Lately I have been wondering why I find it difficult to focus on my contemplative prayer. This is the prayer of simply being in the presence of God. Usually I include mindful meditation, the technique of breathing deeply and asking the Spirit to make Itself known to me and I’m off to the races on good days. But why the dullness lately? Why the slowness of knowing I am communicating with God?
Have you felt this way when you try to pray, meditate, put yourself in the universe of God’s embrace? Have you ever felt alone in the quest? You’re there. You’re sitting in a position of prayer: hands opened, eyes closed, waiting, listening, and then when nothing comes you are back to the detritus of life: the phone call to make, the family member who needs attention, the job your boss wants done, your own sudden aches of arthritis or exhaustion, and even what to make for dinner. And the worst distractions is that person who is your nemesis, your thorn-in-the-side whom you simply do not trust, like, or who presents herself or himself as an object of jealousy on your part. Suddenly, prayer time is over, and you have to move on. Did you get any contemplative prayer in at all?
Those who live the contemplative life, the monks and nuns of highly disciplined monastic contemplation have the same experience. Just read some of Thomas Merton, the famous Trappist of Gethsemane, Kentucky, and he will explain how the contemplative life stripped him of the worldly concerns and got him to the core of spirituality in his soul. Or, read Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross, friends of each other, who go deeper into how God works in the soul who is truly seeking peace and spiritual closeness to God. These spiritual luminaries had the same problems with contemplative prayer, in fact, with all prayer. Something tugged at them, and they were suddenly distracted, unable to pray.
I even suggest modern writers and spiritual guides like Wendell Berry, the amazing environmental spiritual giant (whose sister I briefly knew at the university where we both taught) and whose writings inspire so many seekers today. Here is the point: Whatever distracts you, or whatever suggests it is better than what the Spirit tells you, or asks you, or inspires you, is not of God. It is a form of idolatry. If you are distracted in prayer by how to make more money, how to advance your career, how to overcome the person you find as an adversary, how to make your child the shining athlete on the team – well, it is probably safe to say this is not of God. It is idolatry. If I am consumed about money; if I worship my career, if I worship success – even of my children, I am probably worshipping something ephemeral that may or may not happen. If it is not God-centered, it is idolatrous. If it consumes my energy and my allegiance, my dedication, my total mental cooperation, unless it is of God, it is very probably idolatrous. The Book of Wisdom in the Hebrew Scriptures says that “…when (one) prays about his goods or marriage or children, he is not ashamed to address the thing without a soul.” Wisdom 13:17
So, I’ve been asking myself: What are my idols? What do I let interrupt my prayer with distraction and false hope? Do I promote the false idol of a political person? Do I pray for the growth of my investment portfolio or my personal budget? An idol is something or someone who replaces the core of my soul. It says to me that my satisfaction, and mine alone, is important. An idol replaces God. An idol says that you can do any action to secure it, to make it a part of your life, no matter what the cost might be for others.
Difficulties in personal and contemplative prayer should be faced if one wishes to grow in a deeper and more meaningful spirituality and to minimize the tenacity idols can have on us. These few practices might help:
Make a list of what might be uppermost in your mind, a list of what
keeps you from being open and accepting of God’s will in your life and especially in your prayer. Consciously address these concerns and ask for God’s grace to keep them from your prayer.
When anything idolatrous enters your prayer, ask God to remove it.
Enter your prayer time by first asking God to remove any idolatries that might replace this loving God.
The Israelites of scripture feared idolatry more than any sin. They realized as a monotheistic religion that God was not to be replaced by any human made structure or belief. Read some of the Book of Wisdom and the Book of Sirach for profound teaching about idolatry and spirituality. You will find these readings helpful for your prayer.