When people, yourselves included, start to pray daily prayer offices (not regular extemporaneous prayers throughout the day, but planned times of concentrated prayer that follows a specific form) it is not unusual for there to be many distractions. We might make plans to pray at a certain time of the day, but the circumstances of others that we interact with (spouse, children, friends, etc.) may make it difficult to keep that appointment. That’s one thing, and I’m not so concerned about that today. Rather, I mean that as we’re praying (circumstances and obstacles overcome, kneeling down with Bible in one hand and prayer office in the other) it is not unusual for there to be many distractions. In fact, it is not a problem that is limited to those who are just starting out, but strikes even the experienced monastic if not guarded against.
What can we do with these thoughts? What can we do with these distractions? Are we doomed to only put half of our worst foot forward, in prayer, due to suffering from split attention? Some would say that if you begin to pray and something pops up in your mind, you should go and deal with it immediately so that your conscience and your consciousness can be free of it when you (then) return to prayer. Others would say that you should only attend to such matters that may detract from prayerfulness if they occur to you before you begin to pray, but that once you’ve begun to pray the office you must complete it. What, then, if such matters do not occur to us before we begin to pray – but as we do so? Again, are we doomed to half-hearted prayer as our attentions are drawn to all manner of other matters?
Some might advise that when such a matter occurs to you while you are praying, then you should jot it down on a piece of paper. It can then be left out of mind and dealt with later, after the prayer office. I’m going to suggest that this is a compromise. It leaves room in our prayer-style for such thoughts to invade God’s time with us, and because we deal with them “positively” and “proactively” when they occur, the danger that their existence poses may go unchecked. So here’s the trouble: however short their intrusion, they distract; taking the time to write them down, to note them, gives them far more attention than they warrant. Whatever it is, there is no appropriate place for it to draw you away from your time of focused prayer.
How do we deal with these unwanted, attention-drawing, mind-occupying thoughts? The Christian mystics tell us that they must be overcome. They are given to us as temptations, or trials, to test our resolution to frame our lives in prayer. To compromise with them, to “play nice” with them, is never the right answer. Because we seek the fullness of the stature of Christ. It is not our business to give in, or to make the unacceptable out to be acceptable, or to mingle corruption with the incorruptible. It is total transformation of our selves, and it will not come about by such means. The Christian mystics mind us to overcome such thoughts with a word of triumph in Jesus, from which they must flee – and to let Jesus, the Saviour, save us from their tyranny (rather than trusting in our own devices and desires); to let our business be what we set out to do: to pray.
What is a word of victory in Jesus? You might choose a single word, but here’s an option for you that’s encapsulated in the prayer offices. John Cassian brought to Western monasticism from the Egyptian desert mystics centuries ago, and it sits there for us still, this (from Psalm 70:1): O God, intend my deliverance; O LORD, make haste to help me! When we sit down to pray, we can thank our God and Father that He so inspired His servants in the desert to make this their focusing prayer, and that when circumstance or wandering thoughts threaten to lead us away from the pursuit of holiness that we have dedicated ourselves to, we may join ourselves with them and make this our focusing prayer. That’s why our liturgy begins with it in couplet (call and response) form. O God, make speed to save us; O LORD, make haste to help us!
Consider making this the prayer that keeps your prayers on track, as you pray the offices. Herein is the expression of what we week: the salvation of God. Salvation in terms of having entered that state of having been saved by Him; salvation in terms of the full realization of God’s Grace present in our lives; salvation in terms of eschatological deliverance into the new creation; salvation in terms of growing into the fullness of Christ’s stature here-and-now; salvation in terms of our hearts being steadfastly turned to Him when we pray.