The following excerpts have been taken from “A Treatise on Perfection: Saintly Counsel on Obtaining Salvation” by Cardinal Armand Jean du Plessis, Duke of Richelieu. When facing distractions in prayer, it is useful to understand the difference between repose in God and quietism and the various types of distractions that can arise during prayer. To combat these distractions, Cardinal Armand Jean du Plessis offers souls an explanation of the types of distractions and practical advice to overcome each.
The Difference between Repose in God and Quietism
There is a certain false or fallacious leisure which many seek in prayer in which the soul and mind cease from all activity. In such states, the heart itself ceases from acts of emotion, even that of love. Such artificial states of inert quietism are quite different from the genuine state of repose which God sometimes imparts to holy souls. In these cases, the soul ceases all activities, except for a single one—namely, that of loving God. In this state, the soul does not perform any action but rather simply experiences an outpouring of grace. It receives from God rather than giving or seeking.
Such experiences are, of course, by no means identical to the state of the souls of the blessed in heaven. Rather, God imparts them freely and lovingly but temporarily, as an occasional means of refreshing and encouraging those who seek Him.
Distractions in Prayer
For those who have been involved in busy and demanding activities, they cannot expect their prayer to be entirely free from distractions. This is not in itself problematic or culpable. It suffices that one does not deliberately place an obstacle to the voice of God or give mental consent to inappropriate or improper distractions. In this regard, the nature of various distractions should be rightly distinguished. Some originate from an act of the will, whereas others arise involuntarily.
The first kind depend upon a deliberate decision, whereas the latter do not. Of course, the type of distractions which originate from an act of the will are easily overcome simply by ceasing the motion of the will which caused them to arise. Since they are voluntary acts of the mind, they can readily be stopped by a simple decision to do so.
The other kind of distractions to prayer—the kind which appear involuntarily—may be divided into three varieties. The first kind simply divert the mind from its proper focus, yet do not undermine the merits or value of its prayer. These are simple distractions of the senses, such as things one may hear or see while praying (or memories of things heard or seen), which are not bad in themselves. To deal with this kind of distraction, it suffices to acknowledge them humbly and to recognize one’s fault. One should then turn one’s awareness to the presence of God, asking His assistance to restore attention and concentration.
The second kind of involuntary distractions are thoughts which not only turn one’s attention from God but also potentially undermine the virtue and fruitfulness of prayer entirely. These are things such as anger, resentment, envy, bitterness, and hatred. They can all spring up in the mind like sparks which soon flare up into a raging fire. The best remedy for these thoughts is zealously to redirect one’s attention to God. The use of short, insistent prayers can be very helpful, such as the line from the psalm, “O God, come to my aid; O Lord, make haste to help me!” In these cases, the mind should actively deny its consent to the distracting thought and firmly resist it. If it cannot succeed in doing this, the distracting thought should be considered to be a cross that one must carry, imploring God for the grace of patience and assistance.
The third type of involuntary distraction is when the mind wanders from one theme or image to another, yet is not distracted from its principal object—namely, God. For example, a person may devote himself to prayer intending to meditate upon the nativity of Our Lord but soon he may find himself instead considering His death upon Calvary. Such “distractions” do not lead away from prayer but rather to another form or focus of prayer. Indeed, the soul engaged in prayer should always be ready to follow freely wherever God may choose to lead it.
Advice to People Experiencing Distraction in Prayer
My advice to people who experience distractions from their intended focus of prayer or meditation to another focus is that they should, at first, endeavor to persevere, lest they succumb to flippancy, caprice, or simple failure of attention. But if they truly feel that God is calling them to something else, they should freely permit themselves to follow their inclination. For it may well be that the Holy Spirit is leading them to something incomparably better and more profound than they had previously intended.
This article is taken from a chapter in A Treatise on Perfection: Saintly Counsel on Obtaining Salvation by Cardinal Armand Jean du Plessis, Duke of Richelieu, which is available from TAN Books.