The Battle of Prayer
St Bernard (1090-1153) was once travelling with a poor uneducated farmer through the beautiful countryside. The farmer noticed that our saint kept his eyes cast downwards all the time and asked him why. St Bernard explained he wanted to avoid any distractions whilst praying. In response the farmer boasted that he never suffered distractions in prayer and so St Bernard challenged him saying, “If you can say the Our Father without any distractions, I’ll give you this mule I’m riding on. But if you don’t succeed you’ll have to come with me and be a monk.” So the farmer began praying very confidently, “Our Father, Who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name.” Then he paused for a moment and asked, “Does that include the saddle and bridle too?” The farmer did join him in the monastery!
This story illustrates well the many distractions we all suffer in prayer. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has a section entitled “The Battle of Prayer”. It says, “[Prayer] always presupposes effort. The great figures of prayer of the Old Covenant before Christ, as well as the Mother of God, the saints, and He Himself, all teach us this: prayer is a battle.” Then it goes on to say, “Against ourselves and against the wiles of the Tempter who does all he can to turn man away from prayer, away from union with God” (CCC#2725).
So the Catechism acknowledges that prayer is difficult, but we have to make the effort, even if we don’t really feel like it, because it is one of those essential things. Just as eating is essential for the body, prayer is essential for the soul. It is not optional if we want to save our soul. But then once we’ve made the decision we are going to pray, we must recognise it’s always going to be a battle until the day we die. And as the Catechism says, it will be a battle against ourselves and against the Devil. We’ll always be able to think of a thousand reasons why we shouldn’t pray. And then our prayer gets left and it gets late and we feel too tired to pray. “I’ll do it tomorrow!” we tell ourselves, and so the pattern continues. This is the battle against ourselves.
Then the battle against the Devil is because prayer is the last thing he wants us to be doing. The more we pray the closer we come to God, and Satan hates God and he hates us, and so assuming we get as far as trying to pray, he will try and distract us and tempt us to give up altogether, thinking it’s all a waste of time, because he doesn’t want us to receive the many graces God wishes to give us through prayer.
So what can we do? St Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897) made her distractions part of her prayer. She had a very sensitive ear, and during meditation in her convent she had to kneel next to a sister who couldn’t stop fidgeting and this really annoyed her. Thérèse wanted to tell her to stop, but deep down she thought she ought to put up with it for love of God and also so as not to hurt the other sisters feelings. At first it was a prayer of suffering for her, but since it was impossible for her not to hear it she began to listen really intently and imagine it was a magnificent concert which she could then offer to Our Lord. So we can try and do something similar with our distractions and irritations. If you’re distracted thinking about an important football match coming up and can’t get it out of your mind, make it the subject of your prayer. If you can’t get out of your mind something you’re feeling sad about, make that the subject of your prayer. We don’t only have to pray about holy things, because God wants a share in the whole of our lives, including our joys and sorrows, our worries and concerns.
The harder we try in our prayer the more pleasing we are to God. To purposely allow ourselves to be distracted in prayer would be a sin, but if we do our best to remain focused, it not only pleases God but we make great spiritual progress. So no matter how many times your mind may wander, gently return to God as many times as is necessary without any guilt or fear.
Fr Paul Gillham, IC