Have you ever driven home, and when you get in your driveway you don’t remember anything about your trip? Your mind was so preoccupied with other things that you were just on auto-pilot during your drive. Have you ever had a similar experience with prayer? Or Mass? You get to the end and realize your mind was distracted the entire time!
Everyone has distractions during prayer, but how do we handle them so they don’t steal our prayer time, or cause us to be continually frustrated with ourselves?
Recently, a young listener named Abigail asked Father Matthew Spencer, OSJ what to do about distractions during prayer, and Father Matthew addressed it on St. Joseph’s Workshop. He said:
“It’s hard to pray. It’s hard because it takes work. We don’t always get the same response in the same way that we would expect in normal conversations and normal dialogue.
Here’s the thing about prayer. Prayer is ultimately about connecting with a God who loves you, and recognizing that you’re a creature and God is the Creator. You realize there is a disparity there, and God would love it if we were totally attentive 100% of the time, but He created us. He knows it’s impossible for us to do that. He knows that it’s not realistic to always be 100% focused on Him.
In fact, it’s really important to remember that good prayer doesn’t mean that you’re always perfectly attentive. That’s not necessarily the definition of good prayer. I know that we feel like that, we feel that in order to pray really well we need to be so focused on those five mysteries of the rosary. I’m not going to be thinking about what I’m going to have for breakfast tomorrow, I’m not going to be thinking about what work I have to finish up, I’m not going to be thinking about the hurts that I felt during the day, I’m just going to focus 100% right now.
Except that’s not what perfect prayer really is – being only focused on the words or the thoughts that we have. Instead it’s about cultivating that relationship with Jesus. And oftentimes it’s about humbling ourselves before the Lord and recognizing how imperfect we are. And guess what? God is OK with that.
God is OK with the fact that you’re not perfect. He’s OK with the fact that you’re not doing things exactly right. Now, I’m not saying that He wants you to stay there, I’m not saying He doesn’t want you to grow. That’s a big part of our prayer life, it’s a big part of our moral life.
We might be grappling with a particular sin, we might be grappling with a particular vice. I might be getting angry at people, or having a short temper, or any of those things that can become habitual in our lives. To think that God is unhappy with me because I am in that state is just a bad theological framework. It’s not right, because God is love.
And His love doesn’t depend on my own qualities as a person. His love doesn’t depend on my own function or on my successes. His love depends on the fact that I’m made in His image and likeness, and I have intrinsic value. You have intrinsic value.
So when it comes to prayer, we have to recognize that it’s not about function. It’s not about doing something perfectly. It’s about always striving to use that moment better. Always striving to use that moment well.
Concretely, what do you do when you get distracted? This is what I would say: when you find yourself getting distracted in prayer, very gently just bring your mind back to God. Don’t dwell on it, don’t become frustrated, don’t become angry, don’t think badly of yourself. Don’t worry about that, just come back. Because that’s the most pleasing thing you can do at that moment. Just come back to prayer, refocus, and be attentive.
And you should know this, that every saint who has ever lived has experienced distractions in prayer. Because to be distracted doesn’t mean that it’s a sin, it doesn’t mean it’s a mistake. It’s just the realization that my mind is sometimes caught up by other things in the world.
So be gentle with yourself. Come back to that prayer. Recognize that every saint has gone through that problem, every saint has had trouble with distractions. But every saint has gotten through them because they realized it’s not about being perfectly attentive, it’s about cultivating a strong, rich prayer life and that relationship with Jesus, so you can serve Him and love Him.”
Listen to more below:
St. Joseph’s Workshop with Father Matthew Spencer airs weekdays from 9:00 – 10:00 a.m. Pacific on Immaculate Heart Radio.