Over the past few weeks we have been examining prayer form an Ignatian perspective. Two weeks ago we began looking at , “Why Do We Pray?” by Jesuit Father William A. Barry, S.J. Last week we looked at Prayer and Our Deepest Desires. Over the next two weeks we will examine items that often trouble anyone who takes their prayer life seriously based on the writings of Jesuit priest Father Kevin O’Brien, S.J. This week we will examine “Distractions at Prayer as found in Ignatian Spirituality.” Next week we will look at “Boredom and Dryness in Prayer.”
Fr. O’Brien says that “it’s natural to become distracted during prayer sometimes.” This is often the first challenge that people encounter when they first begin to take their prayer life seriously. Recommending a technique drawn from the “Centering Prayer” approach, one can ..
… simply acknowledge the distracting thought and let it go. Sometimes, however, what at first seems like a distraction offers an opportunity for a graced encounter with God. Thus, if the distracting thought continues, then carefully discern whether it’s really a distraction or something you need to pray about.
We might think that the things of this world intrude into the fruitfulness of our prayer life. Fr. O’Brien writes that this is not necessarily the case.
We don’t have to be in a chapel or a church or “sacred space”. In the course of a retreat in daily life, things happen at home, at work, or in relationships that beg for prayerful reflection. We should not hesitate to pray over the “scripture of our lives” if we think that God is trying to get our attention through what we initially thought was a distraction.
Nevertheless, there are items that creep up in our lives and mind that truly are distractions. If some thoughts really are unnecessary preoccupations; we can tend to them later. Fr. O’Brien suggestion looking on the internet (for example) as see what has been written concerning dealing with distractions while at prayer.
Review the suggestions for preparing for and structuring your prayer time. Following these long-tested counsels can help focus your prayer. If distractions persist, talk with a spiritual director a priest-confessor or spiritual guide about them. If you tend to fall asleep when you pray, adjust your posture or time of prayer.
An effective and fruitful prayer life is a life-long endeavor. In this regard, it will be subject to the normal ups and downs of any human activity. We should not necessarily judge the effectiveness of our prayer life by how we feel.
Sometimes it can seem that nothing is happening, but deep down, God might be stirring up something—we just haven’t realized it yet. As you grow in the habit of prayer, avoid the temptation to judge or rate your prayer: “Today was good prayer; yesterday was just OK.” (Imagine rating each time you spent with a friend or loved one!) God can put anything to good use, even distractions and preoccupations. (O’Brien)
In the end, heed the encouragement of St. Francis de Sales and others after him: If all you do is return to God’s presence after distraction, then this is very good prayer. Your persistence shows how much you want to be with God.