Distractions in Prayer; What Causes Them; Am I Guilty?

Distractions are one of the four enemies of prayer, the other three being scruples, dryness and desolation, which are subjects for treatises another time. These irritants are a trial for both the beginner and the spiritually advanced; for the beginner especially, who has finally taken up a life in which prayer is to be the foundation of his sanctification. He never thought that much about prayer, or when he did pray, it was out of duty or because he was desperate for a favor, and now that he is acquiring the habit of prayer for union with God, distractions have started to be a burr in his side. Now distractions for him consist of two components, "the wandering in his mind where the subject of his prayer is difficult to sustain, and irrelevant ideas, even impertinent ideas", that keep intruding, capturing his imagination, rather than the Person he is praying to, God, Our Lady, the Saints or Angels. These annoyances bother him most during mental prayer because vocal prayer itself tends to direct us to the object. Beginners, whether they suffer from scruples or not, become dismayed or impatient with themselves, placing the blame there; if he does not have anyone to explain why distractions occur and has no spiritual reading available simply because he does not know where to locate it, he can grow discouraged and even give up. Perhaps the priest who hears his Confessions, who has the power and faculty to confect the Sacrament and who hasn't had a traditional seminary training is a poor director of souls. Or the priest has been trained but has grown lax himself and is not maintaining his own prayer life and is reluctant. Whatever the reason, this sort of person is tottering between perseverance and despair. A tragedy that need not happen and ought to never happen.

The more advanced soul is also pestered by such disruptions for a different reason. She finds them "tiresome and obstinate"---she has lost at least momentarily the "sweet unction and ease of her prayer"; and the more she tries to apply a remedy, the more the distraction may rear its ugly head. In both cases, the soul is being deprived of what St. Thomas Aquinas calls "the spiritual reflection of the mind" that comes from prayer. What to do, if remedy seems to heighten the agitation, and why do I have them, is it my fault?

Distractions per se are part of our nature. There is no such thing as being entirely free of them in some manner. The only culpability a soul would have is if the distraction is willingly, deliberately entertained and indulged in once it has intruded. Otherwise, no matter how many one has, as long as one does not prefer them to the prayer, there is no guilt. I cannot stress this rule on distractions enough, for many a person has allowed distractions to cause them to think they are unworthy of advancement and have lost favor in the eyes of God, that is, they think their prayers won't be accepted.

Only the prayers of the impenitent are not heard by God; nor are the prayers of those in mortal sin who pray for the Holy Souls in Purgatory efficacious; this is Church teaching---The Council of Trent in the section, The Lord's Prayer and treatises on Purgatory approved of by the Church. Regarding the latter, we sometimes receive questions about the soul in mortal sin and prayer for the Holy Souls. People don't understand why their prayers are not acceptable if they are in this state. A person who is living in mortal sin and has not taken any effort to reform his state can hardly be the sort of person who would care about the Holy Souls, if he does not even care about his own soul. The person who has found himself in the state of mortal sin, but his situation is not habitual, however profoundly wretched he is at the moment, may be moved to pray for a deceased loved one, for instance, but he does not have the means to do so, just as the Soul in Purgatory cannot pray for himself. Why? the Souls in Purgatory can pray for us but not for themselves. They are in the state of grace, but they cannot pray for themselves, the condition that is part of the purgation of atonement and purification: they are so helpless and rely on our suffrages. If a soul who is sure of attaining Heaven, in the state of grace, cannot pray for himself, how can a person in mortal sin, who has as yet to receive absolution, pray for a soul in purification? The work of charity for these Holy Souls is such that it requires one be free of mortal sin. The less attached we are to venial sin the better. Also remember that if one is gaining indulgences that one cannot gain them in the state of mortal sin.

It is also the teaching of the Church that there is the grace of perfect contrition, in which the person is sorry for sin not because of fear of Hell and the loss of Heaven, but because he has offended the all-good God. When we make an act of contrition this is part of that prayer. When we say it, the Church teaches, that although we strive to attain this perfect contrition, we cannot be certain we have attained the grace, so Confession is necessary, absolution from a priest. It does not mean we are not absolved directly because of a perfect act of contrition, it is that we are not to assume it and forego Confession. We are not to receive Holy Communion before Confession. So a perfect act of contrition will not be any assurance for the contrite person in mortal sin who has repented and intends to go to Confession that his prayer for a Holy Soul will be received. Certainly he can make what he intends and hopes is a perfect act of contrition, but he has to know that he cannot be sure in this case. He can pray for a Holy Soul, but with the reservation that it may not be efficacious. His aim is charitable and laudable. In these cases he ought to pray to the Holy Souls for his attaining the state of grace and remaining in it.

The prayers of those in mortal sin who sincerely want to be converted, to stop living in such dire straits are heard. God receives their prayer for conversion because it is His will that men be saved. The prayers of unbelievers are also heard if they are praying to believe, and want to find true faith; indeed, they have already begun because they are praying, 'O Lord, help me in my unbelief.'

The prayers of those who are justified, free of personal mortal sin, and if not Baptized, want to be, and who are trying to please God, whether Catholic or not, are also heard. This includes the ignorant through no fault of their own who are not Catholics, who are restrained through no fault of their own from entering the Church. If they are not Catholic but have been validly Baptized and through no fault of their own do not know they are to be formally joined to the Catholic Church and are trying to save their souls, are included in this category. Only God knows if the ignorance is culpable or inculpable.

Now the soul living in unrepentant mortal sin will obviously not care about distractions and one should expect that he would have plenty of those, his own fault, but he will not be bothered as you will soon see. The unbeliever searching for true faith is not advanced enough to be concerned about distractions because he simply thinks this is part of his unbelief or something similar and does not direct his concerns there or ask Catholic Tradition what to do.

Our purpose here is for those who are Catholics and who are spiritual beginners in that they are not advanced as we learn about in the spiritual treatises of the Saints; I do not mean to imply they are only beginning to pray, but that their interest in prayer is now in earnest, not habit or duty, they want to advance in sanctity, this desire to love God above all things is now their motivation, they are becoming detached from the things of the world. In other words, they are serious Catholics and distractions are now pestering them like never before. This is almost every one of you, the few exceptions being those who are Catholic but just want to find excuses to salve their consciences in other matters. They are not going to be reading this page most likely.

So what to do about distractions? The first thing is to recognize that although you are not entertaining them willfully, they will be like gnats at a picnic. You reply, well if this is true, how can I get rid of them? I answer, you can't. Instead, you have to understand the kinds of distractions there are, why they may be occurring and direct your prayer and meditations through and or around them, even though they will continue to intrude and vexate. A spiritual detour so to speak. This is called the remedy. The second thing is to be at peace, even before you begin, which sounds like a contradiction. Be at peace: Bl. Claude Columbine says that we ought to pray and not concern ourselves, properly understood. Of course he is right, but that is not what you are ready for.

Like learning to walk, we have to take small steps in our remedy, just as we do in freeing ourselves from deliberate venial sins, one sin at a time, ergo, distractions. And even then only Saints who have reached perfect contemplation will be free of distractions. You and I will need to apply the remedy.

The first rule of the remedy is to recognize that the more you strive the more these pests will prick at you and you will think that you are not advancing. The devil wants you to think this, so he can disquiet you and eventually dissuade you. In fact, unless you have reached the summit of perfect contemplation, and you don't think you have distractions, then you are in serious trouble because the devil is leaving you alone. He already has you where he wants you. Are all distractions from him? No. But one kind is and if you do not have at least this kind when you are not such an advanced soul, you have a problem. Distractions in themselves are actually a healthy sign when looked at from this perspective. Intrusions by the devil are only one kind. There are five sources or what spiritual writers call "fountains" of distractions:

There are also "seven primary faults" that intensify distractions:

Now what to do about them.

The first thing is to be aware of these seven faults and that the time of actual prayer is not the time for combating distractions, believe it or not. This is because if we wait until then, any victory we gain will "bring melancholy" since we spent precious prayer time doing battle with distractions. It is necessary to stress this, to repeat in another way: the time to master distractions is time outside of prayer time, for this is their source and habitat. How so? When we are not praying, no matter if it is fulfilling our daily duty, reading spiritual material, talking a walk with a neighbor or one's wife, we ought to be about the business of detachment so as to not deplete the heart. I don't mean you ignore your boss, your co-worker, your child, but that even your interaction, your ongoing relationship is with God in mind primarily. In other words, no matter who is talking to you and you are talking to, remember that since God is everywhere He hears all and you are ultimately conversing with Him. Otherwise when we enter prayer, our hearts are not as "pure" as they ought to be, they have been "emptied" by the pull of the world and its cares in some manner. Distractions can't resist a heart that is "void" or made resistant to the promptings of the Holy Ghost or grace because it has been drained of vitality "or the first stirrings of the interior life". The interior life is our life with God.

Secondly, there are "two practices" that aid the interior life and help us put distractions in their place so to speak:

(1) Having a rule of life. For instance, you are referred to:

A cautionary note. The rule of life must be adapted to each person's circumstances, abilities, and so forth. These are in the end quite particular. If you use the Servite Manual it is as a general guide. I have adapted it for myself substantially. Do not let scruples overtake you. Nor presumption. Some people think that a "Rule of Life", if followed, renders them holy and they can be self-satisfied. Or if they cannot meet each step that they have failed in God's eyes. They concentrate on the "rules" instead of correcting their real faults and actual sins. These two extremes, which are more common than people realize, are to be avoided. A Rule of Life is helpful as an aid in preparing for distractions and to begin a regular habit of prayer, and it considers temptation, with the goal to do everything with God in mind. Unless this is taken care of, the prayers it suggest will be without solace or much efficacy. Solace [the opposite of spiritual dryness] is not necessary but efficacy is. When it speaks of being faithful to the schedule or the time set for various matters, avoid scrupulosity, because there are days, plenty of them when it simply is not possible. Regularity is important, yes, because of the weakness of human nature, but it is wisdom to know the higher promptings of the Holy Ghost or the desperate need of a neighbor. For instance, I know a woman who has a very good Rule of Life that includes a fairly set order of prayer and other spiritual acts. One day she had the strongest urge to forego this, to get into her car and drive to see an old friend who was very ill and had less than six months to live. She had planned to visit at another time. But she listened to her heart, set aside her previous schedule and went. As she was leaving her home for the drive, she took an extra Brown Scapular with her, she did not know why. It was a sudden idea. Her friend was an old traditional Catholic, consecrated to Mary, a devotee of Our Lady of Fatima; normally there would be no need to bring her a scapular as she had always worn one. But the woman did as she felt somehow prompted. The dying friend was closer to death than expected. Nobody realized this. In fact she would die that very week instead of months away. As it so happens with God, there are no coincidences; the woman had misplaced her scapular and badly needed one. She did not want to be "a burden" to those who were attending her. But she wanted a scapular so badly. When her old friend arrived with the scapular it was literally an answer to a prayer, she clasped Our Lady's Garment of Grace to dear life and had it placed around her shoulders. She died after receiving the Last Rites with her scapular where Our Lady wants it to be. She also had another prayer answered, a priest was able to offer the Traditional Requiem Mass for the repose of her soul, something she had almost given up on. When this woman came home she rejoiced. And she knew why she was called away from her usual schedule. She was almost in tears when she conveyed the incident's import to me. I was in tears later, with so much happiness I thought my heart would burst! In fact, it became a distraction, but one I turned to grace, because I gave it back to Immaculate Mary with thanks, over and over again. There are other rules of life you can use, the one above is only one suggestion---it is suitable for those with a little practice. This should be but the beginning. Eventually you will take on your own Rule, and discard this one if you use it now: because Rules of Life are really that particular for lay people who are not contemplatives. Those who belong to Third Orders will, of course, have the rule of that Order.

(2) The "perfection of our actions".

The first requisite is to do everything through the Mother of God, Mediatrix of All Graces, but directed to God, with the intent to please Him, to follow His will and to seek to love Him with all our mind, our strength, our soul, our will. To Jesus, through Mary. TJM. As schoolchildren we used to write that on our papers. Another cautionary note:
Scrupulosity can derail us here, too.

In other words, do not fret over every action to "inspect" your progress. Examination is for our conscience. The rules of "a Rule" do not bind under sin unless you are a religious who is under some obligation in this regard. You have but to keep in mind:

1. Are you really doing an action for God? That is, if someone should suddenly ask you if you were, you did not have to hesitate to answer yes. It is your intention, not your constant dwelling on it as if to keep the intention "alive".
2. Are you concerned about the judgments of men? This is a sign you may have mixed motives if the answer is yes.
3. Are you tranquil whether successful or not? If yes, good. If you are disturbed if not as successful as you hoped, this means your intentions are not pure.
4. Are your actions as perfect in private as they are in public? If no, you need to remedy this.
5. If our good works should be done with others, do we resist doing this? And are we jealous if someone else seems more successful? If yes is the answer, this is a watch point.

The second requisite is to do everything in the presence of God, as if He were physically present in the room as Jesus was with His disciples.

The third requisite is actually part of the second, to keep Jesus in mind, for Him, because of Him, with Him.

Now it is easy for me to tell you this and not so easy to accomplish it, at first. When the toddler is learning to walk, he falls down. Mom and Dad are there to catch him or pick him up. Usually he laughs because his parents are so patient and kind, loving and always there, he feels secure. I know of one baby that actually tried to fall more, rather than take steps, because he loved his father catching him, he would gurgle with delight, it was a game of love to him. He had to be coaxed to walk. His father had to pretend to ignore him a little. I certainly do not want you following this analogy literally, but I do want you to take it to heart. We will fall, we will fail, we will think we have fallen further than we may have or not actually failed. Place yourself securely in the two Hearts of Jesus and Mary every day and trust in the loving Providence of God. Surrender yourself in all things to Him, and He will "catch you." Jesus is offended when we do not place all our trust in Him. Look at the picture above, see the lamb in His arm? This should be our posture before Him.


1. Reduce noise---turn off the radio or gently remove yourself from a talkative neighbor, make sure you are not panting from a jog, and if your state in life permits, put the phone away somewhere.
2. Before any sustained prayer of longer than an aspiration, or the Sign of the Cross, make preparation. Think of God or Our Lady, the object of your prayer. The Object is the Person you are praying to. The purpose of all prayer is union with God. The subject of a prayer is either a meditation or a request or simple union for the sake of love.
3. Tell God that you reject and or renounce all distractions that will occur [notice I said will, not might]. Ask your patron Saint or Guardian Angel to pray with you, ask Mary to purify your prayers with hers. Use your own words, make them brief.
4. Once you have begun and a distraction occurs, if you are working on deliberate venial sins---to not commit them as much in view of never committing one again [one step at a time], be at peace, for you did not invite them through your laxness. Tell God, I reject this thought--mentally spoken---and keep going. If it persists still and you are not engaging it as an excuse not to pray or to prefer yourself, be at peace. Just keep going and tell the devil---in case it is he---to scram, say begone Satan---make another Sign of the Cross, use holy water. He will scatter, believe me. Then another distraction will occur, say you remember a sin you honestly forgot to confess, make a note, ask your Angel to help you recall it next time, be at peace and go on, as this distraction may be the prompting of the Holy Ghost. If the sin, which you intend to confess still bothers you, this may be the devil boring his way in or you may suffer from the spiritual disorder of scrupulosity. If this is the situation I cannot help you, a good spiritual director, a good confessor can. Tell God your intention is to remain tranquil because you know He is there. Some days nothing seems to work, that's okay, too. Make your prayer a prayer about the trouble with the distraction, not to focus on the details, but to go around them like a detour by employing them. Focus on God, on Our Lady, and so on. Give the distraction to Her. In  fact, really and truly, say to Her, Dearest Lady, here are my distractions, I gather them for you so that you can turn them into roses. Or something like that. One day someone was saying the Rosary and was plagued with what seemed inordinate distractions. She talked to Our Lady about them, that she was unable to meditate on the Mysteries. Our Lady remitted the meditations, instead, simply told her to think of each person that she had a habit of praying for on each Hail Mary and that she would accept this action as if the meditation had been performed. It worked! That woman uses this method at those times when meditation is too laborious. It occurred to her that perhaps someone she was praying for was in more need than ever. How so? you want to know.

Now God already knows everything. But he has expressly ordained it in His Loving Providence that we are to cooperate with Him and ask for graces and favors. It is His will that we do so, even though He has the power to effect whatever He wills in of Himself. It is the Bounty of God in its immensity. The Holy Trinity is a relationship, the Love of the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost; Jesus was very close to His Apostles and disciples, never more so than with His Mother who cooperated totally with His mission of redemption. He wants us to be like this, not only to follow Him with our cross, but with our generous spirit. He pleads with us to reach up toward Heaven with open arms to Him. For others, especially, who have no one else to pray for them. He knows their needs, He wants us to be generous on their behalf; for our own needs. He then multiplies our prayers, if I may put it like this. There is nothing that we cannot tell Him in prayer. Even our distractions. He knows them, sometimes the Holy Spirit implants them. He wants us to relate to Him in this manner. This way no time in prayer is being wasted. The prayers of pure children are just so dear to Him and the trusting heart of a sinner who wants to be a Saint is, too. I cannot repeat this enough!

 If the source is fatigue and pain, or debilitating, agonizing illness, offer the suffering as part of your particular prayer. Our suffering should always be an offering, period. It, too, is a prayer unto itself, for uniting our suffering with that of Jesus' Passion and Our Lady's Sorrowful Heart is a most holy work. Before you know it, prayer will be something you look forward to, distractions and all, because they become an impetus for union with God, not a distraction in the sense of pestilence. Recall that when we began we mentioned that some distractions are willed by the Holy Spirit?

We should pause here to consider this action of His before we look at distractions from the devil and the other source, self, briefly. Illness and fatigue need no amplification for our purposes here. GROWTH IN HOLINESS, by Fr. William Favor from which I incorporated some of the above as well, mostly in my own words says:

The action of the Holy Spirit is another fountain of distractions. Just as persons in the higher stages of the spiritual life are supernaturally tried and purified by desolation and aridity, so those who are passing through the earlier stages, and along the more ordinary paths of perfection, are sometimes put into a crucible of distractions, in order to ground them in more solid devotion, to burn away the remains of sin, and to subdue the vivacity of self-love. It is not easy for a man to know when the distractions he is suffering from are supernatural. Perhaps the knowledge would interfere with their efficacy. Still it is a consolation to know that there are cases in which distractions are a Divine trial; and that one probable sign of their being so is when we are unable to attribute their unusual inroad, or its perseverance, to any other cause or to any fault of our own. There is also another class of supernatural distractions, which must be noticed. These infest us when the Holy Spirit is calling us to a different subject of prayer, or to a higher state of prayer, and we are unconsciously or consciously misunderstanding and resisting the vocation. He will let us have no rest until we obey Him, and He sends us these distractions to harass us into obedience.
... distractions may come from the devil, and in a very great number of cases do so. It is obvious that devotion is fatal to his kingdom in the soul, and consequently must always be one of his main objects of attack. His distractions may be known, first by their torrent-like abundance, secondly by the vivid pictures which accompany them, thirdly by their disquieting the soul in a peculiar and disproportionate manner, fourthly by their disconnection with the ordinary engrossing actions of our state of life, fifthly---and in this respect they are the opposite of diabolical scruples---by their want of variety, and their always returning to the charge in the same shape, and sixthly, by their being of such a nature, as if dwelt upon will easily become sin. Reguera, in his Mystical Theology, tells us not to pursue distractions at all, but to treat them as a man does barking dogs as he passes through a street. This advice applies with peculiar force to those distractions whose origin we have reason to believe is diabolical.

