Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Column: Education by ordeal

Patient Spiritual Director's take on the "Stand back." advice was to treat distractions like a train rumbling through a station. Things may be noisy, but the train moves in and out without disturbing things. Photo is of the basement at Eastern Point - a very settled place of prayer during the Spiritual Exercises.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 10 February 2011.

Search me, God, and know my heart, probe me and know my mind. And see if a vexing way be in me, and lead me on the eternal way. — Ps. 139:23-24

One evening long ago, in the days before I had even one teen in the house, I was sitting on the sofa, trying to draft a coherent e-mail to a colleague, while simultaneously answering the phone and fielding random questions about homework. When I couldn’t muster the answer to Mike’s seventh grade math question, I confessed that my brain was overloaded.

Mike gently patted my hand, picked up a marker lying on the table and placed it in the center of my forehead. “What are you doing?” “I’m sucking out the dead brain cells so your brain won’t implode.” Of course.

Of late my prayer seems to be suffering from a similar overload. I sit down to pray to find that my to-do list is playing in my head like a top-100 countdown and I can’t seem to find the mute button. I long for the spiritual equivalent of Mike’s impromptu brain clearing device.

Distractions in prayer are nothing new, for me or anyone else, I suspect. Nor are they a purely modern affliction. The early Christian men and women who sought God in the solitude of the desert were thoroughly familiar with the struggle to keep their minds on their prayers and not on their next meal.

If I lived in the fourth century, I might have made the trip to Scete, to consult a hermit wise in the ways of prayer. Instead I consulted my copy of The Praktikos — 100 sharply practical pieces of advice on the Christian life from Evagrius Ponticus, a fourth century hermit.

This wise-in-the ways-of-prayer desert father had two pieces of advice for me. First, stay concrete. Readings, rosaries, simple prayers breathed aloud, these are “the things that lend stability to the wandering mind.” A focus on the physical aspects of prayer leaves fewer chinks for distracting thoughts to crawl in.

Second, stand back. “Pay no heed to the concerns and thoughts that arise.” Don’t encourage the distractions, even by trying to banish them. Twelve centuries later, in her book The Interior Castle, St. Teresa of Avila would echo Evagrius’ advice: “The very effort which the soul makes in order to cease from thought will … cause it to think a great deal.” My mother would have been more blunt than either of these saintly souls: don’t pick at them.

In the end, Evagrius reminds me that wisdom is not won without a battle and that distractions are simply part of the road that we all must face. Father Martin Laird, O.S.A., suggests in Into the Silent Land that we should not bemoan distractions in prayer when they come our way, but recognize that they are an “education by ordeal.”

My prayer still feels tattered at times; my consultation with Evagrius provided strategies and solace, but no cure. But I’m gradually recognizing that like Mike, God is as ready to respond in love to my muddled prayers as He is to my more articulate attempts. I may be vexed, but God is not.

Jesus, I feel within me a great desire to please you but, at the same time, I feel totally incapable of doing this without your special light and help, which I can expect only from you. Accomplish your will within me — even in spite of me. Amen. — St. Claude La Columbière, S.J.


  1. coherent e-mails at work--- sometimes I just hit delete and pick up the phone and say why didn't I do that earlier.

    distractions--- yes, the key thing is to be aware of them so that you can let them pass by like that train. Not to jump onto the train and find yourself in Texas.

  2. A story I heard at the Monastery.

    Fr. Keating was teaching a group of nuns about Centering Prayer, and saying much the same thing as Evagrius. Let the thoughts go, gently say your word, and return to stillness.

    After 20 minutes one nun lamented that she must have had to say her word 100 times.

    Fr. Keating's response?

    "Seems to me that was 100 opportunities to turn to God."

    That anecdote has transformed my judgment and self-condemnation regarding the distractions that find themselves in my path.

    At each of them I have an opportunity to turn to God.

    Do I? (Not always, but sometimes I actually do!)

  3. Stratoz, I love the image of jumping on the train at Wernersville and finding myself in Texas (more likely Ohio given where the lines which case I could visit Robin!)

  4. And Cindy...what a great story. Patient Spiritual Director told me of Anthony de Mello's advice (when he was a novice) to gently return your wandering mind to your prayer. Of course, he does this in his best imitation of Fr. de Mello -- and now I can't get THAT out of my head!