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I’ve always had difficulty praying the Rosary. My mind wanders fast and far. I get distracted and, even though I’m saying the prayers out loud, I’m not actually focused on meditating on the mysteries. I also have difficulty focusing during Mass, which is hugely embarrassing because I’m a priest. Of all people, I ought to be mentally engaged in what’s happening.
It’s not that I get distracted and lose my place in the prayers. It’s more like with the Rosary, I finish saying a prayer only to realize that I did so with a lack of focus. This ought not happen. After all, the Mass is full of imaginative beauty. It walks us through the Passion of Christ in specific detail. It isn’t an abstract theological idea. Rather, it’s a sustained, intense meditation on the death and resurrection of Our Lord. It ought to grab our attention.
Our modern era, with its constant access to entertainment, mobile phones, television, texting, and distractions has reduced our ability to sustain mental focus for any length of time. When I try to quietly pray, or even simply be still to look at the sky and feel like a human being for a minute, I find myself getting itchy. I want to pull out my phone, see what everyone is up to, check out the trending hashtags, feverishly scroll through digital pictures posted to the hive mind.
If we’re going to have any kind of prayer life, or even just time to self-reflect, we need to sort this out. I’m convinced that the Catholic Mass, in particular, with its intense and sustained meditative heart, is directly responsible for the flowering of western culture. The creativity and energy required for the great art, literature, and music of medieval and Renaissance Europe didn’t arrive from nowhere. It was a beauty that sprung up in the minds and hearts of millions through their willingness to kneel quietly before the God who is the source of all goodness and beauty. The joy and beauty they’ve created is a testament to the strength of meditative prayer. This is a strong statement, I know, but I really believe it.
This is why it concerned me when I first began noticing my inability to focus. My struggles with meditative prayer, which is a form of imaginative prayer in which a mental picture is developed and lingered over, was particularly concerning. So, I resolved to make progress towards fixing my issues.
Although our modern era is particularly damaging to a meditative mindset, the problem isn’t new. From time immemorial, humans have been failing to sit still, be quiet, and think. St. Francis de Sales, in his Introduction to the Devout Life, offers practical advice on this topic, noting that thinking sustained thoughts takes practice. But it isn’t only a discipline for monks and saints. We’d all be better off with some quiet time for reflection. His advice is for us, the vast majority who lead busy lives.
RECOGNIZE GOD’S PRESENCE
Begin by recognizing the presence of God. Find a quiet place. A church is ideal but home works, too, as long as there are no distractions. Being in a quiet place surrounded by beautiful things – a church, a garden, the back porch looking at the sky – is ideal because beauty remind us of God’s presence all around, reflected in the good things he has made. Wherever we are, though, distractions are difficult to shake, so de Sales advises asking God at the beginning for help to calm down and focus, remembering that God is present in the hearts of his children no matter our physical location. His presence is with us wherever we go. Recognizing this divine presence is key.
DON’T COMPLICATE IT
Start with simple devotional prayers – the Rosary, the Lord’s Prayer, the psalms. Pray them out loud and intentionally place yourself into the great company of saints who have always prayed these prayers. Invoke your guardian angel and patron saint to pray with you. When we are weak, the Church is strong. She will share her motherly love and sentiment with us and assist us to pray more fruitfully. She will give us grace to keep a quiet heart.
BUILD MENTAL SCENERY
If meditation is to examine the life of Christ so as to develop thankfulness and devotion, then, after our minds are focused, it’s vital to build a mental picture. God speaks to us through our imagination, so it goes a long way to build the scene. The mysteries of the faith don’t have to be intellectual abstractions. For instance, what did the ocean look like the day Our Lord walked on water? Imagine the sun glinting off the waves. How blue was the water? How blue was the sky? What did the faces of the disciples look like? In this way, says De Sales, we “confine our spirit with the mystery upon which we intend to meditate.”
DON’T BE AFRAID TO CALL AN AUDIBLE
“If, while saying your vocal prayers,” writes de Sales, “you feel your heart drawn and invited to interior or mental prayer, do not resist the attraction.” Stop your vocal prayers and move to a deep level of meditative intimacy as soon as you’re ready. This might or might not happen quickly or easily. Sometimes I spend quite a bit of time calming my thoughts before I can move beyond vocal prayer. Even when picturing a scene from the life of Christ, as we might do in one of the mysteries of the Rosary or with a Gospel reading, the first meditative attempt might not capture my imagination. When this happens, de Sales says that, like a bee heading off to a new flower, we can pass on to another mental image. Don’t worry if it takes a few tries.
Form a habit of meditative prayer every single day. Once a week isn’t enough. Prayer is our spiritual food, and we should be “eating” every day. Otherwise, we grow weak. De Sales recommends multiple, small breaks during every day.
REMEMBER THE GOAL
Finally, keep in mind why we’re making the effort. Why work so hard to meditate? The goal is to form a good resolution through self-reflection. We see something in the life of Christ that’s inspiring or challenging, an area of our own lives in which we can increase our love. If prayer is like wandering in a beautiful garden, de Sales says, it makes sense to pluck a flower or two and carry them with you as you go about your day.
A person’s soul is filled with the object of our meditations. We are what we think. If we think of God, we will become godly. De Sales uses the example of a child listening to his mother, prattling along and imitating her speech. Eventually, by doing so, in some simple but mysterious way, the child learns to speak. If we think about God, the light of the world, and meditate on his shining example, eventually we too will begin to shine.