A Thousand Times A Day: Distractions in Life and Prayer

“I don’t know if I have been able to write ten lines without being disturbed…I am not telling any lies when I say that I am writing practically nothing,” lamented (laughed?) St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

She had snuck out to the convent garden to write, hoping to make progress on Story of a Soul in her very small pocket of free time.  But she had been constantly interrupted, as usual, and the process was painfully slow.

I underlined her words and sat back.

I am writing practically nothing.”

Oh Thérèse, I thought. I feel you.

These last few months were supposed to be the months I made serious progress on a project and yet every day had brought its own kind of chaos.  Maybe tomorrow, I’d say again and again, but each tomorrow would come and I’d type just a few lines and find myself pulled into a thousand other things—some urgent, some important, many simply distractions.

This tendency for our important work to be diminished by distractions isn’t just part of the writing life but often part of prayer, too.  Anyone who has settled in with a scripture passage or a rosary and a firm sense of purpose—even deep desire—has known what it is to find themselves only moments later mulling over a grocery list or reflecting on a conversation from the day before.

What am I doing? We rub our eyes and begin again.

The phone rings and we silence it, but now we’re wondering what we’ve just missed.

The sudden realization hits—today is picture day at school.  Are the dress shirts clean?

The child is asking for breakfast.  Are we really out of milk?

What am I doing? We shake our heads and begin again.

What time is that meeting tomorrow?  Is it on my calendar?

I’d better not forget to pick up a birthday gift.

What decade of the rosary am I even saying?

Is this our fault?

Sometimes, to some degree.

The phone should have been silenced already.  Maybe we could have gotten up before the kids were hungry, or taken care of our calendar the night before.

So yes, we minimize distractions as much as possible.

But we live in a fallen world, and we are human, and it is part of life.

However, here’s the glorious part—like just about everything, even our distractions can be sanctified.

“The best thing to do with distractions is to gently set them aside and lovingly turn our attention to the Lord. We do not need to be distressed if we do this often. After all, every time we turn our attention to the Lord it is an act of love.” (Fr. Thomas Acklin and Fr. Boniface Hicks, Spiritual Direction: A Guide for Sharing the Father’s Love, emphasis mine)

Every time we turn our attention to the Lord it is an act of love.

That means that each time we shake off the drowsiness or swat away the intrusive worries or recollect our wandering thoughts, we are saying yes to God—again.  And again. And again.

Each repetitive yes is a sacred moment of conversion, of exercising our freedom.  Each moment of recollection is another interior genuflection. A tiny turning toward Him.  Turning to Him over and over.  Choosing Him over everything, no matter how many times.

We can see each gentle course correction as an opportunity for humility (There I go again, see how much I need you, Lord, even to pray!) and recognize that it is allowed by God to deepen our dependence on Him.

Each repentant returning is also an occasion of grace.  After all, the grace to gather up our meandering thoughts and come back to God is more His work than ours, so rather than berating ourselves over the distractions we can see the coming back again as gift. And in the morning, before they even happen, we can offer them—and the pain they cause us—to God.  Because it is a real suffering to struggle to remain with Him, to stay on task and on target.

What’s important is not to become discouraged by our distractions.

“If your mind wanders—and it will until the day you die—don’t allow for frustration or self-condemnation; simply and gently bring your attention back to God…” (Dan Burke, Into the Deep).

And the same is true for that important work God has asked us to do—which is, really, an extension of our prayer.  We turn our gaze again, after each scattering of ourselves, return to the task at hand, and begin anew.

Thank goodness St. Thérèse persevered and completed her manuscript. Those pockets of time were enough to create a spiritual masterpiece, distractions and all.

And when I look back over the months and years, so full of busyness and life and setbacks and most of all, my own shortcomings, I see a staircase of small yeses that have led me a little closer to God and His plan for my life.

So praise God for the remembrance of those pivotal, life-altering conversion moments and the grace to be obedient to the big ‘calls’ – the fiats that set the trajectory for our life and our prayer.

But then recognize each distraction as an opportunity for a small ‘yes’, too— a tiny moment of deepening conversion.

And see it all as grace.

“If I should fall even a thousand times a day, a thousand times, with peaceful repentance, I will say immediately, Nunc coepi [Now I begin], my God, my God!” – Venerable Bruno Lanteri


Image courtesy of Unsplash.


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