Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Distractions: For Gold is Tested in Fire

As most of you know by now, Michelle of Quantum Theology and I have been engaged in a guest blogging adventure, exploring the book Into the Silent Land by Martin Laird.  All of the posts are linked in the relevant page header, and I urge you to take a look at them.  (It seems that we have garnered a number of readers despite few comments, which tells me that people are perhaps intrigued, but speechless in response.  Well, the series is on silence before God, so perhaps the dearth of comments is appropriate!)  Michelle's final post appears below, to be followed, we hope, by one from the author.

Michelle has been given to quoting Evagrius, a fourth century desert father, quite a bit in recent posts, so in order to illustrate this post, I went looking for one of his female counterparts. Herewith, an icon of Syncletica:


Michelle writes:

I went to visit my spiritual director last week at the retreat center where he lives, dragging the tattered shreds of my prayer behind me.  I half hoped that the external silence of the place might bring a bit of relief from the "oh, look, there's a chicken" (or more likely, "hey, did you remember to put the recycling out?") quality my prayer has had for the last while.  At least (barring fire alarms) the only distractions there are in my head, not knocking at my door and flying into my inbox -- which reduces their number if not the overall decibel level. 

I had to admit that I find it consoling to know I'm not the only one who has ever struggled with distraction in prayer, and I've been seeking advice in my library (as well as from my ever patient Jesuit director): Evagrius, Teresa of Avila - and Benedictine hermit Gabriel Bunge.  (I looked up "distractions" in Bunge's index to find "see also Demons" - which promptly started me giving physical shape to my distractions: think large mosquitos and huge blaring plasma screen TVs with tentacles), and of course, Laird's Into the Silent Land. My frank director began by quoting Sirach at me:  when you come to serve the LORD, prepare yourself for trials (Sirach 2:1).  Laird, in The Riddles of Distraction (chapter 5), makes the same point.  Distractions are not to be bemoaned, but welcomed as an "education by ordeal."

Laird (and the rest of the advisors in my library) are clear:  It's not a matter of whether there will distractions in prayer -- there will be; it's how you meet them.  Will you let them put you off prayer, or will you and the clamoring hordes instead deal with each other? 

There's more than a bit of a paradox here (which Laird readily acknowledges).  The distractions teach, but to learn from them you must ignore them.  Despite Bunge's (and Evagrius and the other desert eremites) characterization of distractions as demons, I find giving them physical and psychological shape to be unhelpful.  They become more real, more troublesome.  Far more helpful has been the frame that Laird gives, to look through them to the vastness in which we are settled. 

This morning as I drove back from giving a talk in rural California, I was struck by the vast plain laid out before me.  Green fields spread out all around me; the shape of the land was not obscured by trees and underbrush.  In the distance, hills rose abruptly, leaving me with the paradoxical sense of incredible spaciousness and being cupped gently in God's hands.  There were thousands of bugs swarming around; my windshield was covered in the bodies of the unfortunates who tried to cross I-5 and instead intersected my path.  But despite my awareness of the collisions and the smears they left on the glass, my experience of that vastness was not impeded. 

I'd love to say that this dawn-fueled insight has led to less distracted prayer, but at least for the moment, the swarms remain.  Still, I sense a subtle shift in what I can see of the landscape, and in comparison with that vastness, there is little that can truly compete, or take my attention away.  So perhaps, I have learned something in the trials.


  1. Cynthia Bourgeault's "Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening" makes the great point that a thousand distractions can also be seen as a thousand chances to return to God. That perspective has helped me enormously-- I don't feel so much like I'm failing, and why bother?

  2. Is writing them out allowed? That keeps me focussed, AND I have a record that I actually prayed. Distractions cannot win over the pen!

  3. Like Di said above, that bit by Cynthia Bourgeault has helped me tremendously, too. It's the one bit of her book that I have told people over and over.

  4. Di and Hope, that's a wonderful resource! Thanks...

    And Karen, Laird talks about banishing the distractions with a direct gaze, and pinning them to paper with pen sounds pretty direct to me.

  5. It is good to be reminded of Laird's book. Thank you.