I recently discussed how I make an effort to turn distractions during Mass into opportunities for prayer. In this post, I’m going to tackle the difficulties I have in my personal prayer life with distractions both of my own making and otherwise.
I used to get angry with myself every time my mind strayed during prayer and since I’m someone who’s about as comfortable with being still as a housefly, this happened all too frequently. I’d sit in the stillness and begin to open my heart to Christ and then I’d start to think about potty training or how I missed my husband or the fact that I forgot to call my mom or those funky espadrilles I’d like to get to match that colorful skirt of mine. I’d keep trying to return to my original plan of taking God in instead of letting all of these random thoughts pour out, but I’d get so frustrated with myself that sometimes I’d just assume the time wasn’t right for me to pray and give up. Or, by the time I’d emptied my mind of errant thoughts, a real distraction in the form of a crying child would take me away from my prayers.
Something had to change and it certainly wasn’t the Holy One who was patiently waiting for me. I thought long and hard about a “solution” to this problem I had in my prayer life. I knew I needed to be more focused in my prayer, but how? It was hard enough to even find time to pray as a mom two little ones.
Thankfully, I read Prayer by Joyce Rupp earlier this year, and the book has really helped me put things in perspective.
In her own prayer life, Rupp says she simply speaks to distractions when they invade her mind and says, “Thank you. Not now.”
She also mentioned an analogy that I loved:
“Marc Ian Barasch tells of a spiritual teacher who suggested treating distractions like a doorman at a hotel. The doorman lets people in but does not follow them down the hall, and when the doorman lets people out the door he does not follow them down the street.”
This helped me to stop judging the thoughts and feelings I had (as well as to not give up on praying altogether and/or assuming I was a hopeless cause) and to instead just accept them and then move on.
But what really helped is Rupp’s suggestion that we should allow ourselves to go where the mind takes us.
“The mind is a marvelous gift and we do not want to disparage it in any way when attempting to pray. What we do need is to keep our mind from taking over in our prayer. Most of the time we need to ignore what circles around our head and heart, but sometimes we need to listen to it. If our distractions offer insights into how we can be a service to others, maybe God is leading us to generosity and a fuller giving of ourselves.”
Just as I’ve learned to allow distractions in Mass to have a greater purpose, perhaps I shouldn’t always fight my straying mind and should consider that the Holy Spirit might be at work even in my aimless thoughts. For example, maybe the fact that potty training popped into my mind was because I needed to pray for patience with this parenting chore…errr…I mean fun adventure! (Exclamation point forced.)Or perhaps my mom and husband needed my prayers, and that’s why thoughts of them slipped into my mind. And the shoes? Well, maybe the fact that I was thinking of stylish footwear (they were really chic and cheap, too!) during prayer time was a divine nudge that I needed to work on detaching myself from material things.
Although I have to be careful to not allow the landslide of my own thoughts and feelings to topple God’s whispers, I’ve found that accepting that my mind is a fertile ground for ideas – many of value – instead of a wasteland of useless musings can actually add to my prayer life rather than detract from it.
Likewise, I’ve really been working on accepting that this season of my life does not afford me the opportunity for long, uninterrupted stretches of silent, meditative prayer. Although I think it’s important for my children to see me setting aside time for prayer, especially as they grow older, I also believe that God wants me to be fully present in their lives and to not ignore their needs in order for me to kneel at his feet for long periods of time.
Given my station in life where my prayers can become as garbled as my toddler’s speech, I’ve realized that I must pray when and how I can. I also must recognize that God often speaks through my children or in what Catholic mom and author Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle refers to as the “silence of a mother’s heart.”
I found comfort in the following advice in her newest book The Domestic Church: Room by Room:
“Silence can ironically be found in the busyness of a mother’s day as a mother learns to retreat to her heart even as she is involved in the care of her family. Within the ‘silence’ of a mother’s heart, Our Lord can speak.”
Recently, I complained to my spiritual director that I was always so tired at the end of the day and I often found myself falling asleep during my evening prayers. Rather than admonishing me, she encouraged me to pray that God might use my dreams to speak to me. I’ve also started occasionally bringing my rosary to bed with me and praying on the beads until I fall asleep (something I did regularly as a child; my mom used to say my guardian angel would finish the rosary for me). Likewise, my nocturnal nursing sessions with M.E. afford me the opportunity to bask in God’s presence and marvel at this gift from heaven he’s given me.
I realize this may not be the most ideal way to go about praying, but as Rupp reminded me,
“Complete silence and solitude, a rested body, an undistracted mind are bonuses for prayer, but we cannot wait until these conditions are fully present before we decide to pray. Who knows but what God may communicate with us in the very things we want to eliminate?”
So for now I’m going to try to give myself credit for my efforts instead of throwing in a white flag of surrender and allowing my prayer life to suffer. My perfectionist personality tends to give up on things unless they’re done, well, perfectly, but I really do believe (and maybe I’m rationalizing a bit here) that half the battle of praying is just showing up. So show up I will even if I’m a discombobulated mess when I call upon my God.