Sometimes prayer makes me feel connected to God, peaceful and rejuvenated. At other times prayer leaves me more anxious than before, swamped with sadness and misgivings. My level of distraction is what makes all the difference. When I focus on God and the good things he has done for me, prayer time fills me up. When I focus on myself, there's no room for God to enter in.
I've encountered at least three big distractions in prayer. The first one is self-condemnation, the feeling that the garden of my life is filled with weeds instead of flowers. The second one is worries about the future, which edge perilously close to despair. The third one -- which particularly hits me in Mass -- is letting myself get annoyed at the people around me. Here are some ways I've found to overcome these common distractions that drain the energy from my prayer life.
1. Weeds: Self-Condemnation and Criticism
Many Type A people, myself included, are hyper-critical of themselves and others. The feeling that nothing is ever quite good enough is what drives them to succeed. But it also drives them and everyone around them absolutely bonkers.
Incessant self-analysis, particularly, when it concludes that we've fallen short yet again, can keep us away from God. Obsessing about our failures is ultimately obsessing about ourselves, never a good way to achieve growth in the spiritual life.
Sometimes we will do things well and sometimes we will do things poorly. But we can offer everything to our Lord. Picture our high-quality work as roses and our sub-standard work as weeds -- worth very little, especially in the eyes of the world, but still surprisingly beautiful. Children, after all, very often don't see any difference between flowers and weeds. When you feel you have failed, imagine that you are a little child offering a bouquet of weeds to God the Father. He will accept it with a smile.
2. Worries: A Dark and Stormy Future
The devil tempts us through our bleak imaginings about a distant (or not-so-distant) catastrophe in our future that we can neither prevent nor control. This is why Jesus urges us: "So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today" (Mt 6:34).
Worries and anxieties can become all-consuming, an ever-present soundtrack that leaches our energy with its draining negativity. But Jesus has promised to wipe every tear from our eyes (Rev 21:4) and take all our cares away. When worries swamp you, imagine them being nailed to the Cross with God the Son. He is strong enough to handle them.
3. Squeaky Boots: People Who Annoy Us
In C.S. Lewis' famous parody The Screwtape Letters, a senior demon gives advice to a junior demon on how best to tempt souls (whom he calls "patients") away from heaven. One letter includes the following nefarious counsel about distracting a Christian as he attempts to pray in church:
When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. ... It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy’s side. No matter. ... Provided that any of those neighbors sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.We can lump all of our neighbors' annoying idiosyncrasies under the label "squeaky boots." (Let's not use the label "double chins" or "odd clothes," since these labels might describe me more aptly than I'd like!)
As a musician, I am particularly sensitive to sounds that annoy me. At the top of the list are bad church music and out-of-tune singing. During Mass, I'm frequently subjected to both.
One day, I had to grit my teeth as a lady with a boomingly mannish voice belted out a monotone drone that bore no relation to the melody the rest of us were trying to sing. The deeply impressive power of her voice nearly drowned out the entire congregation altogether. I reminded myself fiercely, "Squeaky boots! Squeaky boots!" And it made me think that perhaps she was "a great warrior" on God's side, in the words of C.S. Lewis. So if someone annoys you, pay attention to the promptings of God the Holy Spirit, telling you that this person may actually be an ally, a great soldier in the army of God.
May God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit bless you and keep you from distractions in prayer! And for tips on praying together as a family, check out chapter 11 of our book The Four Keys to Everlasting Love. Free worksheets available here!
Image from Pixabay.