During the season of Lent, the Church invites us to pray more and to pray better.
Isn’t it odd, though, that when we begin to think about prayer, the first things that come to our mind are the objections? If this happens to you, then maybe your focus is out of place. Literally.
To understand why this is we need to consider the dynamics of the place we set aside for prayer. That is, both the outer place and the inner place — our external environment and our interior peace of soul, where we talk to God.
In tomorrow’s Gospel reading for the second Sunday of Lent, Jesus takes three of his apostles to a secluded place to pray. This isn’t unusual, because when we read about Jesus praying in the Gospel, we often find him going off to some secluded place by himself, usually to the top of some mountain. Then again, it is unusual. Jesus also tells the Samaritan woman that the place where we pray is secondary, because we are meant to worship God in spirit. We can worship God anywhere.
The problem is that our hearts have so many attachments that we can’t always pray as well as we should just anywhere. The act of removing ourselves to a prayerful environment suggests to our hearts and souls, the inner place where we talk to God, that we are setting other things aside to focus on something more important. So when we set aside time for prayer, it is equally important to set aside a place for prayer. By placing ourselves in “prayerful space” — this can be a church, a peaceful outdoor setting, or just a special corner your of house or office that you reserve for talking to God — we begin to place the interior house of prayer in order.
Designating prayerful space is very important, but it is just the beginning.
Having the right place to pray does helps but does not remove the other objections by itself. Now let’s consider where the objections come from.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church mentions 3 objections to prayer (2726-2728), which stem from erroneous notions of prayer, a worldly mentality, and failure in prayer. A close reading of these numbers on objections to prayer reveals that all our objections arise from just one thing — that our hearts have too many attachments. These attachments are usually the first difficulty we must battle in prayer and they usually present themselves to us in the form of distractions during the prayer itself.
The habitual difficulty in prayer is distraction. It can affect words and their meaning in vocal prayer; it can concern, more profoundly, him to whom we are praying, in vocal prayer (liturgical or personal), meditation, and contemplative prayer. 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 — CCC 2729.
In other words, when we pray, we must enter the sacred space of our heart, where we talk to God, and close the door. When something appears in the room that does not belong there while you are talking with God, treat it like a mouse. Don’t chase it around and wear yourself out trying to beat it with your shoe. Just open the door and invite it to leave.
What happens when I open the door to let the mouse out and 5 more dart into the room? This is revealing and it is a good thing to find out. There is probably something else in your room that attracts the mice. But as we just read in the quote above, prayer is not the time for house cleaning. So just put a check mark next to that (“clean room,” “less mice next time”), put it aside and try to focus more on God than on the mice (he doesn’t mind the mice as long as they don’t disturb the conversation too much). Then, next time you set aside time to talk to God, maybe try a change of scenery.
When we boil it all down, the objective of prayer is to turn our hearts to God. Hence, if we have objections to prayer, then something in our mentality is pulling our focus away from God even before we begin to pray. This mentality stems from things our hearts are attached to that divide our focus and keep us from giving our full heart to God. In prayer, these attachments present themselves to us in the form of distractions.
Why does God allow these distractions? So that we can see for ourselves what is turning our hearts away from him.
How do we overcome this vicious problem? Learn a lesson from real estate: Location! Location! Location!
- Location 1: A prayerful environment. Find the right place to pray.
- Location 2: A prayerful interior. Housecleaning is a daily chore, not just for when we invite guests over. We want those embarrassing mice out before the guest arrives, but we don’t live in mouse-proof homes. So this entails constant effort, patience, and probably a lot of humility.
- Location 3: God, the orientation of prayer. If locations 1 and 2 are well established then we can truly pray as Jesus wants us to pray, as he told the Samaritan woman at the well, in the heart and in spirit.