Perhaps somewhere out there are women who can completely empty their minds and focus totally on God. I’m sorry to say that I am not one of them — never have been. Just by way of example, there are times I have said an entire rosary and realized at the end of it that my mind was elsewhere the entire time.
Perhaps someday my life will have less stress and less to think about, but I’m not holding my breath. Most of the senior citizens I know still have a whole lot on their respective plates — life seems to get more difficult, not less, with age. Therefore, I’m fairly certain distraction during prayer is something I will be dealing with every day of my life.
Obviously, it would be better if I could clear my thoughts, but that doesn’t seem to be within my capabilities at the moment. Then, what should I do? Does my prayer not count because my mind wanders? Should I give up praying as a lost cause? No, not at all.
I can take some comfort in the fact that I am not alone in this difficulty. Distraction during prayer is such a common problem that the Catechism of the Catholic Church offers the following advice: “The habitual difficulty in prayer is distraction. It can affect words and their meaning in vocal prayer; it can concern, more profoundly, him to whom we are praying, in vocal prayer (liturgical or personal), meditation, and contemplative prayer. To set about hunting down distractions would be to fall into their trap, when all that is necessary is to turn back to our heart: for a distraction reveals to us what we are attached to, and this humble awareness before the Lord should awaken our preferential love for him and lead us resolutely to offer him our heart to be purified. Therein lies the battle, the choice of which master to serve” (CCC 2729).
St. Teresa of Avila also suffered from distraction in prayer. She wrote, “Do not imagine that the important thing is never to be thinking of anything else and that if your mind becomes slightly distracted all is lost.” It is still important to keep praying. Praying provides us the “the strength which fits us for service. . . The Lord leads each of us as He sees we have need.”
Praying is too important to abandon due to distractions. When I realize that my mind has wandered, I try to bring it back to prayer. If my mind has drifted to a concern I am having, I ask God to help me with it. If my mind has traveled to a sinful thought, I ask God’s forgiveness. I may not focus on every word of prayer that I say, but I do know that God knows my intent to lift up my heart and my needs to Him.
This isn’t to say that I am giving up the effort to try to focus more. Lately, I have been making a concerted attempt to say one “Our Father” each night before I go to bed and truly pay attention to each word and the meaning it contains. It isn’t easy, and I don’t always make it through the whole prayer, but I am trying.
In the meantime, I will continue praying and offering my distractions up to God.
(© 2011 Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur)