My mind wanders at the time of prayer

24 February 2023

‘Strive constantly to concentrate your mind, which loses itself in reveries. God doesn’t require total concentration in prayer on the part of members of the coenobium (as is the case with hermits). So don’t be downhearted when your mind is stolen away. Quite the opposite: be happy that you always bring it back. In any case, it’s only among the angels that we see “sanctuary”, that is, a safe place where their mind can’t be captured’ (Saint John of the Ladder, Discourse 4, 88).

You complain that often, either during services in church or at the time of personal prayer, your mind wanders. You seem to be paying attention, you may be holding a prayer book, perhaps you even say them under your breath, but you discover, much to your distress, that, often, only your body’s there. Your mind’s on anything else except the prayer: unfinished business, family problems, something personal that’s bothering you, the behavior or attire of someone else in church. You’re upset and downcast and may even despair of yourself. Because there’ll have been times when you’ve caught yourself even imagining sins.

Saint John offers you comfort and support in an understanding manner. Day-dreaming, this wandering of the mind, doesn’t happen only to you. Experience and insight have shown that this state of affairs doesn’t occur only with monks, but even among the great ones who are well advanced in holiness. Among the saints themselves. Rarely, or never, will you find someone whose mind is focused one hundred per cent on the Lord, even at the hour of prayer. Some thought, perhaps a good one, will capture their attention and distract them. As Saint John says: you see sanctuary only among the angels.

But don’t become complacent once you know this. Day-dreaming reveals what a long road we have ahead of us. How deficient we are in the spiritual life. So, on the one hand, strive to bring your mind back to the words of the prayer whenever it wanders- this is your daily spiritual struggle. And, on the other hand, be happy and glad, because your Lord and God rejoices when you engage in this battle. Never forget that, in the end, it’s not (humanly non-existent) sinless people who are saints, but those who strive. So there’s no call for concern as long as there’s an inner struggle and God’s joy. You should also know that this battle also attracts God’s grace and allows you to reach that level of grace where your mind doesn’t wander to any degree, even beyond the hours of prayer.