Dear Father John, What do you do when the presence of God (I think that is what it is) is distracting? I have to continually reorient myself toward duties at hand. If He wants me to do X, Y or Z (as I believe He does), why does He make Himself so distracting throughout my work, so that simple things become laborious? This manifests internally – in the world it seems as if everyone thinks I’m just peachy in terms of meeting my obligations. My view differs, as I only accomplish things with the help of grace and always feel I did not do as good a job as I could have without that distracting presence (but it seems to make up for my faults by somehow making my work better than it should have been given my lack of attentiveness)! If I am the source of the problem, how do I fix it?
Beneath the words of your question is evidence of a desire that can only come from the Holy Spirit: to do all things, even the small daily tasks that seem so insignificant, for the glory of God. Before addressing the difficulties you raise, I want to encourage you to feed that desire. The more we look outwards and upwards, towards God, with the eyes of our soul, the more interior freedom we can experience and share. The more we look inwards and downwards, towards our “independent” self, the more we can become fixated on earth and trying to turn it into heaven – a futile, frustrating, and fruitless distraction. “Fix your eyes on Jesus,” should continue to be your motto (Hebrews 3:1). Even our self-examination should always happen in the presence and under the light of Christ.
God Integrates Our Lives
God certainly never makes himself distracting. The closer we grow in our friendship with Christ, the more integrated all the different aspects and sectors of our lives become. Even the daily chores, which seem so mundane, take on the glow of glory, just as they did for Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in the humble home at Nazareth. Authentic contact with God in prayer always strengthens our desire and determination to be faithful to his will, which is primarily found in the commandments and the duties of our state in life (the “duties at hand,” as you describe them). Therefore, if something is pulling you away from those duties, that something is not God.
Why God Allows Difficulties
Why, then, do you find simple things becoming laborious? Let me begin an answer with another question: Why did the Father allow Jesus to be burdened with the Cross, the weight of which made his final walk on earth so strenuous and painful, so laborious? Think about that for a second. Now let’s look at Jesus’ own answer: “… The world must be brought to know that I love the Father…” (John 14:31). The Father permitted the forces of evil to bring suffering to his Son, so that his Son could show forth the true meaning of love. And that true meaning of love is self-forgetfulness, self-giving, self-denial. Jesus made this clear not only by his example, but also by his teaching: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). The Lord actually made this self-forgetful, self-abnegating love the primary condition of following him: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me” (Luke 9:23). When we follow in Christ’s footsteps, carrying our crosses and uniting them to his, we too show forth and grow in true love.
You may have noticed that I haven’t directly answered your question about the origin of the strangely intense “laboriousness” you are experiencing in your daily obligations. That’s because the origin is secondary; what matters primarily is that you understand that God is permitting this cross in your life and that you decide, each day, to embrace it with humility and determination as a magnificent way to unite yourself to Christ. Nevertheless, here are some speculations on the origin of the laboriousness. I see three possible sources.
Going to the Source
First, it could simply be that your natural laziness (we all have it – compliments of original sin) is oozing out of some deep regions of your soul and showing itself in ways you haven’t seen before. If so, what a beautiful opportunity for purification! Some skin treatments are designed to draw toxins out of the hidden, lower layers of the skin in order to purify them. Perhaps God’s grace is doing something similar with your soul.
On the other hand, this may be a tactic of the enemy of your soul. The devil may be trying to oppress you, making God’s will uncommonly laborious for you in order to confuse, distract, or discourage you. If you have had some deep experiences of God in prayer, for example, the devil may be trying to get you to turn those experiences into little idols. He may be trying to convince you that you should be spending your days in mystical delights, not in mundane obedience to God’s most holy will. This is an old and effective trick: we can slowly become so attached to the gifts of consolation God gives us in prayer that we lose sight of the Giver of those gifts. This is where New Age meditation techniques can lead even faithful Christians astray.
Third, it could be a combination of the first two. This is most likely the case. The enemy is trying to distract you, to steal the interior peace of your soul, and he is doing it by making normal duties abnormally laborious. The devil knows from centuries of experience that stealing our interior peace goes a long way to interfering with our growth in intimacy with God. I would say he has already made some progress in this area, since you are also now somewhat concerned about what those around you are saying about you. This too is a distraction. The important opinion is God’s opinion, not that of your friends and neighbors. And God does not ask us for Pharisaic perfection in the performance of our duties; rather, he asks for a heart full of love (the sincere desire to love) and a humble determination to make a decent effort, no matter how hard it may be.
The Quick Fix
So, how do you “fix it”? I recommend not trying to fix it. By focusing on the problem, you are playing into the distraction. Simply increase your focus on seeking to love Christ by fulfilling his will in your daily life. When doing so is hard, renew your love for him, your self-offering to him, your desire to show him that you truly love him, your yearning to be more united to him by embracing whatever cross he permits in your life, just as he embrace his cross. When doing his will conscientiously is made almost impossible by distractions or uncanny laboriousness (this happened to many saints – like S.t Margaret Mary and St. Bernadette Subirous), as if you were trying to walk a straight line while surrounded by a cloud of crazy, buzzing flies, seek only to put one foot in front of the other, asking only to see one step ahead, and trusting that in doing so you will continue to give glory to God, and that He will continue guiding you to the contagious joys of spiritual maturity.
Yours sincerely in Christ , Fr John Bartunek, LC, ThD
Art for this post on the presence of God: mirror detail of Sense of Sight, Annie Swynnerton, 1898, PD-US author’s life plus 70 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.