St. Bernard of Clairvaux was traveling with a poor, uneducated farmer, who boasted, “I’m never distracted when I pray.”
Bernard objected, “I don’t believe it. Now let me make a bargain with you. If you can say the Our Father without one distraction, I’ll give you this mule I’m riding. But if you don’t succeed, you must come with me and be a monk.”
The farmer agreed and began praying aloud confidently, “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name ...” Then, after pausing for a moment, he asked St. Bernard, “Does that include the saddle and the bridle, too?”
Over the past several years, my hearing has deteriorated considerably, so after many unsuccessful attempts at reading lips, I made the decision to visit the audiologist. She confirmed what I already knew: it was time for hearing aids. I can now hear what people are saying, I can hear my dog panting, I can even hear the grit under my shoes.
At first, all the sound was a bit overwhelming, but I understand that my brain will eventually compensate for this additional hearing and will filter out the excess noise, allowing me to hear even more clearly. Now, if I could only get my brain to filter out the “noise” — the distractions in my head when I am trying to pray.
St. Teresa of Avila was one who understood this problem well because she, herself, was plagued with distractions in her prayer life: “There are some souls and minds so scattered they are like wild horses no one can stop. Now they’re running here, now there, always restless … I pity these souls greatly, for they seem to be like very thirsty persons who see water in the distance, but when they want to go there, they meet someone who prevents their passing from the beginning through the middle to the end.”
The unruly wild horse in my brain takes me on some crazy rides. One minute I feel as though I might be getting my prayers right and a few minutes later I find myself thinking on an issue at the office or what’s on the menu for dinner or wondering if J.K. Rowling will write another Harry Potter book. Seriously.
Does this make me a miserable Christian, unworthy of the promises of heaven? Not at all, but it does mean that I need to put into practice some measures that will assist me in staying more focused when I pray.
To begin with, don’t beat yourself up. As shown, distraction in prayer happens to everyone, from the poor farmer to the greatest of saints. Recognize that distractions are going to happen and have a strategy on how to address them in advance.
One of the most practical recommendations I would make is to keep a pen and paper beside you. When one of those “to do” items pops into your head — “Oh, I’ve got to drop the dog at the groomer” — instead of worrying over whether or not you’ll remember it, write it down and move on. If someone keeps crowding into your thoughts, then consider you should stop praying for what you feel is important and pray for him or her. When the distraction has been addressed, then, without chastising yourself, return to your prayers.
Remember, prayer is a conversation with Our Father, and conversations with those we love are wide-ranging and often riddled with random snippets of information and “rabbit trails.” The Lord does not mind either; in fact, he relishes every moment.
The Rev. Dr. John Toles is rector at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Billings.
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