I just received the newsletter from St. Barbara’s Monastery, in Santa Paula, CA. I consider the Abbess there, Abbess Victoria, my first spiritual father. Or as I sometimes say, “my first spiritual father was a mother.” In this newsletter, Abbess Victoria gives excellent advice on what to do with worries and other distracting thoughts in prayer. I can think of nothing more edifying than to share with you than what she has written. She writes:
The advice of our Holy Fathers and Mothers is simple and direct, but probably too difficult for us to use all at once without practice. They remind us that worries are temptations and that, when beset by worries and troubles of all kinds, we should as Christians give them over to the Lord and do this as quickly as possible. How? Not by some extraordinary feat of concentration whereby we might herd our thoughts into a box and seal them away! Not at all! Rather, when we cannot simply turn away from them, we do this by making our worries the very subject of our prayers. The only sure way to put our worries to rest is to ask the Lord—not neglecting to employ the intercession of His saints—to resolve whatever is troubling us in whatever way He deems best, thus surrendering the outcome into His hands. Our Holy Fathers and Mothers lived their daily lives on this exalted and most simple plane. Not only do such prayers resolve the difficulties themselves causing our worry. They bring peace of heart, purify, correct and illumine our thoughts, and lead us to repentance and pure prayer—the prayer that is beyond words.
However, to repeat what was said above, to live and pray this way takes practice. As with anything else, at first one must remind oneself that there is a way to be rid of the burden of worry, and the way is Christ. Then, one must make the effort to turn to Him, to pour out one’s worries and troubles to Him, and to give the burden of them to Him. Over time, one finds oneself referring to this pattern more and more readily in the face of whatever comes until it is simply second nature.
I have to say that this is about the best, simply-presented advice on overcoming distracting thoughts in prayer that I have ever come across. Yes, it’s not easy—it takes practice. But it is very simple advice. We have to give what is causing us worry to God in prayer trusting Him with the outcome. In this way, any distracting thought can become prayer. Even shameful or sinful thoughts.
How can this be? When a shameful thought comes to my mind in prayer, if I can’t immediately turn away from it, I then “show” it to God or His Mother in my mind as further evidence of my poverty and need for help and mercy. Of course, I am not really showing God anything He doesn’t already know about, but the intentional act of mentally pointing out to God the filth or frivolity that happens to be tormenting my mind at that moment shifts my focus from the distracting thought to a certain shame and humiliation I feel knowing that God and even His Holy Mother take pity on me and still come to me despite the pig muck that sometimes tenaciously sticks to me. Those feelings of shame and humiliation reduce my prayer to nothing but a heartfelt “You see what a mess I am, please save me.” This is a prayer that, in my experience, God always answers.
I have found that feeling ashamed and humiliated before God and the Saints is very beneficial, salvific even. Of course, one has to have correct theology or else shame can be destructive. If one wrongly assumes that God’s love is based on our performance or our righteousness, then shame only produces guilt and a sense of hopelessness. If one wrongly thinks that one has to clean him or her self up before they come to God in prayer, then they will quickly give up on prayer. However, if we liken prayer to the Prodigal Son’s coming to his senses and beginning his walk home (with big clods of pig muck hanging from his clothes, mashed in his hair and clinging to his bare feet), then we too—regardless of what ugly swinish thoughts may be bombarding our mind—we too can come to God in prayer. Like the Prodigal, we come stinky and covered with muck (our filthy thoughts), but like the Father in the parable, God runs out to meet us. And it is this encounter with God (when He clothes us) that cleans us up.
Prayer, when I struggle with unclean thoughts, is sort of like a filthy child coming to Mum and saying, “I need a bath.” Yes, it is embarrassing. Yes, it is humbling. And yes, Mum loves me and will not reject me; she will clean me up.
We had a young family over for dinner last week who have a two year old boy (Samuel) they are potty training. I was amazed by the love and trust this little boy had in his parents’ love. With his wet pants he came to his mum and dad, not really ashamed at all, almost wondering where these wet trousers came from. Dad rushed him to the toilet. Mum ran out to the car to find the bag with the extra clothes. Baby sang songs on the toilet. Mum set a timer to set him on the toilet again later. Baby played happily in his new clean pants until the timer went off about an hour later, and led to the toilet he peed, accompanied by parental shouts of joy.
I want to be like little Samuel in my relationship with God. I am a spiritual two year old and God and His Mother and my guardian angel and all of the saints (its a big family) are training my little two year old spiritual mind to stay out of the gutter of empty or unclean thoughts. Like little Samuel, I sometimes get it, but I often don’t. But even when I fail miserably, I do not doubt my family’s love. I do not doubt that mum will change my pants. I do not doubt that God will come to my aid.
Of course, I would rather think of myself as a more spiritually sophisticated person than that. But maybe that’s my big problem in the first place. I am not always calling out to God for help. I am not always keeping disciplines, like timers set to help me remember when to pray and how to avoid spiritual “accidents.” I think I am beyond such things. I think I am ready for school when I’m still not quite ready to be out of diapers. But regardless of my maturity or lack thereof, God’s love is a constant. And assured of God’s love no matter what, I can bring any “mess” I find in my mind to God in prayer—which I often do.
St. Paul asks us, “Who shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus?” Nothing. Nothing can separate us from the love of God—not even my mental ugliness, confusion and distraction. All of this can become prayer because none of it changes God’s love for us.