For those struggling to pray, one challenge in prayer is entering into silence. It seems the moment one goes into a chapel or room or some other private place, a thousand thoughts and feelings suddenly flow. Sometimes, in fact, it is to find some relief from particularly painful feelings or haunting thoughts that we find ourselves driven to prayer. Whatever the case, it can happen that the psychological activity in terms of thoughts, feelings and memories are so intense that they completely prevent someone from praying. Brooding over injury, feeling sorry for oneself, stirring up anxious thoughts, entertaining one’s self with various visual or emotional fantasies – none of this is prayer. Prayer is interpersonal and it requires leaving all of these efforts behind and searching for Jesus in one’s heart.
If we keep the eyes of the heart fixed on the Lord, all these distractions are quickly left behind. So, Teresa of Avila suggests thinking about a scripture passage or reading the Bible as ways of turning our attention away from distracting thoughts. She also advises thinking about our lives and how Jesus has been present to us. Thérèse of Lisieux, in her spiritual struggles, identifies with the bride from the Canticle of Canticles and calls out to Jesus, “draw me.” Elisabeth of the Trinity asks Jesus to fixate her on him. Occasionally, even naming the distraction and offering to Jesus is helpful. For example, one might pray, “Lord, this anxiety or injury is distracting me from seeking you. I entrust this to you with all the love of my heart. Have mercy on me and free me from myself so that I can find you. I know you are waiting for me.”
Whatever the method, God’s love is stronger than our self-occupations. If we are confident and determined in prayer, He comes and frees us from distractions. In fact He is coming now, in an eternal act. He is the God who comes. We have every confidence because the abyss of his mercy is much deeper than the abyss of our ego. We can be determined because He is even more determined. Once we have found Him, whatever we had to suffer along the way seems like nothing at all. Most of all, He has confidence in us.
Art: Detail from “The Adoration of the Child” by Piero di Cosimo, ca 1500, PD-US, Wikimedia Commons.
Editor’s Note: For more of Anthony’s insights on prayer, don’t miss his new book, Hidden Mountain Secret Garden, an experience like no other. Anthony has an unusually profound understanding of mystical theology and lives a life of deep prayer. Among his many accomplishments and responsibilities, Dr. Lilles now teaches theology for the Avila Institute.