The Word Among Us

Prayer Resources

Swatting Gnats

Here’s a good bit of advice about dealing with distractions in prayer.

By: Jerome Kodell, OSB

Swatting Gnats: Here’s a good bit of advice about dealing with distractions in prayer. by Jerome Kodell, OSB

In Arkansas and other warm climates, there is no summertime nuisance more aggravating than being pestered by gnats.

There are some species, like buffalo gnats, that can do a lot of harm, but the ordinary, or everyday, variety rarely does physical damage; the gnats just drive you crazy. When you’re stopping peacefully to enjoy a sunrise or sunset, taking a walk by a lake, or relaxing in your lawn chair, the gnats won’t let you be. You could put up with gnats if they swarmed around your arms or legs, but they prefer eyes and ears, and you simply can’t concentrate on your business and ignore them. They demand attention. Unless you have access to a super insect spray, the only thing you can do about gnats is keep swatting them away. But don’t think you are going to deter them. They will keep coming back. Even if you could manage to kill a few million of them, there would always be more.

I spend a lot of my day swatting gnats, even when I’m inside—but not the physical kind. There are spiritual gnats that drive me crazy, and swatting them away is a major part of my spiritual work. There are distractions even when I decide to pray. I may do everything right: set aside a time, re-collect myself to break from what I’ve been doing, and find a quiet place where I won’t be interrupted, maybe even before the Blessed Sacrament. I take a deep breath, call on the Lord’s help, and here they come. Is that candle crooked? I wonder whether it will rain. Did I lock my car? How far is the sun from the earth? Gnats keep coming, and I keep swatting.

For a long time, I didn’t understand about the gnats in my prayer. I took them seriously. I figured the distractions were ruining my prayer and that if I couldn’t make them stop coming, I wasn’t praying. Now, I know that prayer is in the commitment and the decision to pray, and my decision to pray can remain untouched by the gnats. I just have to keep swatting them with my eyes fixed on Jesus. If I try to mash them one by one, they will win because they will take my attention off Jesus, but if I just keep swatting them as soon as I see them, my prayer remains unbroken.

The same is true with those other gnats, the random thoughts that whirl in and out of my mind: especially those that make me feel guilty, the impatience and the inner judgments about people I don’t even know—like that man who is too old to be driving and, besides, is going too slow or like the child who used chalk on the sidewalk when I’m sure he should have been in school or like the young man who let the door close in my face. It’s even worse with people I know, because the same judgments about them pop into my mind every day. The mistake here is the same as with distractions. These thoughts are mine only if I own them. My brain is sparking off random thoughts and judgments all the time—it’s called being alive—but I don’t have to be responsible for them. I can just keep swatting and go peacefully on.

Just as there are summer evenings when I can go out and enjoy a peaceful sunset with no gnats around, there are days when it’s much easier to control my thoughts and focus my prayer. I am grateful for those times, and I make the most of them, but I have to be careful about thinking that my prayer or my inner life is better on those days than when I am battered by the gnats. I may actually be doing better on the days gnats are swarming, because I have to struggle to stay true to my decisions and convictions. As T. S. Eliot said, “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” I am not defending gnats, and I am not defending distractions and uncharitable thoughts. But I am not going to take any of them too seriously. If they keep coming, I will keep swatting.

This is a selection from Is God in My Top Ten? Meditations for a Deeper Life in Christ by Jerome Kodell, OSB (The Word Among Us Press, 2018). Available at wau.org/books

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