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Distractions during Prayer

September 23, 2013 by  
Filed under Carmelite Spirituality, Difficulties, Prayer, Sr. Laudis

Distractions during Prayer

I have a hard time dealing with the silence that prayer requires. My mind never stops racing every time I sit down to pray. I heard somewhere that St. Teresa of Avila had the same problem. Do you know how she overcame it? Is it possible to overcome this problem? I am very frustrated but still committed. Christ has given everything for me and I won’t give up. Even so, I am struggling.

Someone once said that a weed is an unwanted flower. Perhaps we could apply this to the topic before us and say that a distraction is an unwanted thought.

Our minds seem to be continuously active even in our sleep when our dreams capture all the stimuli of our day and cast them into new productions. An active mind is part of our human condition.

It may be that we are approaching our concern from the wrong direction. The more agitated we become by the fact of our distractions may heighten our emotional reaction and cause these wanderings of the mind to increase. We cannot shut down the mind totally as we would shut down a computer.

When I first read this question what came to my mind was a scene in one of the apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima to the three children. One particular month a woman came to observe the three children in ecstasy to decide for herself whether or not the apparitions were authentic. Francisco, who neither heard the words of Our Lady nor spoke to her, became restless. He was a little boy and little boys usually have a difficult time remaining still. Our Lady who also knew what it was to have a little boy never faulted him. In fact he became a true contemplative often slipping into little chapels and just sitting for long periods of time in the presence of Our Lord. The woman however left the scene disillusioned convinced that the apparitions were not supernatural.

Teresa of Avila who knew distractions from the inside out compared them to unruly wild horses. She was not only privy to the confidences of others facing this difficulty but she herself experienced them both during discursive meditation as well as in the moments of contemplation and even after receiving Our Lord in Holy Communion.

Teresa’s approach to this dilemma was to recognize them for what they were – silly wanderings – and not to panic nor give way to discouragement. She knew herself quite well and was very aware of her woundedness, a spiritual illness we all share in due to the consequences of original sin. Sometimes we have a tendency to expect more from our prayer than what the Lord is ready to give us. Rather once aware of a distraction do not give it undue attention; rather quietly bring yourself back into the Lord’s presence.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph #2729, offers us some helpful advice in the section entitled “Facing difficulties in 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.

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  • Dom C

    Thanks for this post, Sister Carmen! This has been a real problem lately for me. The key in what you said for me is: “Sometimes we have a tendency to expect more from our prayer than what the Lord is ready to give us.” My spiritual director has to remind me of this when I get frustrated over my seeming inability to quell distractions and with that, to feel/hear the Lord talking to me.

  • A. Crawford

    This is a wonderful column on what I am sure is a very common problem. I realize that I have it less than many people, so perhaps I’m not the best person to offer advice. However, I have found something that’s been quite effective: sometimes when I’m praying the Rosary, my mind is full of many things–usually people and their problems. I have found it effective immediately to include that person or situation in my prayer. I think, if it’s the devil putting these distractions in your mind, they might quit or at least lessen in such a case because the one thing he doesn’t want you to do is pray about what’s bothering you. St. Teresa’s advice is also very good simply to bring your mind back without frustration because part of what the devil wants also is to make you angry and frustrated in your prayer–that works for me also.

  • John

    Unlike Sister Carmen, most of us live in very loud and busy environments
    at home and at work involving children, jobs, media, technology, wiring our
    minds are more to noise and multitasking. I say this not to disrespect Sister, but even “busy” sisters or nuns do not function in the modern culture as most people do. Consecrated religious ARE role models for us in setting priorities, creating more quiet in our lives, etc. Their lives are ordered around prayer and silence periods. We should strive to be like them, BUT they do not live the same as we do and therefore we must adjust our approach. Be patient and persevere in your search for God, who can only be found in silence and peace. Practice it daily and remain devoted to it even if only for 10 or 15 minutes. Remember it takes “time” to “calm down” and be fully present to God and focus. When we don’t have a lot of time (e.g., 15 minutes daily) it’s hard to become quiet, calm, find silence and God. This is why it becomes even more important to occasionally find time for longer periods of silence (e.g., holy hour each week or bi-weekly) so when having only the shorter periods of time available you know how to better and more efficiently prepare yourself for calm silence. We also need dedicated quiet space. A closet. A basement. A storage room. Wherever. Make it holy with images and candles, whatever raises the mind to God. We need daily routine. And we need meditative, holy phrases to say and repeat to help us focus in short periods and use silence in between. Jesus, bring me your peace. Father, help to know and do your will. Come Holy Spirit. Etc. And most importantly we need at least an annual “silent” retreat for at least two days (the more days the better) to learn how to be silent, be calm, be with God exclusively and focus on Him and our relationship. Try to find a consecrated religious community guest house to learn from them. The more we do this and commit to this, the easier it becomes to find God daily, when you only have 10 or 15 minutes in the busy, secular,noisy, multitasking, lay life. I am sure someone will scold me saying “let go” of all these things, but that is not realistic. But we can help transform our loud busy world by carving out “effective” periods of silence during the day and to do this requires lots of practice and discipline using practical methods.

