Distraction and Prayer: Satan, Symptoms, or Something Else?

Jan 11, 2023

Dear Souls and Hearts Member,

My deepest desire for you is that with all your being, embracing your identity as a beloved child of God and Mary, you engage with the three Persons of the Trinity and our Lady in a deep, intimate, loving relationship.

I want you to be with God and Mary, as outlined in my recent reflection Catholic Being vs. Catholic Doing. Last week we focused on The Secret Psychological Reasons We Fail to Make Time for Prayer, examining what gets in the way of our intimate and eternal relationships.

Today, let us take a deep dive into a universal problem that stretches back several millennia.

Distractions in Prayer

Everyone suffers distractions in prayer, no exemptions. Hermits and hairdressers, nuns and nannies, priests and professors, bishops and bus drivers all know the universal pain of disjointed prayer time. Distractions in prayer have plagued humanity since the fall of Adam and Eve, since the first tragic bites of the forbidden fruit.

In teaching about prayer, the Catechism of the Catholic Church singles out distraction as the habitual difficulty:

The habitual difficulty in prayer is distraction. It can affect words and their meaning in vocal prayer; it can concern, more profoundly, him to whom we are praying, in vocal prayer (liturgical or personal), meditation, and contemplative 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. (p. 2729).

Distractions play a huge role in undermining our prayers. Learning how to avoid ‘falling into the trap’ of distractions involves ‘turning back to our heart’ or learning to discern and discover how our internal system may be placing roadblocks along our path toward being united to our loving Father.

This reflection will be the first installment in a series on distractions in prayer, offering practical suggestions to help you uncover a deeper understanding of the “what” and “how” of your distractions.

Importance of understanding distractions in prayer

Fr. Thomas Dubay underscores how misinformed we are about distractions and how serious the consequences can be in Fire Within:

Mental wanderings are perhaps the least understood of problems that occur among people seeking the Lord. Quite universally, distractions either during discursive meditation or infused contemplation are interpreted as sure signs that something is amiss, that the person is at fault, that the prayer is worthless. (p. 223).

Distractions are a primary reason why people reduce their prayer time, retreat from conversational, relational prayer to vocal prayer, or give up prayer altogether.

Back up! Let us define distractions in prayer…

Definitions of distractions in prayer

Fr. Emile Neubert offers a straightforward and simple definition, “Distraction is lack of attention to what ought to occupy us. (Life of Union with Mary p.125).

Fr. John Hardon’s Catholic Dictionary goes further, defining distractions as: A drawing of the mind away from a predetermined subject to another. Distractions in prayer may be voluntary or involuntary. They are voluntary when not enough effort is made to keep one’s mind on the presence of God. Otherwise, no matter how frequent or prolonged, they are involuntary.

Let us explore distraction more deeply. Some distractions are external and obvious on a natural level. Imagine you are praying in church and professional painters banter about the NFL playoffs within earshot. Your distractions fall squarely in the natural realm. Same goes for the ‘whispering’ of the parishioners whose hearing loss prevents them from actually whispering in the sanctuary; when silence gives way to whatever greetings and gossip pass between friends in the precious moments of prayer time after Mass.

Demonic distractions cannot be ignored, for St. Paul (2 Corinthians 11:14) warns us that the devil will appear as an angel of light. Spiritual masters throughout time have taught us the many ways that the enemy attempts to thwart our relationship with God and our own healing. In his rules for discerning spirits, St. Ignatius of Loyola explains that the devil will make advances towards us with evil or perverse thoughts which he wants us to keep secret. Similarly, in The Way of Perfection, St. Teresa of Avila warns us that the devil can let loose a whole battery of scruples in our thoughts to confuse and disorient us.

But there are a so many ways that natural level process can result in distractions, and these get much less attention.

How internal distractions are formed

Some distractions are caused by neurological issues – if you have a tumor or lesion in the parietal, frontal, or temporal lobes of your brain, that can certainly generate distractions. Neurodivergent conditions are beyond the scope of this reflection but it is important to recognize that they exist and can cause problems at an organic or neurochemical level.

