DISTRACTIONS are the bane of prayer. Timid, scrupulous souls often find them the destruction of all sweetness and peace. In their case distractions change the light and sweet burthen of the Office, into a daily weight and a painful yoke. Now as a matter of fact, common sense tells us that this is unreasonable. We must look at facts as they are, not as we should like them to be. We often lose sight of this important truth : God has not made us angels but human beings, with all the weaknesses, not only of our nature, but of our fallen nature, which is prone to evil from our childhood, often seeing the good, yet not doing it, as St. Paul says [Cf. Romans. vii. 19.]. The work of sanctification consists in aiming at being good men and women, not at making ourselves an indifferent sort of angels ! Sanctification is to put on the Lord Jesus [Ibid. xiii. 14.] ; to form His image in our heart [Cf. Ibid. viii. 29.]. We must not strive after a perfection which, in God's providence, is not destined for men and women. We must not try to root out the nature which God has given us. The whole work consists in raising ourself up to the standard towards which He leads us. The work is not one so much of repression as of education, that is, of bringing out the details of the image of God given to us in Baptism, or, in other words, of developing our good qualities. This will do away with bad qualities. A gardener who sets his heart upon a bed full of choice flowers, is, of course, careful to keep down weeds and noxious insects. But his endeavour is not so much to destroy these as to cultivate the other. So it is in the spiritual life. The positive view, that is, the cultivation of virtue, is the point; the negative aspect, the repression of vice, is a secondary result which follows naturally from the first. Any other view sets all spirituality topsy-turvy ; and is, as far as we are concerned, unreasonable and doomed to end in failure. Now, to continue the simile. The gardener who spends his time and labour in producing rare, choice flowers, may see that in spite of all his care weeds make their appearance along with the flowers. As a matter of fact, he never can get rid of them entirely; the very richness of the soil he cultivates with so much care conduces to their growth. But he knows that even weeds have a use of their own. Nature never works without reason. So, although he is careful to prevent them from draining and impoverishing the soil, yet their presence, if kept in check, does not alarm him ; for, when killed, they add to the richness of the ground.
Now what has all this to do with distractions ? A good deal; for in the garden we have a picture of our soul. The flower of prayer is what we are trying to cultivate; distractions are the weeds. The sensible plan is to follow the example of the gardener who, while keeping them under check, realises that they are not without their use.
What does distraction mean ? It is " a drawing away " of the mind from the object upon which our attention is fixed. Whence come distractions ? Principally from the very weakness of our human nature, which God made and which He knows is weak. We are so constituted that application, steady and prolonged, is both hard and painful to us. We need frequent change. This, by the way, is a proof that no created thing can satisfy us. How many of us can for five minutes concentrate attention upon any one subject, and not find our mind working out sideways and, perhaps half unconsciously, following other trains of thought beside the one we desire ? The work of attention, we make bold to say, can never be perfect in this life ; for while, say, our eyes are fixed upon a book, our other senses, which like the eyes are avenues to the soul, are open and receptive of outside influence. Even if we do succeed in a measure (and it can only be attained by dint of stern will and downright hard, persevering work) in obtaining concentration of the mind for some time, fatigue and weariness follow. This shows that perfect attention (the absence of distraction) is something beyond our present human nature, which revolts, according to its own laws, against being driven to attempt what is above its ordinary power.
Hence, in prayer, there are distractions which are purely natural, and it is vain to hope to be ever free from them. It is not God's will that we should be free. But if these distractions, which come to us without any fault on our part, are deliberately entertained, that is to say, if we follow them with our mind wide awake, realising, then and there, the fact that we are not attending to our prayers, then, and only then, do they become harmful to our souls. They must be entertained deliberately before they become sinful. And the sinfulness consists in this : when we are distracted wilfully (and every reasonable person can know whether distractions are wilful or not) we are mocking God by giving Him only a lip-worship, while our heart is far away from Him. This is a pretence and dishonours His attribute of Truth. We pretend to pray and are not praying.
From what has been said it will be seen that wilful distraction is a deliberate undoing of the attitude of the mind towards God in prayer. Prayer is the lifting up of our heart and mind to God; Distraction is the drawing away of our heart and mind from God. The sinfulness, we must notice, consists in the wilfulness which consents to the distraction, not in the weakness of our nature which causes it. Going back, for a moment, to what we have said about Prayer itself, it is an attitude towards God, a basking in the sunshine of His presence. Therefore, as long as we do not wilfully withdraw ourselves from His presence, or from His sunshine, we remain in a state of prayer. The easiest cure for distractions, when we realise them, is to renew our act of Faith in God's presence. So, then, common sense teaches us the following conclusions about distractions :—
(1) We must do our best to avoid the occasions of distractions. In the preceding chapters we have certain means suggested for this end.
(2) We must have more confidence, and take a larger view of the subject.
