Distractions in Prayer and Spiritual Progress
I’ve been struggling greatly with distraction in prayer – more so now than I have in years. Does this temptation often come as we progress in the spiritual life (especially with the night of sense)?
The habitual difficulty in prayer is distraction. It can affect words and their meaning in vocal prayer; it can concern, more profoundly, him to whom we are praying, in vocal prayer (liturgical or personal), meditation, and contemplative prayer. To set about hunting down distractions would be to fall into their trap, when all that is necessary is to turn back to our heart: for a distraction reveals to us what we are attached to, and this humble awareness before the Lord should awaken our preferential love for him and lead us resolutely to offer him our heart to be purified. Therein lies the battle, the choice of which master to serve.
A Bit of Self-Discipline
When distractions come from a divided heart, we need to exercise discipline as soon as we notice them. We need to intentionally turn our attention back to God and the material of our prayer. Also, we need to intentionally continue reforming our behavior and growing in virtue in our daily lives. This includes gradually cutting down on the noise that we allow to distract us even when we are not at prayer (social media, over-commitments, excessive and unproductive entertainment habits, etc…). It also helps to have regularity as regards the time and place where we engage in our daily prayer, as well as finding materials to help our prayer that really allow God to speak to us (e.g., good books of meditations).
A Bit of Patience
As we move forward in our spiritual life and our prayer life, and our meditative mental prayer becomes more contemplative (please see this other post for more on that distinction), then distractions can have a different meaning. In the early stages of contemplative prayer (St. Teresa of Avila’s “fourth mansion”), God begins to quiet our hearts directly. He reaches into our souls, as it were, and quiets our will, allowing our heart to rest in his presence. But since our will and our intellect are two different faculties, when he quiets our will directly, that doesn’t necessarily mean that our intellect will also be quieted. At times we are engaged in very deep and transformative prayer – our wills united to God’s will and firmly desiring greater union – but our minds are still wandering or tending to wander. The proper response to this kind of distraction is simply to turn our attention back to the Lord, gently. We don’t need to try to busy ourselves with many thoughts about God, as was useful in the earlier periods of our prayer life, but simply to abandon and offer ourselves to him. Our part at this stage in prayer is often referred to as “the prayer of simplicity”. You can read more about that on the series of posts that begins here.
In either case, the real key is to keep on persevering in prayer, no matter what.
Much more could be said, but I hope this is a useful beginning.
Art for this post on disctractions in prayer and spiritual progress: Catechism of the Catholic Church, file copy, unknown provenance. L’Extase (The Ecstasy), Jean Benner (1836-1906), before 1896, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.