As a psychologist, I am most interested in broadening the understanding of our internal distractions which are psychologically generated within us.

To this end, I offer you the following list of internal experiences that can distract our prayers:

  • Thoughts – such as planning out a grocery list or problem solving about how to schedule car maintenance. Extreme examples include ruminations and obsessions, such as scruples about whether one’s prayer were “good enough” to please God or worrying that you forgot to turn the stove off before coming to the adoration chapel.
  • Emotions – feelings like anxiety, irritation, or grief which capture and hold attention, especial when they become intense
  • Memories – replaying scenes in our mind from the recent or distant past
  • Fantasies – playing out future scenarios (sometimes with apprehension), imagining how we or others might have acted differently in the past (imagined do-overs), or fantasies of grandiosity, conflict, aggression, rebellion, escape, or those involving sex.
  • Visual images – either in memory or fantasy, occupying the faculty of imagination, such as pornographic or violent depictions which resurface involuntarily
  • Desires – yearnings within us which captivate our attention, such as desires to play video games or shop online
  • Impulses – urges to take a specific course of action, such as to check our text messages or revisit social media
  • Attitudes/beliefs – often preoccupations such as “I’m not doing a good job praying today.” or “My sister-in-law has major problems and treats my brother so badly.”
  • Physical sensations or bodily experiences – feeling hunger or thirst, physical pain, tingling, warmth or coolness in the body, sexual arousal, or bodily fatigue
  • Internal sensory/perceptual experiences – experiences such as tinnitus (ringing in the ears), internal noisiness, and inner dialogue among parts

Any of these internal experiences can draw your mind away from relating deeply with God or Mary in prayer. These internal distractions can be distressing and disheartening, especially when combined with unrealistic notions about the reality of prayer.

Brushing aside distractions vs using distractions as a pathway to healing

St. Teresa of Avila referred to distractions in prayer as “silly wanderings,” and advised her sisters to forget them and gently return the mind to prayer. She is a doctor of the Church and her legacy offers a wealth of wisdom on the life of deep and meaningful prayer.

However, as a clinical psychologist, I recognize the value in asking probing questions like: “But what if something important can be revealed in recognizing your distractions? What if your distractions hold meaning? Could distractions hold a key for you to understand yourself better?” What if your distractions are symptoms that point back to an underlying problem?

“…for a distraction reveals to us what we are attached to…” the Catechism teaches (2279), and “Many, perhaps most of the distractions we suffer in prayer are due to these disordered concerns and desires,” as Fr. Thomas Dubay reiterates (Fire Within, p. 138). My clinical and personal experience concurs, with the caveat that the disordered desires and attachments are very often driven by unmet relational needs and unmet integrity needs.

Those unmet needs are often not so obvious at first glance, yet those needs are legitimate and important to recognize, address and understand.

Your distractions in prayer are a gift to you

I can hear critics resisting: “What are you saying Dr. Peter? My distractions are a gift to me? Really? If you knew how troubled I am with distractions, how much of a burden, a torture, distractions are to me, you would never say such a thing.”

I encourage such critics to set aside the initial upset in considering distractions valuable. Try to hear me speaking this truth in a gentle, attuned, and compassionate way. Remember my goal to help you learn to be with God and to know your true identity as a beloved son or daughter.

Remember ,“We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28) and this includes distractions, even powerful distractions. If we love God, all things are gifts, including our distractions.

And I do not just mean this in the sense that any cross is a gift, any trial or tribulation could be a gift in the sense that it provides an opportunity to suffer well and thereby grow in congruent merit. No.

I mean that the distractions are a portal to a much deeper understanding of yourself, your primary security needs, your primary integrity needs, and how those needs may not have been met. Distractions can be a gift like the warning lights on the dashboard of your car, pointing to underlying issues that need attention. I hope to teach you how to read your internal ‘warning lights’ and learn to grow and heal through regular self-maintenance.

Distracted from distraction by distraction” (T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets)

The alternative to fostering a healthy curiosity about our distractions includes banishing them as demonic, diminishing them as random psychic activity, or devaluing and minimizing them in a variety of ways. We may try to escape them or hide from them by distracting ourselves from our distractions, which we often do…

Because we are so afraid.

