Thursday, July 5, 2012

Prayer is distraction

After Merton spoke to the novices at Loretto on May 15, 1963, he encouraged them to ask questions or offer comments:

What about distractions in prayer?

"I used to try to pray by shutting out everything, and that was nice, but, of course, I was a novice.  There used to be a man that lived down the back road, and I remember that the best part of my novitiate thanksgiving was this man going to work at the distillery.  Every morning as he went down the back road, he whistled the same sort of tune, one of his own tunes, and you'd hear him coming.  He always came at the same time, and for some reason or another, that was a wonderful thing in that thanksgiving.  Here was the world.  Here was this lonely man on the back road, and it meant a great deal.

Merton goes on to draw another example from nature:

"Our place at Gethsemani is full of birds.  You simply listen to every one of the birds individually, which is heresy according to the spiritual books, for it's a deliberate distraction.  Actually, it's a wonderful thanksgiving, because who made those birds, and who put them there, and who is making them sing, and who is the source of their life?  It is the one who is in my heart and is the source of my life, and I'm one with all those things.
 - from "Hidden in the Same Mystery - Thomas Merton and Loretto",  pp. 31-32


  1. What Merton says helps me: the sense of gratefulness--I think of Br David Steindl-Rast--that can come about when mindful of surroundings. I suppose that attitude would be a distraction according to the non-judgmental/non-evaluative practice of mindfulness, but the gratefulness doesn't lead to a need to possess. It helps to find the "source" and remain in it.

    1. me too, James.

      I think that there might be some confusion with the word "distraction". There is for me.

      Despite my preaching in the previous post's comments about not clinging to a method of prayer, I do practice centering prayer, and fairly regularly. I find it helpful in getting some distance from my thoughts, which can take over my conscious mind. The monkey mind. The obsessiveness (and worry) that dominates everything else.

      These kinds of thoughts - as well as the relentless pull of mindless (or mostly mindlesss) TV and Internet surfing, and even "the latest news" - are major distractions for me.

      But listening to the birds, as Merton describes, is conscious awareness(!). Awake and outside of my usual self-watching and preoccupation.

      I think that MErton uses the word "distraction" to describe this because he is trying to steer you away from that very self preoccupation that you can get into if you watch yourself pray.

      Mindfulness, like you say, is different from distraction. Anything that leads to gratefulness is good, in my book.

  2. whistling shouldn't be underestimated
    i whistle all the time and it makes me wonder
    whistling is bound to lift your spirits
    i whistle a lot
    more people should whistle in church
    i think god would like it

  3. It's really not possible to shut out everything when we are praying. That's why there's wisdom in the Buddhist injunction to be mindful even of our so-called "distractions" when praying or meditating. The best way to deal with "distractions" is simply to be aware of them and then let them go. This, I believe, is also what teachers of contemplative prayer, like Father Keating, advise. Besides, if we are mindful enough, our "distractions" can be a source of spiritual insight...

    ~ Matt

    1. thanks, Matt.

      I had a time when, while doing centering prayer, I would struggle with myself. (I still do fall into this sometime) I have a hard time getting free of my thought distractions, and seem to fall into a kind of mind "loop" so that even the "letting go" becomes a kind of "effort" for me, digging me deeper into the loop ... if that makes any kind of sense.

      The only thing I can really do is give even this tightly tangled loop to God, as a sort of prayer offering.

    2. That makes sense, Beth. Letting go our "distractions" is easier said than done. For most of us, dealing with our monkey mind, which jumps from one tree of thought to another, is quite a struggle. But, I guess, the important thing is to be faithful to our practice of contemplative prayer. The good thing about this is that, in my experience, even if my time of prayer is a struggle, I could sense that there are tangible changes happening in my life...

      ~ Matt

  4. 2cents ____________________

    i think prayer in its self is
    just ego me , my , o-my thing ,
    just my 2cents ____________

    so this

    abandon the raft
    is to
    be born again -

    be born again
    is to
    go ones own way -

    go ones own way
    terrifying -

    1. I like that notion, bob -- to abandon the raft ...

      totally empty and vulnerable,
      very scary

      good 2 cents.


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