I- Definition: Distraction is the unwilling presence, during prayer, in our conscious mind/brain, of thoughts, feelings, memories, imaginations and temptations.
II- Causes of distraction
1- Human weakness
2- Memories (unwilled activity of the brain), body tiredness
3- Temptations coming from outside of us
4- Outside input coming through our senses (noise, …)
5- Sins: since they make us slaves to bad habits, leading us astray from God
III- Remedies for distractions
1- Accept our weakness.
2- To know (and reinforce this knowledge) that:
– prayer happens in our heart and not in our brain/mind
– distractions can be passive or active
– we will always have passive distractions
– “passive distractions” are not real acts, they are not sins
– the direct contact with God in prayer happens in our heart and not in our mind
– “passive distractions” can’t stop the direct contact with God in our heart
3- Discern what depends on us and what doesn’t depend on us. To reach a detached attitude, ignoring the presence of the distractions. (a barking wolf attached to a chain doesn’t harm)
4- During prayer, if we suddenly realise that we went to “active distraction” and left our heart and went back to our mind, we don’t have be upset with ourselves, we need to remain peaceful (accepting our weakness). A Peaceful reaction brings Peace (the Action of God). Then we repeat, peacefully, the act of offering of ourselves in order to be reintroduced in God again.
5- We take our Rosary in our hands, and repeat with each bead a short prayer that has the Names of Jesus and/or the name of Mary (it can be as well the “Hail Mary”), with the normal rhythm of our breathing. This repetition:
– has a routine form (we are not invited to think about what we say or meditate a mystery, we are in front of THE mystery: God in us, immersing us in Him)
– gives some “food” for our mind to make it gently busy while the heart is with God. It fools the mind.
– expresses and increases our desire to be “in God”. It is a real act to say: “pray for us sinners”.
– makes us last longer even if God doesn’t look at the length of the time spent in Him but at the quality of our trust when we resume the offering of ourselves to him.
– puts us willingly like a little child in the Hands of Mary, i.e. under the Full, Pure and Perfection Action of the Holy Spirit. In her the Holy Spirit forms us, Body of Jesus. Mary’s womb is a much protected place.
– calms and regulates our breathing, transforming it, slowly, into a act of Divine Love: spiration of the Holy Spirit.
6- Learn how to recollect our thoughts and senses to lessen their power over us:
– leading a healthy life (food, sleeping time, relaxing time, …).
– leading a holy live.
– learn the virtues of silence, order, discipline and ascesis.
– a very good practice of the Lectio Divina. Disciplines our thoughts, purify them, put order to them, lessen the influence of distractions over the heart….
– dimming the light to lower the visual input and increase the attention to the inner world.
– the body wisely relaxed: not in pain, but not in an excessively relaxed mode (horizontal position). Taking deep breaths.
– being like a child (surrendering our burdens to Him frees our heart to move toward him).
– knowing that God is in the Center of our being, learning how to find Him in our heart (not having to “shout” loudly to Him to make ourselves heard).
– to acquire the daily habit of turning our eyes to the Lord who is at our side, seeing how much He loves us. He never takes His eyes of us and adapts to us (sad or happy, Passion or Resurrection).
– in order to do so we Icons to collect our mind and put ourselves in His Presence, using this grace.
– using some reading that help us collect our mind and put us in front of Jesus: a passage from the Gospel.
(You may have a look at St. Teresa of Avila, “Way of Perfection”, chapter 26, 28 and 29.)
Question: I am quite fascinated about the teaching on active and passive distractions; please let me know where I can read about it.
Answer: On the one hand, the teaching on passive/active distraction is very much implicitly present in the combined teaching of St. Teresa of Avila and of St. John of the Cross. On the other hand, one won’t find the distinction within distractions worded as such: “passive” and “active”.
St. John of the Cross
In St. John of the Cross the most useful point that helps us is his anthropology and, more precisely, the distinction he makes throughout his writings between on the one hand the body/soul and on the other hand the spirit. Both are rational mind, memory and will. But in the case of the spirit, they are receptive and supra-conscious (above consciousness) while in the case of the soul/body they are active and conscious.
Only the spirit is capable of receiving God himself as He is, the Uncreated God, the very nature of God. The soul-body, by contrast, receives created graces! This is a fundamental distinction in all his writings, and this is utterly vital for correct discernment in Spiritual Life and Spiritual Theology. If any person fails to understand these distinctions, all spiritual life is jeopardised.
Two passages exemplify this very well:
1- The last stanza of the Spiritual Canticle where he states clearly that even in heaven, the soul cannot receive God as He is but only a reflected created grace or glory.
2- The first paragraphs of Chapter 29 of the Ascent of Mount Carmel Book II. Here he clearly compares what is received in the soul and what is received in the spirit quantity and quality wise. Quantity wise a drop v the ocean. Quality wise: gold v a vile metal.
