“You seem to regard attention as an excessive austerity, whereas in fact it is the root of all our inner spiritual life. This is why the enemy so particularly takes up arms against it, and uses every means to build up attractive images before the eyes of the soul, and suggests thoughts about special favors and distractions.” Bishop Theophan the Recluse, The Art of Prayer
Gone are the days when people left theirs doors unlocked. Today we not only routinely lock the doors of our homes and our cars; we install alarm systems and time-activated lights; we rent “safe deposit boxes and buy theft insurance; we join neighborhood watch groups; before going on vacation we arrange to have someone mow the lawn and pick up our mail while we’re away. All of us take certain precautions against having our homes broken into and our possessions stolen. The more we value our property, the more elaborate measures we take to secure it. Alas, how few of us have the same concern for the safety of our spiritual wealth, and yet what value comparison is there between the smallest spiritual treasure and all the worldly possessions of the richest man alive? It is the difference between this life and eternity.
Spiritually, most of us are constantly being robbed–without so much as being aware of it. One of the most successful villains is called Distraction, and it’s time we took measures to protect ourselves.
Successful theft-prevention involves knowing the value of what is being protected, where it is vulnerable and having some knowledge of how a thief operates, being able to identify him. If we apply this to our spiritual life–and it is an analogy used not infrequently by the Holy Fathers– we see that our greatest treasure, our wealth is our union, our communion with God. This is our goal in life, the acquisition of the Holy Spirit; it is not acquired suddenly but is, for the most part, accumulated gradually, like a hard-earned fortune, through a combination of our own efforts and the grace of God. God’s grace is available to us through the Holy Mysterii3s, while our efforts center primarily on prayer, which is the basis for our communion with God, and on purifying our hearts, which enables our prayers to be fruitful. One of the greatest hindrances to true prayer and purity of heart is the multitude of distractions that so constantly beset us. Most distractions are such a part of our daily life, and so seemingly innocuous, that they escape our notice. They slip past our guard, rob us of any prayer or remembrance of God and fill our heart with all sorts of rubbish. What can we do?
Distractions are an inevitable part of life, but there are measures we can take to minimize our losses. We can begin by identifying those distractions to which we are most prone. Do we watch a lot of TV or video-movies (visual imagery powerfully stimulates the imagination, that “bridge of the devil”)? Do we read frivolous magazines, do we engage in idle talk? Are we news addicts? Are we engrossed in sports or preoccupied with our health, our looks? Are we wrapped up in our career? When we are in church or say our prayers at home, do we find it easy to focus our minds and hearts or do our minds wander, are we steered away by worldly concerns and lingering images?
For those of us who feel almost hopelessly overcome by distractions, it is a consolation to know that even the saints were beset by this problem. The patristic texts are full of advice on the subject. They provide a whole arsenal of weapons. In the Art of Prayer, Bishop Theophan the Recluse writes:
“When you enter into communication with other people or busy yourself with secular affairs, do so in such a way that you still remember the Lord at the same time. Act and speak always with the awareness that the Lord is near and directs everything according to His pleasure….It is certainly possible to acquire this habit; simply make it a rule from now on always to ad this way.
The same Holy Father says that when you cannot subdue your thoughts, which are whirling about, “like snow in winter or clouds of mosquitoes in the summer,” two swift helpers are “solitude and spiritual reading.” St. Peter Damascene writes that “stillness is of the greatest help even to the weakest and to those most subject to the passions. It enables them to live without distraction.” He also advises posting a sleepless doorkeeper at the entrance to our heart and mind, one who “repels everything that enters his heart contrary to God’s purpose, disdaining and rejecting it, so that the illumined intellect may never stop contemplating God or be empty of divine thoughts” (Philokalia). And St. John Cassian says that when his soul is crowded by countless and varied distractions and he has “no strength to check the scattering of his thoughts, he cries out:’O Lord, make haste to help me; O God, make speed to save me!’ and he suggests that others likewise make use of this “formula for piety” in order to keep the thoughts of God always in the mind.
It is, of course, quite useless to know about these various ways of combating distractions without applying them, just as a security system is useless without being activated. But none of the ways of battling distraction is as easy as turning on a switch. It is toilsome and requires much patience, and therefore we must arm ourselves with sufficient motivation to engage in this battle. The fact that we allow ourselves to be distracted so easily is an indication of our lack of love for God. (Never would we converse with a loved one as absentmindedly as we often pray to God.) We cannot generate love automatically; our love for God grows as we spiritually mature. We should, however, have some fear of God, and if we contemplate the prospect of eternity, of being cast out from the banquet hall into outer darkness because our carelessness robbed us of our wedding garment, perhaps it will provide us with the necessary motivation. ‘The prospect of death,” said Samuel Johnson, “wonderfully concentrates the mind.”
Distractions are not petty nuisances. By robbing us of our attention they stifle our spiritual progress. The means to arrest them are simple enough, and they are readily available. Are we wise enough to use them?