When it comes to attending Mass and praying, a common enemy we face is distraction. How is it that should remain focused? How should we understand distraction? How problematic is it? Why does it happen? When one begins to walk seriously in the path of discipleship, they can be greatly bothered by distraction.
The issue of distraction is certainly a particularly prevalent problem in our hyperstimulated world, but ultimately it is nothing new. The Catechism in pp. 2729 mentions distraction as a struggle in praying saying,“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.” How often is it that we are in Mass or praying the rosary and notice that our attention has gone astray? In the same section, the Catechism says that “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.” In other words, we can be distracted by things that we consider to be important, things that we like a lot. If I am constantly thinking about my next meal during a Mass, then maybe that reveals the fact I place a little too much value on the pleasure of eating. If I am thinking about being somewhere else after Mass or my time of prayer, then maybe that reveals I think that “somewhere else” is more interesting, fulfilling, or important than what I am doing.
Why else do distractions happen? It may be that we have a divided heart, which shouldn’t surprise us too much. However, it is not always a lack of a pure heart that is the issue. As human beings, our minds work in certain ways. When we are refreshed, healthy, and well-rested, our minds are able to focus more clearly and less bothered by distractions. I know that the times in my life I was not healthy or well-rested my ability to concentrate and focus was greatly compromised. As the day progresses, our brains start to have a “scatter-focus” where they wonder more. That isn’t always a bad thing. The fact our brains have more scatter-focus as the day progresses allows us to have more creative thinking.
When we have distractions we should gently acknowledge them and set them aside. To beat ourselves up about having distractions only makes the problem worse. If we do, then we can be distracted by our own distractibility! Maybe we can briefly reflect on our hearts and what we are distracted about. What does the distraction reveal about me? Am I caring about something more than God? However, once considered, we should not be overly fretful about distractions. We should also realize that psychologically speaking, we cannot force ourselves to concentrate perfectly through the entire duration of the day. Not even the smartest people can have perfect focus all the time. We should use distractions as helpful clues that reveal divisions in our heart, but at the end of the day we should not become overly focused whether our distractedness was sinful. Maybe it is something we can mention in confession, but it is important we are gentle and very patient with ourselves and our ability to focus. It is far worse for us to be discouraged by our weaknesses than it is for us to be distracted. The Lord invites us to be like children to enter the Kingdom of God, and children can be quite distractible at times!