Am I Really Praying?: Dealing with Distraction

By Fr. Boniface Hicks, OSB, and Fr. Thomas Acklin, OSB 

Fr. Boniface Hicks, OSB, is a Benedictine monk of St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. He has provided spiritual direction for many men and women, including married couples, seminarians, consecrated religious, and priests. 

Fr. Thomas Acklin, OSB, is is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. He is a psychoanalyst as well as a spiritual director. Fr. Acklin has been a professor and spiritual director at Saint Vincent Seminary, where he also served as rector. 

“I went to pray but nothing happened. I just sat there. After a little while, I started to feel uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure what to say. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if anyone was listening anyway. I tried to talk to God, but I just heard the echo of my own thoughts. Then some random stuff started to fill my head. I remembered some past experiences, and then I got a little upset. I got out my Rosary to keep myself busy, but as I started through the prayers, I got distracted by someone who walked out of the chapel. Then I was alone. And I felt really alone. I started to get bored, and my eyes began to close. I started nodding off. Then suddenly I woke up, and I got really irritated. This is useless, I thought. I will never be able to pray. So I got up and left.”  

Such an experience is not uncommon, even for someone who has persevered in prayer for many years. Our images of saints in prayer give us the misimpression that those who pray well somehow transcend these experiences. We imagine that experts at prayer look more like angels, sitting enraptured without any distractions, focused intently on the Lord while carrying out deep, meaningful conversations with Him. That is so distant from our own experience that it seems there must be a secret technique or that some people must have a special gene that makes them different from everyone else. The bad news is that it is not so easy as finding a secret technique or a magical formula. The good news is that God became man so that each one of us can have a deep, profound union with Him in prayer and throughout the rest of our lives as well as into eternity.  

We pray as human beings. This statement appears obvious, but it points to what can be a stumbling block for us when we try to pray. It seems that part of being human is to be unable to reach a transcendent, infinite God. Thus, because prayer is communicating with God, we think we must somehow rise above being human in order to pray and reach God. We feel that our humanity is inadequate to get God’s attention. In fact, we are often disturbed by our humanity. We use it as an excuse when we say, “I’m only human.” We feel weighed down by it. We are embarrassed by who we are. 

Much of the time, we are disturbed by distractions, temptations, tiredness, sadness, irritation, and other foul moods! These seem to get in the way of prayer, and we get discouraged. Fortunately, these are not actually obstacles to our prayer—they are simply a part of our humanity, and we must learn to incorporate them into our prayer. The actual obstacle to our prayer is when we try to be angels by rejecting these aspects of our humanity as if there were something wrong with us. Rather than His being displeased with these aspects of our frail humanity, God intends them as part and parcel of our relationship with Him and as the very way by which this relationship deepens in prayer.  

Besides our weaknesses, we also are sinners. Sometimes our guilt and sense of unworthiness can present an obstacle to our even daring to approach the Lord in prayer. We may feel that the burden of our sin will prevent us from being able to communicate with God. We may actually think that He is not open to us! To the contrary, our fallen condition intensifies our need for prayer, and when we properly understand our sense of unworthiness, it can enhance our disposition toward prayer. When we truly know how desperate our fallen condition is, we know how much we need to pray, and we know how much we need God! As St. Paul reminded us, “we have this treasure in earthen vessels” (2 Cor 4:7). God created us as human beings, and He enters into a relationship with us as human beings, and so we grow in prayer as human beings. If God wanted us to pray like angels, He would have created us as angels. 

Our humanity, which seems to be the primary stumbling block to prayer, is in fact what makes prayer possible and even makes prayer such an amazing gift. God condescends to enter into the very depths of our humanity. In doing so, He also divinizes us and makes us one with Himself, insofar as we let Him. 

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Prayer is at the heart of the Christian life. Given that we are weak and even sinful human beings, how can it be that God has anything to do with us? What does it mean to have a personal relationship with God? Why is God so silent and hidden? How do we grow in prayer? Personal Prayer: A Guide for Receiving the Father’s Love brings the depth of human experience together with the Catholic tradition of prayer to present the path to an intimate and vulnerable relationship with God.