Dealing with Distractions in Prayer

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go. (Hamlet, Act iii, Scene 3)

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So spoke King Claudius as he tried to repent of the murder of his brother. He tried to kneel in prayer, but couldn't feel any sense of comfort or mercy from God. Claudius realized that because he had no intention of confessing to the crime or changing his life, his words were empty and meaningless. Consequently, the weight of his sin kept him bound to earth, with no hope of touching heaven.

We are not usually distracted over something so extreme as murder, but Claudius’ observation can still apply to us in other circumstances. We’ve all experienced how the distractions of life—both good and sinful—can get in the way of our prayer. As it happened with King Claudius, these distractions keep our thoughts earthbound, leaving us dry in prayer, frustrated, and unable to enjoy the heavenly fellowship that Jesus wants us to have with him.

While we want to be with God, these distractions can trip us up, sometimes without notice. First, they make their way into our prayer time on a peripheral tangent even though we hardly open the door. Then, before too long, like uninvited guests, they overshadow our minds and guide us away from the Lord.

But the good news is that we are not hopelessly bound to these invaders. God wants us to know that it is possible to win the battle against the distractions that come at us when we try to pray.

Do Begin Your Prayer by Setting Your Position. There is no greater joy than being in the presence of the Lord. We sense his love. We feel his awesome power and his peace. We find ourselves saying, “Jesus, I love you so much; I’ll do anything for you.”

St. Teresa of Avila, who has been called the doctor of prayer, has taught that if we want to experience the joy of God’s presence, it is essential that we establish our position in Christ as we begin each prayer time. Teresa believed that what we do at the very beginning has a great influence over not only our prayer time but the rest of our day as well. Consequently, she said that it is imperative that we settle down, let go of our responsibilities and tasks, and picture ourselves in a quiet place alone with Jesus.

Those in the practice of sports psychology have learned how athletes can use their minds to improve their performance by first calling to mind a picture of the task at hand. For example, before shooting a basket, a basketball player is taught to imagine his hand releasing the ball, then to “see” it arcing through the air and into the basket—all in his mind’s eye, a split second before taking a shot. Only after seeing this image of success is the player ready to shoot the basketball. Over the years, professional studies have shown that this kind of concentration and use of the imagination can significantly help players and whole teams improve their games.

Similarly, as we begin to pray, we can use our imagination to “see” the primary truths of our faith and “set our position” in Christ. St. Paul wrote, “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). The Nicene Creed, which we recite at Mass, is a modern-day version of these words. When we employ this twofold step—believing with all of our hearts that Jesus is Lord and confessing our faith in his resurrection—we are actually setting our position in Christ.

The Nicene Creed is not the only way, either. You may want to compose your own prayer or method. All you need to do is make sure that in some way you are proclaiming that Jesus is the Son of God who died to restore us to the Father, who rose to bring us salvation, and who will come again to lead us into heaven.

Brothers and sisters, it really is possible to “practice the presence” of Jesus. This is not just a mental game. Setting our position is a simple way we can begin our prayer by fixing our attention on Jesus and allowing the Holy Spirit to lift us up so that we might experience God’s presence and receive whatever gifts God wants to give to us. In a spiritual turnaround, when we enter God’s presence at the beginning of our prayer, we find that his presence actually distracts us from the normal distractions that tend to get in the way of our spiritual life.

Do “Seek First the Kingdom of God.” These words from the Gospel of Matthew highlight the ideal disposition toward God and the place he wants to hold in our lives. While they do describe the ideal, there is also a way that we can take them literally. The first thing we need to do when we wake up each day is to turn to Jesus and pray. We live in a fast-paced world that seems to have a mind of its own. If we’re not careful, its drive can get into our minds as soon as we wake up and dominate us for the rest of the day.

Some people are regimented enough to say, “I will pray each day at 1:00 or 2:00 in the afternoon” and never miss. For the rest of us, however, we either get sidetracked by the demands of life or we simply do not have the discipline to fit prayer in once the day gets underway.

Just as the beginning of our prayer sets the tone for the rest of our prayer time, the beginning of our day tends to set the tone for the rest of the day. Those who sit before the Lord the first thing tend to see the grace of prayer influence the rest of their day to a much greater degree than those who don’t.

If you want to walk with Jesus every day, you’ll do yourself a great favor by making your prayer time the first thing you do—even if it means waking up a few minutes earlier. If you do, you’ll be surprised at how lazy your distractions tend to be. It seems that they like to sleep in!

Don’t Let the “Insects” of Life Distract You. People who play golf have to battle pesky insects—flies, gnats, bees, and fire ants. Flies and gnats can be brushed away with the wave of a hand, but bees and ants need a different approach. They’re the ones that sting and bite. So while a golfer has only to brush away the flies and gnats, he has to be more concerned about the bees and ants.

Most of our distractions in prayer—like tiredness, hunger, and the everyday problems and priorities of life—can be brushed away with the wave of a hand, just as we would brush away an annoying fly. It’s a simple process of focusing and refocusing ourselves on being with Jesus. At first, it may feel as if we are doing nothing but brushing away distractions, but that will change over time. We need to remember that we are not alone when we pray. The Holy Spirit is right there with us, helping us (Romans 8:26). As we get into the habit of dismissing these minor distractions, he will bring us closer to Jesus. Eventually, the small irritants of life will simply fall away.

By contrast, it is quite difficult to dismiss major distractions like a serious family sickness, a financial crisis, or a troubled marriage. In cases like these, it may be best to try to take your concerns right into prayer. Ask Jesus to bring you his peace, his healing, and his wisdom. Intercede for a loved one who is hurting. Search the Scriptures for guidance. Jesus knows that these major distractions are real, and he wants to help us deal with them. Yet at the same time, it would be a mistake to let our burdens dominate our prayer. Our best bet is to open the door to Jesus and let him minister to us in our need. Then, rather than focusing entirely on our problems, we ourselves will experience the great promise described by the psalmist: “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing” (Psalm 145:15-16).

The Saints Are Praying for Us. If you still find your distractions dominating your mind, even after you have tried to fight them off, there is one last option. As she grew close to her death, Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity (1880-1906) began to sense that she would have a special mission in heaven to pray for those of us who are still on earth so that we will find the grace to move away from our distractions and enter God’s presence. And Elizabeth is not alone. She is joined by every saint in heaven, all of whom are praying for us right now. Isn’t it comforting to know that so many saints are concerned about us—to the point of offering unending prayer for our well-being?

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