The above diagram shows the anthropological distinction between spirit and soul.
God is the very small dot at the centre of our being. The spirit, that is, the grey shaded area is either not connected (a) or connected to God (b). Anything that happens between God and the spirit is by definition not perceived by the soul, that is, our conscious part. What might be sometimes perceived are some created “crumbs” that are refracted in the soul from the encounter occurring in the spirit. Again, what is received in the spirit is the Uncreated God himself.
St. Teresa of Avila
(Way of Perfection 26; 28-31)
First, before delving into St. Teresa of Avila, one needs to notice that her anthropology is slightly different from that of St. John of the Cross. For instance, for her the part of us that is given to God and taken supernaturally by Him during the Prayer of the Heart is our will. While for St. John of the Cross it is the spirit. While her use of the other two faculties, that is, mind and memory should be understood as being what corresponds in St. John of the Cross to the conscious part, that is, the soul. This imprecision in St. Teresa of Avila understandably sometimes causes confusion.
On the other hand, one wouldn’t easily dismiss her practical anthropology. There is there an interesting part in it in the sense that saying that it is the will that is given to God, and that the Prayer of the Heart is not a matter of thinking but loving (see Way of Perfection Ch. 26), and since to love means to give oneself, this choice of “will” instead of “spirit,” shows how much our conscious part is involved in the gift of ourselves (free will and will) and that loving involves initially a conscious active gift of oneself. This will explain later why active distractions, that is, distractions that involve an effort of our conscious will, are capable of taking back our will from the Divine Encounter and are capable of preventing true supernatural connection. God respects our will and being immersed in Him doesn’t deprive us of our free will and will, so therefore He will stop his Divine Outpouring if we wish so with an active willing process (active distraction). An active distraction triggers this ending.
As we can see, the most common way of supernatural connection with God, that is, the Prayer of Quiet (see below) doesn’t imply our losing consciousness or control of ourselves! Praying incessantly or being united to God don’t imply being deprived of our conscious active will.
If one follows closely what St. Teresa of Avila says about the Prayer of the Heart (Mental Prayer), one will see the amazing light that the distinction between the “Prayer of Quiet” and the “Prayer of Union” sheds.
The “Prayer of Quiet” for St. Teresa of Avila is the most common form of supernatural prayer one can have, throughout one’s life. By contrast, the “Prayer of Union” is the exception.
During the “Prayer of Quiet” St. Teresa says that the will only (i.e. the spirit) is taken by God, which is the minimum required for the connection to happen, for God to pour Himself into us. While the “Prayer of Union” (less frequent and not required) is when all the faculties (i.e. the conscious part also, i.e. the soul) are taken by the grace of God. The fact that she says that she suffered greatly from her wandering mind and that she learned that the “Prayer of the Heart” is about loving (offering ourselves to Him) and not about having amazing holy thoughts (Way of Perfection Ch. 26). This shows that the connection doesn’t occur in the conscious mind! Therefore, passive distractions do not prevent the connection. This is a real liberation. St. Therese of the Child Jesus says it her way, saying that she imitates little children… but she doesn’t give us the anthropological theological explanation.
Common Error of Discernment
Since many people do receive from time to time the “Prayer of Union”, and since this prayer engulfs our conscious part in God, we tend instinctively (but mistakenly) to think that this is supernatural prayer and that anything else that preceded it (i.e. The “Prayer of Quiet”) is not supernatural. We think that we are supposed to feel this recollection and that we are supposed to have it. Since our conscious part is taken, since our mind and memory are taken by God – and only He can do this – we mistakenly deduce that this is the way the saints prayed, that this is the way we ought to pray, and that this is to have a recollected mind. So, we wait for it and at the same time we consider that any other type of prayer (ie including “Prayer of Quiet”) is not prayer and since we find our mind, memory and will free in it, and since we find that we have passive distractions we consider all this as being out of a real state of prayer and therefore is not prayer. The sufferings resulting from this misleading interpretation are considerable because one feels one is failing God, one feels the inability to be able to ever pray. On the contrary in fact, one can have one’s mind and memory totally free, that is, not taken by God, and yet be totally in His Hands, that is, his spirit is being nourished directly by God.
This applies, also, to all sorts of prayer: Mass, Divine Office, Rosary etc.
This misconception is very damaging.
Worse, some will wrongly claim that in order to pray one has to have a totally clear and peaceful mind! Hinduist meditation and Buddhist meditation make this very damaging claim – as if the contact with God occurred in the conscious mind (and not in the spirit), and as if passive distraction in the mind were capable of disconnecting us from God! This is a criminal teaching and interestingly it slips sometimes inside of Christianity.
One can also read the chapter on Distraction Dryness in “I want to See God” by Blessed Marie Eugene, pp. 234-249.
I hope this helps.