Nouwen concludes his exploration of prayer by facing something that happens to all of us when we pray—distractions (pp. 26-28). He puts it simply, “While we are trying to be with God, we are busy thinking about all the plans we’ve made” (p. 26).
Buddhists call this “the monkey mind,” and it is my favorite image for dealing with the inevitability of distractions. It really doesn’t matter whether we practice liturgical prayer, spontaneous prayer, or a mixture of formats—our minds “jump all over the place,” and we find ourselves suspended between heaven and earth.
I’ve come to believe that this may actually be part of what prayer is meant to be, rather than an abberation of it. Of course, distractions can be problematic, and we need to deal with them when they are nothing more than interruptions.
E. Stanley Jones suggested that we keep a notepad handy and write them down. Getting them “on paper” is a way of moving beyond them—particularly when they are nothing more than distractions. By writing them down, we can come back to them later on. Nouwen writes, “When the distractions come, smile at them, let them pass, and return to your chosen text.”
But distractions can also be revelatory. They may, for example, show us what we are anxious about. They may reveal fatigue and the need to develop a more restful life pattern. They may show us that our lives are “too full,” and when that is the case, lack of focus is the result. Distractions can be signs—ways God is trying to get our attention about things.
Again, we must not allow even these things to side-track us and erode the larger purposes of praying at any given time. But by “paying attention” to the unexpected things which come to us as we pray, we may actually find our communion with God enriched and made more real. When distractions are revelations, they can lead us into a deeper life of prayer.