    • John – I didn’t find anything in Sr. Carmen’s advice that was unique to her state. What was it that you determined might not be applicable to laypeople?

      • John

        Dear Dan,

        It’s not what Sister Carmen said; What she said as fine. It’s what she didn’t say that I am trying to address. They are seeking practical, detailed advice. Sister has been schooled in silence in her state of life while most laity have not. I am trying to offer them insights on how to address distractions in their state of life. What is it I have said that seems to offend or feel you need to defend Sister?

        • John,
          You did not offend in any way nor did I feel the need to defend Sister. I was just surprised at how much emphasis you put on “what she didn’t say” as a preface for what you had to say. Are you familiar with the rule of life and apostolate work of the Carmelites of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles?

          • John

            Dear Dan,

            I am not familiar with the CMSH of LA but I am VERY familiar with various forms of consecrated religious life – Benedictine, Dominican, Franciscan, Passionist, etc. working, teaching and spending time with them. But I am even MORE familiar with secular family life. I thought the point of a Q & A was to provide an Answer. I believe the answer was in need of some supplemental PRACTICAL direction for persons more immersed in secular settings. Again, I am not defaming Sister or what she wrote, in fact, I said in my first reply that she and other religious are models for us more immersed in the secular world and recommended visiting guest houses to learn from them. I guess I am surprised at your replies. What is your point? that consecrated life is lived the SAME as other states of lay life?

          • Dear John – no more need for commentary from me. I simply found your approach interesting. Pax

          • I am curious about one thing. Do you practice centering prayer?

          • John

            No. I am not “new age” nor proposing this. One can pray with a holy phrase from Scripture and not be “centering”. I make a holy hour every day before the Most Blessed Sacrament. I attend daily Mass. I pray with Scripture, Lectio Divina, the Liturgy of the Hours, the Rosary, etc. each day along with some natural contemplation. But most laity are not blessed enough to do this. They struggle to find even small amounts of time to pray, so “recollecting” themselves is difficult, especially since they are novices to the school of silence and being in the presence of God. They read “lofty” things and it seems a bridge too far. Often spiritual guidance is sorely lacking on this most basic things such as was asked above. This is the plight of the vast majority of lay people. They cannot eat meat when they are still on milk.

          • John – We are glad to have you here on this site. What you have to say is important. My only qualification is that I would suggest a more patient and gentle tone that reflects some measure of reverence for those you engage with. The folks here are all working very hard to know and love Christ and the tone we strive for is one in keeping with what you might call and an aggressive commitment to charity. Though this is VERY different from other communities, you will notice that we have no com-boxers here and because of that, folks feel very safe as they explore territory that is often unfamiliar to them. Pax John

          • LizEst

            Yes, the consecrated life is different from the secular life. But, the principles are the same. We all have to carve out time and space for personal quiet time with God. This is no different for us or them. For us, it’s the cacaphony of the world intruding. For them, it’s convent life lived in community…even if lived in silence. Convent life can be very structured; they still have to set aside their own personal time (what little is left to them) to have personal quiet time with God. We all have to contend with that issue in whatever form it manifests in our lives.

            But, this post was about distractions. And, Sister says not to pay too much attention to distractions. If we hunt them down in order to eliminate them, they will sink themselves deeper into our consciousness. If we recognize them as fluff and let them go, they won’t have such a hold on us.

          • John

            Dear Liz,

            I agree with you. I do take exception to the statement “this is no different for us or them” Yes, EVERYONE must carve out quiet time for God. But there are MANY differences between a married mom with 5 kids, husband, job etc., household, etc. vs. a consecrated religious whose community and everyone else is practicing the same rule, etc.ordered to prayer, etc. Yes, IDEALLY, lay households would be a monastery BUT that is exactly what confuses folks. You’re trying to feed them STEAK and they need MILK. They are not ready for P90X … they need to learn first how to get off the couch.

          • LizEst

            Yes, I said there were differences. But, it is no different for us or for them as to our obligation to God to carve out that time for Him.

            btw, What in the world is P90X? For the unitiated, would you kindly spell out your acronym or describe it when using it here. Many will benefit from knowing what the reference is to. Thanks.

          • John

            The vast majority of lay people know exactly what P90X is w/out explanation. It’s the top selling physical fitness program and infomercial on TV for 8 years! And that is my point. Most laity know a reference to P90X but not the common terms of the spiritual life. Milk not steak is their diet. The question here concerned having trouble getting recollected, and I tried to address it from a practical perspective for persons who don’t know how to recollect well or why they struggle doing getting there since they are more immersed in a world of P90X than the “Interior Castle”.

