I discovered a British series called Rev. (as in reverend). It’s a comedy about an Anglican priest named Fr Adam who is the vicar of a parish in England. Season 2 opens with Fr Adam sitting contemplatively in a monastery corridor. We hear his interior monologue. “It’s so wonderful to have some time in this sanctuary, this place of silence, to leave the clamour and the chaos behind and to be available to something greater than myself, to you dear Lord.” He then takes a big yawn. “I wonder what’s for lunch today…” he ponders. “Oh come on, holy thoughts…” he says to himself trying to get away from his distracting thoughts. “Everlasting god in you we live and move and have our being. You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until we rest in you.” As he walks down the corridor continuing to speak to God his shoes squeak against the shiny monastery floor. “These shoes are very squeaky,” he thinks. And then as he passes a nun in the corridor, he says to himself, “I love the fact that this is a silent order and I don’t have to talk to her.”
It’s a great opening scene because it’s the reality of—and I feel confident in this number—100% of retreatants. Everyone goes on retreat with the ideal of holy thoughts and perfect uninterrupted prayer time. (If it were only that easy.) But everyone finds him or herself with distracting thoughts. They wonder what’s for lunch or think about a book they were reading. I remember when I was on a 30-day retreat I couldn’t stop thinking about the loud noise a fellow retreatant’s shoes made. They sounded like wooden clogs or a horse trotting. I wondered about the next meal that was going to be served.
At first it frustrated me that I had all these distracting thoughts. Sometimes I was in the middle of a contemplation, speaking with Jesus on the beach, listening to him and then all of a sudden I begin thinking about a friend I hadn’t thought of in a while. I started going back to nostalgic memories and reliving them in my mind. Then I came back to reality, trying to get back to that beach where Jesus was patiently waiting. I apologised to Jesus and we continued with our conversation. Then it happened again. I went back to thinking about a specific person. I became really frustrated with myself and somehow I felt less holy because I couldn’t “focus” on my prayer.
But what I realised was that God was using those distractions for a purpose. The friend I had been reminiscing about, I hadn’t talked to her in ages. I remembered how important I was to her during difficult times. I should call her. So then I went back to the beach with Jesus and the conversation turned to my friend. We spoke about my ministry to her and I thanked him for giving me such a good friendship. What I thought was just another distraction was something that had meaning to my life, and more importantly, something God cared about.
From then on, anytime I experienced a random distraction in my prayer I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss it. I would examine it and see whether it was something worth addressing. Perhaps the clogging shoes of my fellow Jesuit retreatant was a reminder about the gratitude I ought to have for him, regardless of the annoyances. God is not unaware of our human ability to be distracted, and since God wants to be in every part of our life, God can even communicate with us through distraction! It’s up to us to discern how that might be happening.
But of course, if you start thinking about your next meal, it could just be that you’re hungry.
>> Want to make a retreat? Find a retreat centre here.
>> A discussion on distractions in prayer from Loyola Press.
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Music by Kevin MacLeod