful. We can neither force them to stay away, nor can we always force them to leave. But we can continue to return to the present moment, even if done over and over again.
What to Do When Distractions Happen
How is it possible to handle these distractions without feeling overwhelmed or mentally drained? Here are some tips that help me through distracted prayer.
Our imaginations, thoughts, and emotions are highly susceptible to spiritual attack. The first places diabolic spirits target are these, usually with an irrelevant or even disturbing thought or image. Keep this in mind next time you are distracted during prayer. To combat these attacks, do the following:
- Stay disciplined in the act of regular prayer. The worst thing you can do is abandon this practice. Show up every day by keeping your appointment with God.
- Ask your guardian angel to influence your thoughts, imaginations, and emotions with good, clear, holy images. This is a very powerful and effective prayer.
- Eliminate extraneous variables that might be contributing to your distractions, such as all technology and noise (if possible – minus small children).
- Use Scripture or sacred text (the Catechism, books written by saints) as tools to guide you through your prayer. This is very helpful for me when I get distracted, because I can go back and look at the words on a page, which help bring me back to where God is speaking to my heart.
- During Mass, spend at least fifteen minutes following the reception of Holy Communion to thank God for His goodness and His presence in us. This is such a healing prayer.
- Get enough sleep. That might sound out of place, but honestly, chronic sleep deprivation affects your ability to concentrate, focus, and remember. Good sleep works wonders.
- Don’t ruminate over every thought that disturbs your prayer. This will only agitate you and disrupt the peace that only comes from God. Acknowledge the thought, then let it go. Clinging to it will make it snowball into an obsession that is unhealthy.
- Remember that God’s grace compensates for our lack. He sees what you are doing and rewards your offering.
- Expect distractions. They will happen. Getting frustrated over them may discourage you to the point of thwarting your efforts at connecting with God (another tactic of the enemy).
A Final Thought
St. Francis de Sales leaves us with spiritual wisdom on the fruit of our good intentions during distractions in prayer:
“If the heart wanders or is distracted, bring it back to the point quite gently and replace it tenderly in the Master’s presence. And even if you did nothing during the whole of your hour [of prayer] but bring your heart back and replace it again in Our Lord’s presence, though it went away every time you brought it back, your hour would be very well employed.”