God is a loving Father ; He is not a task-master, always on the look-out and laying traps to catch us tripping. Let our heart be guided by reason, and we shall know that there is little chance of us offending God by real distractions. For why do we pray ? What is our very object in saying the Office ? To please Him. We do not wish to displease Him. Therefore distractions that occur, and which are not wilfully entertained, do not displease Him, and do not rob our prayer of its value in His sight. M. Bacquez says : " It depends entirely upon ourself to avoid them ; if our will falters, our conscience will warn us. There is no reason for being uneasy about distractions which are not voluntary. He who lives a pious life and adopts the ordinary precautions, may live in peace; and whilst deploring the instability of his mind, and seeking perfect recollection [as far as he can], he should see in the wandering of his mind only a natural defect, or the result of the occupations which are lawful to his state of life " [P. 571.].
(3) There are some who fancy there must be in themselves some fault to cause the multitude of distractions which torment them so persistently. But this is an error, as we have pointed out above. Common sense and experience tells us this. St. Teresa wrote to her director that she was as much distracted as he was doing the Office, but she tried to think it came from the weakness of her head. And she added this comfortable thought, that Our Lord knows that when we perform this duty we wish to do it with all possible attention. When one comes to look at it, there is nothing surprising in distractions during prayer. What is really surprising is, that, being what we are, we can ever attain to recollection for even a few moments.
(4) " It is true that exercise of mind increases its instability, and that many of our distractions are concerned about our ordinary occupations, and may therefore seem to be occasioned by them. Doubtless they are; but does it follow that we are responsible for them, or that they can be imputed to us as a fault? By no means [Bacquez, p. 573.]. These voluntary occupations which cause the distractions are either lawful or unlawful; and we are only bound to put away those occupations which are unlawful. The question of distractions is not bound up, then, with the lawfulness or unlawfulness of the occupation, but of the consent we give to the distraction. We cannot expect one who, by following God's will, is immersed in the cares of life and in the petty details of everyday administration, to come to the Office with the recollection of a Carthusian or a Trappist. But because we cannot attain to their recollection, there is no reason why we should abandon the work God has given us. To give way to such ideas is to go against His will, by aiming at a perfection which is not meant for us. Take to heart these golden words of St. Thomas : ' He can be said to pray in spirit, and in truth, who approaches prayer at the inspiration of the Holy Ghost; even if, on account of some infirmity, the mind afterwards wanders. . A wandering mind which is not voluntary does not take away the fruit of prayer," [Migne. PL, vol. ii. p. 637.].
(5) To fear whether distractions are voluntary or not, is altogether foolish. Reason is given us as a guide. If we ask simply, it will tell us plainly whether we have given consent or no. It is a question of plain, common fact, and admits of a plain, common answer. From this we can draw an important rule of conduct.
We must never repeat any part of our Office on account of these unreasonable fears. Unless we know for certain that we have failed there is no failure on our part, and therefore there is no necessity for repeating anything. Conscience is the heaven-appointed director for all practical questions. St. Francis de Sales is, as usual, matter-of-fact. Suppose, says he, that at the end of the psalm you are not quite sure whether, on account of distraction, you have said it or not; well now, don't trouble yourself about it. Because a distraction has lasted for a long time we must not always conclude that it is the result of our own negligence. Such a state of things might last all through the Office without any fault on our part [Cf., Entretien, 18.]. The Church does not require us to repeat what we fear may not have been said as might be. Prudence forbids such a repetition. It is a bad habit to repeat the Office ; and those who give way to this failing will soon find it impossible to say it with satisfaction. Thus what ought to be a comfort becomes only a subject of trouble and disgust.
(6) We said that weeds are not without their use, and that a wise gardener can get profit even from them. So it is with distractions. If we use them properly, they will do us two good turns. Firstly, they will make us humble and force us to recognise that the Gift of Prayer is a great grace, and that we must guard it carefully. Secondly, by resisting these distractions, when we become fully aware of them, they turn to so much occasions of merit.
(7) The great ornament of the French Church in the sixteenth Century, Bossuet, the Eagle of Meaux, writes : " It is not necessary to bind our mind to the Breviary or to give more attention to it than to Masses of obligation. We should not hurry ; but putting away all scruples, set to work fairly, cheerfully and simply as in other prayers" [Lettres de Piete et de Direction, N. 148.].
(8) As to the preparation and dispositions for saying Office given in this and other books, we must be careful to distinguish between counsel and command. We can approve of what is good without being obliged to follow it. " We should aspire to perfection ; but we must not feel disquieted if we find ourselves still far from reaching it "[Bacquez, p. 576.]. After all, perfection is a relative term, and though star differs from star in glory, yet each is perfect in its own way. Then, as a matter of fact, we shall never reach even our own degree of perfection except through the gates of Purgatory.
(9) And lastly. The Office being an institution of the Church, we are always certain to fulfil our obligation properly when we set about it in the way She approves. The example, I do not say of the saints, but of our fellow-men whom we recognise to be in earnest in serving God, and who try to find their delight in prayer, will be sufficient for us to imitate, without worrying ourselves any more. Conscience will soon tell us whether we are fulfilling our duty in a reasonable manner ; and by Conscience we stand or fall in God's sight.
From - The Little Office of Our Lady; a treatise theoretical, practical, and exegetical - Taunton, Ethelred L. (Ethelred Luke), 1857-1907