Inculpable self is the fourth source of distractions, or rather contains within itself four distinct springs of them. The first is the imagination, which is much more strongly developed in some persons than others, and much more susceptible of images presented to it. Thus there are instances of men unable to make what is called the composition of place in meditation, that is, the picture of the mystery, because the vividness of the picture so excites their imagination that it is a source of distractions to them all through their hour of prayer. The ruling passion is another of these springs. All ideas and objects connected with it seem to participate both in its domineering spirit and its tenacity. They are always seen as it were through a magnifying medium, and lay so strong a hold upon the mind that it is difficult to shake them off; and when, as in the act of prayer, other external objects are shaken off by the ordinary efforts we naturally make at that time, those which are connected with the ruling passion only seem to have the field more comparatively to themselves, and to subject the mind to a more rigorous tyranny.

The third spring is what has been called the "ingenium vagum," the genius of dissipation, the turn of mind which makes a man diffuse himself over many objects, and turn away with repugnance from interior things. It is just the opposite of concentration. It has no fixity, no steadiness. It is a constitutional flaw in the mind, analogous to irresoluteness in the will. It loves novelty and change, and show, and sound, and hurry, and many things to do, and the luxury of complaining it has many things to do. Like all constitutional faults, it is full of the possibilities of moral evil, still it is itself constitutional, and so inculpable. ... there was a profoundly melancholy temperament which could nail itself so undistractedly to an object as to be mistaken for a supernatural gift of contemplation. The ingenium vagum is just the very opposite to this; and as the former is without merit, so is the latter without blame.

The fourth spring is the unskillfulness of our spiritual director. Directors who drag their penitents rather than follow them to keep them in the way are necessarily the cause of habitual distractions, because the souls of their penitents are always in an unreal and forced state, and are not developing in the way of the Holy Spirit. Hence they are feverish, panic-stricken, obstinate, now querulous, now fantastic, one while dumb, another while loquacious, and a few years hence would have given up the pursuit of perfection altogether. The prayers of such persons are composed of two-thirds distractions and one-third petulant complaint of the distractions to God. Other directors have a pet method prayer, and will insist on all their penitents praying as they do. None are to pray lower. Perfection, say they, requires such or such a degree of prayer. None are to pray higher. It would be delusion. Such a director looks down upon his flock as on a lower level than himself on the mountain. He is piping up above. It does not strike him that he is ever to look up, sometimes with dazzled eyes and aching neck, at penitents above him. All above him are stragglers. He sends his dog for them, and they come precipitately down at the peril of their lives. Others pass their penitents through twelve or fifteen degrees of prayer in succession, like the stages of an operation, a manufacture, or a medical cure. They can tell as well where they are in prayer as they can show by a map how far they are on their road to a given place. The consequence, to the poor penitents, of all this narrowness and pedantry is their being devoured by wolves the whole time of prayer. To be in a state of prayer in which God does not will us to be is a kind of spiritual dislocation. We shall be easy in no posture, and recollection is impossible. These four springs together make up the source of inculpable self.

The fourth and last fountain of distractions is culpable self. All distractions, from whatever source, are culpable, if we clearly perceive them and deliberately entertain them. They become culpable in the same way as temptations become sins, by advertence and consent. But beyond this, there is a class of distractions arising immediately from ourselves, and which are always culpable. They have two springs, the body and the mind. The body culpably causes them, when we practice no sort of mortification, and foresee that the result of that neglect will be distractions. Irreverent postures in prayer, and continual changes of position, and all want of outward modesty and propriety also give rise to distractions which are culpable. The remedy for these is of course as obvious as their cause. Then the mind is another prolific spring of several classes of distractions for which we have no one to blame but ourselves. We have debauched our own minds. We have disarmed our spirit and left it a helpless prey to those merciless distractions.

For other spiritual aid, see the Classics Directory.