Catch for us the foxes, the little foxes that ruin the vineyards
Song of Solomon 2:15
Distractions are a normal, through frustrating, part of our maturing ability to pray. Eventually, we learn to ignore them—to realize that they are on the surface and that the place of prayer comes from a deeper place, in the temple of our hearts. But we also grow in our assurances that the Lord is nevertheless working, encountering us at a deeper level in the soul, even through what is happening in our thoughts.
Thomas Green, in his book Drinking from the Dry Well, compares our unruly thoughts during prayer to children at an adult party. He writes,
They don’t grasp what is going on between the adults (i.e. the soul and the Lord) and so they clamour for attention. And the more we attend to them, the more demanding they become. Like spoiled children they know they can get our attention by making noise. On the other hand, if we ignore them they will eventually quiet down, since they learn that they won’t gain anything by their antics.
There will always be distractions in our prayers since our imaginations are always active. Even when we sleep they fill our minds with data. It is a natural process that we cannot stop by simply willing it so. But as we come more before the Lord, our thoughts become easier to ignore. As Thomas Green writes, “As we cooperate with the stillness we are being invited to, the Lord tames and purifies our faculties of prayer.”
Teresa of Avila, in the fourth mansion of her Interior Castle, speaks of a “prayer of recollection” where the Lord Himself brings all the faculties to quiet and enables the pray-er to be totally centered on Him. But this is a gift from God, which only comes to us occasionally.
Sometimes what we call distractions might actually be a dialogue in which the Lord is revealing, through our own thoughts, what He wishes to say or make known to us. Green writes,
Our “distractions” are often related to the demands of our active life. And they may well be inspirations from God concerning our choosing and acting. The distinction we need to make in prayer is whether we are listening to the Lord or merely talking to ourselves.
If the objective of prayer is to bring all that takes place within us into relationship with the Lord, even our thoughts can serve as vehicles for this encounter. If, however, our imagination sends us back to ourselves we have lost the basic intent of our prayer. As Green says,
If I become all wrapped up in a discussion with myself about my problems and concerns—if the Lord is forgotten in the process—then these concerns are a distraction from our intent in prayer, which is to be with God. But, if I bring these thoughts to the Lord and talk to him about them, then they are not really side trips. They become the very substance of our encounter with Him.
The advice Green offers is that we first acknowledge our distractions and then intentionally translate them into the language of prayer. He writes,
This is why I have not found it helpful to try to block out all the distractions in my prayer. As I have learned over the years, it is better to begin the prayer by surfacing all my concerns, bringing them into the prayer and then handing them over to God saying, “Lord, these are my concerns as I come before you today. If you wish to speak to me about them, fine. But if not, let them pass away.”
Such an approach is a much more effective way of dealing with distractions than our struggling to stop them. As we grow in our attraction to God we will find it easier to ignore whatever tempts us away from our first love. In the meantime we are assured that God is sanctifying our prayer, and encouraging us always to choose the better focus for our attention.
Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.