Question:
I have a hard time dealing with the silence that prayer requires. My mind never stops racing every time I sit down to pray. I heard somewhere that St. Teresa of Avila had the same problem. Do you know how she overcame it? Is it possible to overcome this problem? I am very frustrated but still committed. Christ has given everything for me and I won’t give up. Even so, I am struggling.

Answer:
Someone once said that a weed is an unwanted flower. Perhaps we could apply this to the topic before us and say that a distraction is an unwanted thought.

Our minds seem to be continuously active even in our sleep when our dreams capture all the stimuli of our day and cast them into new productions. An active mind is part of our human condition.

It may be that we are approaching our concern from the wrong direction. The more agitated we become by the fact of our distractions may heighten our emotional reaction and cause these wanderings of the mind to increase. We cannot shut down the mind totally as we would shut down a computer.

When I first read this question what came to my mind was a scene in one of the apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima to the three children. One particular month a woman came to observe the three children in ecstasy to decide for herself whether or not the apparitions were authentic. Francisco, who neither heard the words of Our Lady nor spoke to her, became restless. He was a little boy and little boys usually have a difficult time remaining still. Our Lady who also knew what it was to have a little boy never faulted him. In fact he became a true contemplative often slipping into little chapels and just sitting for long periods of time in the presence of Our Lord. The woman however left the scene disillusioned convinced that the apparitions were not supernatural.

Teresa of Avila who knew distractions from the inside out compared them to unruly wild horses. She was not only privy to the confidences of others facing this difficulty but she herself experienced them both during discursive meditation as well as in the moments of contemplation and even after receiving Our Lord in Holy Communion.

Teresa’s approach to this dilemma was to recognize them for what they were – silly wanderings – and not to panic nor give way to discouragement. She knew herself quite well and was very aware of her woundedness, a spiritual illness we all share in due to the consequences of original sin. Sometimes we have a tendency to expect more from our prayer than what the Lord is ready to give us. Rather once aware of a distraction do not give it undue attention; rather quietly bring yourself back into the Lord’s presence.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church offers us some helpful advice in the section entitled “Facing difficulties in prayer” #2729:

“To set about hunting down distractions would be to fall into their trap, when all that is necessary is to turn back to our heart: for a distraction reveals to us what we are attached to, and this humble  awareness before the Lord should awaken our preferential love for him and lead us resolutely to offer him our heart to be purified. Therein lies the battle, the choice of which master to serve.”