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 | By Father Mike Schmitz

How do I handle distractions in prayer?

I have been trying to pray more regularly, but I keep getting so distracted. It is really frustrating. What am I doing wrong?

First of all, praise God! The fact that you are making prayer a regular priority is excellent. One of the first obstacles people often face when starting to develop their relationship with God through prayer is the obstacle of consistency. Many times, we begin by being highly motivated and want an incredible intensity in prayer. The fact that you are pursuing a regular prayer life demonstrates your wisdom: You realize that consistency in prayer beats intensity in prayer every time.

Second, when it comes to distractions, you are not alone. In fact, the catechism notes that distraction in prayer is one of the primary obstacles people face when pursuing a relationship with God. I hope this is a word of encouragement for you; the presence of distractions does not mean you are necessarily doing anything wrong!

Nonetheless, your question remains: How do we deal with them?

First, we need to realize that our brains are never “static.” We don’t ever actually rest on one thought. Our brains are constantly moving, and we are constantly having to reign our thoughts in and direct our attention back to whatever task is at hand. We notice this more readily in prayer, because there are fewer external distractions. But your brain will have to do what it always does throughout the course of your day: constantly be in a process of refocusing. Again, this is a good thing. But be attentive to this because it helps with the next step.

Second, when you recognize you are distracted in prayer, simply and calmly notice it. One of the things that happens with beginners is that they become very disturbed by their distractions. They want to be able to focus on God so much that anything that distracts them becomes distressing. When this happens, we can tend to be a little bit like a new driver on slippery roads for the first time. We have all been there: The car starts sliding one direction, and so we end up yanking on the steering wheel in the other direction a bit too aggressively and end up in the opposite ditch. This happens when we allow our distractions to distress us. Instead, when you notice that you have been distracted in prayer, calmly notice it and gently bring your attention back to what you had been praying about previously.

I apologize ahead of time, but you will have to do this so many times during your prayer. In fact, I think that it was St. Thérèse of Lisieux who once said that she had to constantly (but gently) return her focus back to God because she was continually distracted in prayer. Remaining calm and being gentle with yourself is vital.

Of course, at some point, you might realize that your mind keeps going back to the same topic. This may be an indication that this “distraction” is actually the most pressing issue in your life at the moment. In fact, it might be an indication that you want to talk with the Lord about this issue. Many times, our distractions are merely that, distractions. But there are other times when the thing we are distracted by is actually the thing we need to bring to the Lord in prayer the most.

All that being said, do not be discouraged or distressed by your distractions. Realize they are a normal part of prayer, gently refocus your attention on God and trust in the process.

Father Michael Schmitz is director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth and chaplain of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Ask  Father Mike is published by The Northern Cross.

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