Image: Marguerite in Church, James Tissot [public domain]
All too often my prayer life resembles a dog in a backyard. I chase every mental squirrel that scampers by, and—since the squirrels are clearly conspiring against me—I never succeed in catching a single one. Not only that, but my senses overpower me. I find myself sniffing every new blossom my snout detects and pricking my ears to identify the origin of every new sound. I am the complete antithesis of the word “focus.”
Yet, focus is exactly what is called for in certain types of prayer. The question then becomes, “How can a guy like me ever soar to the heights of sainthood?” This is especially true because I can’t even run in a straight line long enough to get the plane off the ground. What is a guy to do?
The first thing to do is to turn to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Some may believe this to be an unlikely source, but the truth is that the Catechism is a wellspring of wonderful tips and practical insights designed to pave smooth our road to holiness. Indeed, the Catechism has an entire section devoted to prayer and the spiritual life, and it is a life-giving well for any who approach with a thirst to be sated. Paragraphs 2559 through 2729, in particular, offer some great advice.
In Good Company
The first piece of advice the Catechism offers for our consideration is that distraction in prayer is a universal problem. In other words, everybody gets distracted in prayer. Rather than see this as a total bummer, it should be understood and received as good news. It means that I am not some freakish Catholic miscreant that simply can’t get his act together while the rest of creation can. Quite the contrary, it means I am actually in good company.
Some of that good company includes the great St. Thérèse of Lisieux who, if we recall, is a Doctor of the Church and who is “the greatest saint of modern times” according to Pope Saint Pius X. In her autobiography, Story of a Soul, St. Thérèse writes that not only was she distracted saying the rosary (much to her chagrin because she loved Our Lady so much), but also that she would often fall asleep during mediation or while making a thanksgiving after Communion! Now that is a distraction!
The Foundation of Prayer
Really? St. Thérèse fell asleep after Mass and had trouble with the rosary and still she is a saint? Yes, really! And again this is good news. If she can become a great saint, then so can I—and so can you. The key here is that St. Thérèse understood the very foundation of prayer. She built her spiritual life not upon the shifting sands of a grandiose platitude but rather anchored into solid rock. What is this solid rock, this sure footing? Catechism paragraph 2559 gives us this foundation summed up in one word: “humility.”
Humility is the foundation of prayer. This is something St. Thérèse understood well. She said, “I remember that little children are as pleasing to their parents when they are asleep as well as when they are wide awake” (Story of A Soul, Fr. John Clarke, OCD, translator). Instead of seeing her shortcomings and succumbing to despair, the Little Flower simply accepted them as gospel truth. She saw reality as it truly was and recognized she was powerless to change it on her own. She also recognized another gospel truth—that she was loved by God. As a daughter of God she was his cherished possession and she was worth dying for. As a result, the only thing left for St. Thérèse to do was to turn to the Lord in true humility and trust in His deliverance.
Try, Try Again
The same is true for us. If we build our prayer life on the true foundation of humility, knowing that we will struggle and fall down but knowing also that we have a God who loves us unto death, then we will neither despair nor give up. Rather, we will find reason to get up again.
And knowing this reason to get up again will provide us the power to put into practice the counsel the Catechism gives us when it comes to actually dealing with distractions. This counsel will be dealt with directly in part two of this series.
Until then, stay blessed my friends.