A Scattered Soul: Distraction in Prayer

Some time ago at Sunday Mass, I looked up to see a woman texting on her phone in line for Holy Communion.  

My heart stopped.  It was the most blatant, shocking show of distraction I’d ever seen.  To be so close to Jesus, to be approaching this intimate moment of union with Him—and to be so far away in thought and so disinterested in this profound mystery.

Clearly, she doesn’t realize what she is doing, I reminded myself, trying to pluck the quick judgment from my own distracted mind.

And then the Lord reminded me that I, who did know, wasn’t recollected either. I lowered my eyes and admitted it.  Yes, Lord, I am so very scattered.

I wished I could close the doors inside of me which seemed to open up into highways of thoughts, running like neon streaks across sacred things.  I wished I could silence completely the static from my inner stations of noise, the dial always turning and searching for something new and numbing.  I wished my heart was less hummingbird-like, in a constant hum of activity, a blur of motion, my mind scattered like a little diaspora.

But the saints would say, emphatically, don’t give in to that discouragement.  Return again to prayer, and again, and again. The struggle is a suffering and even that can be given to God.  

For years St. Teresa of Avila had a difficult time quieting her active mind and the “great noise” in her head, and this caused her an incredible amount of pain.  She remarks in the Interior Castle how relieved she felt when she came to understand that “Ordinarily the mind flies about quickly, for only God can hold it fast in such a way as to make it seem that we are somehow loosed from this body.”  She says, “Just as we cannot stop the movement of the heavens, but they proceed in rapid motion, so neither can we stop our mind…and we think we are lost and have wasted time spent before God. But the soul is perhaps completely joined with Him in the dwelling places very close to the center while the mind is on the outskirts of the castle suffering from a thousand wild and poisonous beasts, and meriting by this suffering. 

 While the devil wants us to give up prayer altogether, frustrated by our own lack of concentration, she urges the opposite.  Surrendering even our weak and distracted minds, we must refuse stubbornly to stop praying. And what is beautiful is that the Lord can keep us united to Him in the innermost places of our soul even while our thoughts fly about like butterflies.  We can—we must—try to collect them in mental nets, to focus on Christ and holy things, and take every thought captive.  But even should we fail, our desire for Him is an anchor for our heart.  

And there, in the deep, we are united to Him. 

When and if He wills to subject our humanity to Himself, and sweep us into complete recollection, He will do it.  We can only dispose ourselves to it: holding to our prayer time, finding some silence, filling our mind with good reading, keeping our eyes down and our hearts lifted.  And, yes, putting our phones away now and then.

Then we can look forward to a time when the only One scattering will be Christ, scattering our darkness.  And gathering us into wholeness in Him.


Photo of Mont St-Michel by Fr. Steven Kunkel, used with permission.

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