          • LizEst

            A little kindness here, please! Not everyone watches TV or, for that matter, infomercials…for 8 years! Ha!

          • John

            You are correct, Liz. Not everyone does, especially consecrated religious. But most laity do. Or if they don’t maybe their community does (spouse, children, etc.), which makes it hard for them to find silence. In a perfect world there would be no TV’s OR there would be TV’s with holy content. But often laity are not ready to “unplug” and they need to take baby steps, getting a taste of silence. Hence, I suggested in my first post a way to try to experience this, become introduced to it. As they are drawn more into recollection, silence, less distractions, they will experience the peace and consolation that comes from this and maybe be drawn to unplug and seek the interior castle rather than P90X.

          • Jeanette

            It is amazing though if we watch very little TV, cut down on our computer time to the essential etc. how much time it frees up. In this way we make the time we need to meditate and pray and even if it’s only for half an hour, it would be so beneficial for us spiritually. Regarding distractions during prayer, I don’t think we can get away from that. We should consider them just fluff, part of our human condition, and quickly return our attention to our dialogue with God. When I notice that my mind has wandered, I end up saying, “I’m sorry Lord, forgive me.” and add “I love you.” I think that He is pleased when I say this to Him and possibly it may bring me blessings. That’s how I deal with distractions. God bless you!

    • I like your practical suggestions. Our common situation seems to me like that of soldiers who are in “for the duration.” (Which in a sense we are, as Christians of the Church Militant.) Most of us, living in the secular world, are like soldiers who are stationed in the front lines, where time is fragmented with unpredictable hazards and distractions, from the merely annoying to the terrifyingly deadly. A good general will make sure his front-line soldiers are rotated out of the combat zone regularly, or they’ll be worn down by the constant stress. We don’t have generals to tell us when to take some spiritual rest — e.g., go on a silent retreat — so we have to be careful, as you say, and see to it ourselves. And we do have friends and spouses who can watch for the signs of battle fatigue in us and say, “I’ll stand guard for a while. You go get some sleep.” And we should watch out for them.

      • LizEst

        …and we do also have, or should have, spiritual directors, who will guide us and coach us in what is best for us.

    • disqus_SXf6Judu6L

      Wait a minute! Who is Sister Carmen? Nimfa Duenas who signed off as “yours in Carmel”? She said she is a “secular” Carmelite. That means she is NOT a nun nor religious sister. She lives in the world (secular) as a lay person who has become a Secular Carmelite who strives to seek the face of God in prayer and live the Carmelite Spirituality of St. Teresa of Avila. She may be married, have children, a job outside the home and is exposed to any of the distractions the rest of us have to deal with. However, she studies the spiritual life a great deal and seeks union with God through a consistent prayer life. I just wanted to clarify that.

  • Nimfa Duenas

    As a Secular Carmelite (OCDS), a thirty(30) minute silent prayer is non-negotiable in our daily prayer life. We should give and spend time alone with God, the most important in our daily life. According to St. Teresa of Jesus, the foundations of prayer are: genuine humility, a heart free from attachment and an unconditional love for others.

    Yours in Carmel,

    • LizEst

      We are blessed to have you here. Thank you for commenting and sharing. God bless you Nimfa Duenas.

  • pourmonamiJC

    I encountered the same problem when I started listening to the silence of God and I did solve this in a very simple way. I keep my brain busy by picturing an image in my mind like, for example, a ray of light entering from the top of my head and going to my hearth or a cross that I stare at in my mind. It works but you have to be patient and your will end-up going back to the “noise” of your thoughts again. When this happens I gently go back to focusing on my mental picture. It becomes easier with time as you get better at it.

    I pray that you keep at it, as it is THE major game changer in the spiritual life and it leads straight to Christ and, in my case, also to His Church. I am positive that the Church confirms the importance of listening to the silence of God as it elevates prayer from a monologue to a dialogue with Him and this is exactly what He wants – to have a personal, intimate relationship with each and everyone of us. This is what we were created for. I am sure that there is a wealth of experience on this topic from the Church.

    • Dear Friend – thanks for the feedback. As you say, the key is not to empty or seek to empty our minds, but to fill them with the pursuit of God. The “mental picture” should ideally be some scene or image of Christ that draws us into spiritual intimacy, communion, or conversation with Him.

      • pourmonamiJC

        Totally! Have a nice day and thank you for your feedback.

        • Plevesque

          I like your name it’s french for (for my friend Jesus Christ). Amen brother.

          • LizEst

            My sentiments exactly!

  • LisaB101

    I think it is possible that the distractions are promptings of things in our life that should be brought to prayer. So rather than get frustrated by the distractions, once we re-collect ourselves, we pray for the person and/or situation that has “interrupted” our prayer. This way, only good can come from the distraction. Praying the distraction also allows me to be open to God’s desires (especially if the promptings are from Him), rather than my own (’cause it’s not all about me!). Of course, He always allows for my prayers, too.

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