Distraction may be the chief complaint levied about one’s prayer life. Regarding distraction, here is something from the two leading teachers of prayer in the Carmelite tradition.
from Carmelite Prayer: A Tradition for the 21st Century
Ed. Fr. Keith J. Egan
“Contemplation and the Stream of Consciousness”
by Fr. Kiernan Kavanaugh
With little difficulty we can recognize the similarities between Teresa’s teaching on prayer and contemplation and John’s. Both admit to an activity on our own part, especially at the beginning, an activity of reading, thinking, and recollection. Both direct this activity to the loving knowledge of, or presence to, or relationship with Christ. In both, we find descriptions of the prayer of recollection active and passive, of quiet, and of union. Both admit that the wandering mind or imagination is an accompaniment to prayer and contemplation.
In fact, after a lifetime of distraction and pain from distraction St.Teresa finally has this advice to offer:
from “ Jesus Christ in Carmelite Prayer”
by Sr. Mary Dorgan
“Taking it upon oneself to stop and suspend thought is what I mean should not be done. . . . “ She tells us that in regard to “. . . this effort to suspend the intellect . . . labor will be wasted. . . “(BL. 12.5). She warns against a kind of mental coercion to empty ourselves of thoughts in order to achieve a held absorption. St Teresa was too familiar with this experience in herself and in others, based on a too-demanding cut-down of outside stimuli, that could lead to quietism. “To be always withdrawn for corporeal things. . . is the trait of angelic spirits, not of those who live in mortal bodies. . . . How much more is it necessary not to withdraw through one’s own efforts from all our good and help with is the most sacred humanity of our Lord Jesus Christ” (IC 6.7.6).
For Teresa and for John as well, this constant babble of wayward thoughts is part and parcel of who we are. To deny it is to deny who we are. I would go further to say that this constant stream of thought defines, in a special way, who we are. More than that, this constant stream of thought forms the ostinato against which the melody of prayer plays out. That is to say, that these very real, very present concerns are a real part of prayer. When they invade, they do so out of two causes—one is that we are insufficiently focused on our goal—thus they serve as the watchdogs of prayer. The other is that they are real and present concerns that define in part where we are in our day and in our lives. To deny them is, in a way, denying access to a real and important part of ourselves to the dearest friend we have. It would be rather like chatting about the weather to our best friend just prior to the time we are going to enter the hospital to have some serious medical tests. We haven’t told our best friend and we are screening out that concern. Only it is worse because our friend already knows about these concerns because He lives within and sees them flitting about batting their wings against the cages we try to make for them.
What then to do about distractions? Accept them. Don’t welcome them, but accept them, and turn back to the conversation. Think about a conversation on your front porch on a fine spring say as your children are running on the lawn and playing. If your children are normal they are up on that porch at least as much as they are kicking a ball or playing catch or hide-and-seek. However, it is a fine day, your friend as much as you enjoys the sounds and sights and presence of the children, and when they break into the conversation, He doesn’t regard them with exasperation, but with the loving, doting look of one who has sat many a time watching them play. When the concerns of the children are finished, the matter of a moment or two, we return to the conversation.
That is the important point—we may be dragged off-course, but always return, gently, lovingly, longingly, to the conversation.
On a personal note—I have often been battered by distractions. Until recently they would completely derail my efforts at any sort of coherent conversation. And then, suddenly, as in a coup de grace, they became integrated into my prayer, they would appear and drop away and I would not worry myself about their intrusion, but, as in contemplating the mysteries of the Rosary, I would allow them to sound and then gently fall back below the surface. They continued throughout the prayer, but the prayer continued as well. No, I didn’t achieve transports of union—but then I’m not there at this point. I am still learning to talk and to listen and to offer who I am and what I am concerned about.
So my advice for those distracted in prayer—don’t focus on the distraction, focus on the person with Whom you are conversing. He knows what is playing through your brain. He knows who and what you are, and He is patient and welcoming to all of you—distraction, intentions, and conversation. Don’t worry about it. Prayer will not be perfectly quiet until it is time for it—and then the Lord will lead. Otherwise, don’t fret. Through her entire life, St. Teresa of Avila was plagued with distraction, and yet she is no less a saint for all of that.