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Waiting in Joyful Hope

Distractions during prayer?

A friend writes:

I have a question that I hope you can answer for me or maybe give me some direction on. How do you keep focused when praying. I know this may sound odd, but I often experience my mind drifting from one thought to another while saying my nightly prayers. The harder I try to keep what I'm saying front and centre the more distracted I become.

Your question about distractions during prayer is very old. Many saints faced such issues, and a lot of wisdom has been passed down through the ages about this.

The first major piece of wisdom the saints have shared with us is that, in general, we should not pay too much attention to distractions - otherwise, the fact of distractions becomes the distraction itself! Distractions represent some of the basic flotsam and jetsam of our minds. Only those who have passed completely through the Dark Night of the Soul are truly free from them. So, in the meantime, we just need to deal with them while accepting that they will likely be present for most of our spiritual life.

Having a written text helps deal with distractions. Reading written texts are our way to speak to God, or writing down our thoughts in a spiritual journal, are great helps in this, because as the distraction comes it is easy to come back to the original thread once the distraction passes, rather than having to go searching for it again.

The strength of distractions are greatly depends on our current interior state. For example, when we are tired they tend to increase. They also tend to be stronger in the evening than in the morning - that is partly why monks do most of their meditation in the morning, as they don't have a day's worth of issues to process while trying to pray.

Finally, while distractions should generally be ignored, there are two exceptions to this rule:

  1. When a specific distraction repeats itself. This kind of distraction usually represents some sort of "worldly attachment" that, if broken, will set free our spiritual life even more. That being said, this kind should normally be brought to a spiritual director, as the root issue behind the distraction is not always obvious.
  2. When a specific distraction activates our conscience. This can be because the distraction tempts our mind to dwell on some sort of sin (dreams of revenge, for example, or impure thoughts, or temptations to self-pity, etc.). It can also be because God is actually speaking to us in a more direct way, such that we *can't* just push ignore the thought - the distraction is not simply a distraction, it is a direct communication from God.

In the case of sinful distractions, the best route is to begin to pray rote prayers (such as a decade of the rosary), so that the distraction can't get a "foothold" in our mind. In the case of the "communication from God" distractions, my advice is to journal about it. Keep a journal book handy, just in case such moments come, and write these things down. Then, when the moment passes, go back to the usual prayers, and bring the written notes to your spiritual director.

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