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Do you know how many times I’ve opened my Bible or a spiritual reading book only to momentarily be summoned back into family life? Then when I do manage to escape the external demands on my attention, suddenly a host of interior distractions come welling up from my subconscious: “Don’t forget to put the laundry in the dryer! I need to call so-and-so… And what on earth am I going to make for dinner?”
Distractions happen, but don’t let them get you down. Our prayers, however imperfect, are still meritorious. At least that’s what St. Thomas Aquinas says.
It was a beautiful day, sophomore year in college, when I came across Question 83 Article 13 in the Second Part of the Summa Theologiae:
“The human mind is unable to remain aloft for long … because human weakness weighs down the soul to the level of inferior things.”
O merciful, comforting day! What a relief to hear a saint say “you’re normal!” They were human too, and yet that didn’t stop them from attaining sanctity.
More to read: St. Thomas Aquinas’ 5 Remedies Against Sadness
Thomas goes on to say that “purposely to allow ones mind to wander in prayer is sinful … but to wander in mind unintentionally does not deprive prayer of its fruit.”
So when I pray a whole decade of the Rosary thinking neither of the words nor of the mystery my prayer is still worth something? If the distraction is unintentional, something that came up of its own accord, then the answer is “yes.”
In prayer, St. Thomas explains, there is a kind of attention by which we turn our minds to God. If, by my prayer, I initially turn my mind from other things and direct my being towards God, this intention affects the whole of my imperfect prayer. “The force of the original intention with which one sets about praying renders the whole prayer meritorious.”
What a merciful God we have! As Psalm 103 tells us, “He knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.”
We shouldn’t turn away from prayer because we don’t seem to be any good at it. If God accepts my failure to pay attention, if He is so patient with me, I can also be patient with myself.
Of course, we do have to try. We should make an effort to stay focused. But even if I should fall into deliberate distractions, His mercy can lift me up—His mercy can turn my fall to my advantage, offering me another opportunity to return to Him. “A contrite and humble heart, O God, You will not despise.”
My heart is never too divided, my head never too scattered, my life never too disjointed for me to bring myself before my Lord. I should never be discouraged, and neither should you. Turn to Him again in prayer. Even if you forget what you are doing in the midst of the first sentence, do not lose hope! Your imperfection can yet be to your sanctification. He hears and He blesses your little prayers. Be at peace.
Read the whole section of the Summa that has been quoted here: Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 83, a. 13, newadvent.org.