Thursday, February 16, 2012

Prayer: Dealing With the Wandering Mind

Window, Valley Forge, PA
My counsel to those who find their minds wandering while praying is: note where it wanders to; write it down in your journal; and note that your mind always wanders to something like a burden. Then, following the counsel of 1 Peter 5:7, cast your burdens on God, for he cares for you.

Henri Nouwen writes:

"One of the interesting things that happen when we spend time with God in prayer is that we find out how tired and anxious we are. If we don’t fall asleep, we find out how full our head is of worries and concerns and things we need to do. While we are trying to be with God, we are busy thinking about all the plans we have made. A thousand distractions will come our way, like jumping monkeys filling a banana tree. As soon as we enter into solitude, we discover how chaotic our inner life is. Suddenly all sorts of thoughts, feelings, and fantasies come to the surface, and we soon find ourselves thinking about old pains and old rewards, about appointments we forgot to keep and letters we forgot to write, about people we hope to see and people we hope we never see, about a future vacation, a possible promotion, or our approaching retirement. Instead of being prayerful we become restless and can’t wait until our half hour is over." (Nouwen, Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit, p. 27)

My experience is that the more one consistently spends much time alone with God praying, the less one's mind strays. Nouwen says we should not be surprised at how much our minds and hearts get distracted from focusing on God. Especially if you are just beginning to spend more solitary time with Him. "You can’t just suddenly shut the door of a house that was always open to strangers and expect no one to knock on the door." (Ib., 27)

But, over time, there comes a purification of the heart. "It will take a while for these countless distractions to disappear, but eventually they will, especially when they realize that you refuse to open the door to them for at least half an hour. If we faithfully keep our time of prayer, every single day, then slowly the distractions diminish and our mind and body join in a rhythm of daily prayer." (Ib., 27)