We fear what we might encounter if we ‘open the hood’ and go inside ourselves. Terror grips us at the thought of plumbing our own depths, of encountering shame, grief, rage, our wounds and pain, the abandonment, the sense of betrayal and feelings of worthlessness. We fear finding our inner lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, outcasts, orphans, and our lost sheep inside. We cannot imagine how God could love us or accept us in our state of disarray and woundedness. We cringe to think He would see us as we see ourselves.

No wonder we get distracted.

“When we are in silence in prayer and we do not recognize we are loved by God, we can also become very restless.” (p. 70 in Personal Prayer: a Guide for Receiving the Father’s Love by Fr. Thomas Acklin and Fr. Boniface Hicks) Benedictine monks and spiritual directors, Fathers Thomas and Boniface note that human silence is ambiguous, can be hard to interpret, sometimes involves withholding good things, and can indicate disinterest. Thus, we often experience great difficulty enduring silence in the presence of God.

They write, “There is no way to differentiate the silence of condemnation and the silence of love without trust. We can only open ourselves to receive God’s self-gift by making the act of trust that He is Love, and His silence always contains the gift of His Love that, in its totality, is always more than we can grasp.” (p. 76)

When we lack trust, we cannot know that God is our primary Father, Mary is our primary Mother, and we are their cherished daughters and treasured sons.

Next week…

In next week’s reflection, I will provide guidance on how to understand your distractions in prayer.

In the meantime, I have a mission for you, should you choose to accept it.

Here is the action plan:

  • I invite you to write down the distractions you experience in prayer.
  • Make a particular note on which recurring distractions – the old, familiar ones (these are likely to reflect more longstanding issues)
  • Make a particular note on new distractions (which may reflect more transitory, situational dynamics)
  • Note which of the categories your natural distractions fall into: thoughts, emotions, memories, fantasies, visual images, desires, impulses, physical sensations, and internal sensory experiences
  • Write the distractions down in a journal, a diary, a notebook, in the flyleaf of your spiritual reading book, wherever. Write them down as they happen in prayer.
  • Do not spend a long time on them, just note the distractions and jot them down with enough detail to be able to remember them in broad strokes later.
  • Sometimes, just acknowledging distractions with the explicit intention of turning back to their potential meaning or message after prayer time can help quiet your mind and allow you back into deeper recollection in prayer with greater freedom to relate with God and Mary more intentionally.

Next week I will begin providing keys to connecting back to the underlying motivating factors for distractions, so having a list of your distractions will be very helpful.

Consider taking advantage of this unique opportunity to begin the process of observing and naming your distractions with the promise of my guidance and teaching next week to help you really benefit from the gift of your distractions.

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

P.S. Check out the Resilient Catholics Community by visiting our landing page.

P.P.S. Conversation hours with me are every Tuesday and Thursday from 4:30 PM to 5:30 PM EST on my cell phone, 317.567.9594 – an opportunity to let me know how these weekly reflections and the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast episodes our landing with you. No therapy or counseling is available, just good conversation.

P.P.P.S. Are you new to these weekly reflections? Do you want more, dozens more, scores more? Check out the archive of all the past reflections.

P.P.P.P.S. Don’t forget: In upcoming episode 104 of Interior Integration for Catholics, I offer you a live experiential exercise to help you explore and understand your anger, especially anger that might be causing distraction in prayer.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Are you a Catholic therapist or counselor (or a graduate student in a mental health field) who likes this kind of work? If so, I want to hear from you. Call me at 317.567.9594 or email me at crisis@soulsandhearts.com. I have an opportunity for your human formation in the Interior Therapist Community.

P.P.P.P.P.P.S. Yes, I drew the picture that accompanies this reflection in the Bikalbo style. (Yes, that’s a thing.) The distracted stick figure in prayer represents my debut as an artist. This image has underlying meanings that I will reveal next week, when I will use it as an example of understanding internal distractions in prayer. Stay tuned for that.

P.P.P.P.P.P.P.S. Please keep sharing these reflections with those whom you think might benefit and spread the word.

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