Once at a Christmas party while we were dining, my three-year-old grandnephew stood at the table crying hard. My brother-in-law said to him, “Go get Grandpa a cookie.” Instantly the little boy stopped bawling and went off in search of a cookie. My brother-in-law commented to me, “Your sister taught me how to distract him like that.”
So sometimes distractions are good. But when they interrupt our prayers, they are not so good. Our problem stems from the fact that we have “monkey minds” that jump from one thought to another. While we intend to focus our attention on God, our minds trick us to think of other things. This is a universal condition.
Did you ever hear the story of the man who claimed he could get through saying the Our Father without a distraction? A man challenges him by offering to give him his horse if he can do this. The man begins praying, “Our Father, who art in heaven.” Then he stops and asks, “Does the saddle come with it?”
Sometimes when I pray the Rosary, on the third decade I don’t remember praying the first two. Then there are the times when my eyes have read the words of the Divine Office, but my mind hasn’t. St. John Cassian’s words are disconcerting: “He never prays who, while on his knees, is in his heart roaming the fields.” On the other hand, there is St. Teresa of Avila who compared distractions to unruly horses. (Others have referred to them as pesky gnats.) Teresa advised ignoring them and refocusing on God.
Some distractions, however, may be a message from God for you. When a person or situation pops into your mind, it could be a hint that you are supposed to pray about that distraction. So weave it into your conversation with God. Another possibility is that the wayward thought might be a divine nudge to take action about something.
Here’s a tip for preventing some distractions: close your eyes. When I’m meditating and pacing in my apartment, I find that I am tempted to do things like straighten a crooked afghan or pick up a pencil from the floor. If I don’t see the world around me, I’m more likely to keep centered on God. It also helps to pray in a quiet place where we are alone.
How do you feel when you are speaking with someone and they are looking at their cell phone or glancing about to spot another person they could talk to? I imagine God feels the same way when instead of focusing on him, we are busy planning supper or our shopping list. In my case, I can be planning a blog post like this one or my next book. When I don’t give God my undivided attention, I count on him realizing that at least my intentions were good.
Our community prayer in chapel would begin “Recall the presence of God.” This is good advice for controlling distractions. When we envision almighty God or Jesus with us and looking at us with love, it’s easier to stay centered on him. An image of Jesus or a lighted candle might also serve to hold fast our attention.
How do you deal with distractions?