Confessions of a Distracted Catholic

by Eliza McKay

Do you ever have those days where you get to the end of mass you haven’t taken much of anything in, but have planned what you’ll make for lunch, rehearsed several times in your head a conversation you probably won’t ever have, and stared intently at the back of the ladies head in front of you trying to figure out how she gets her hair like that. *bells ring* “Wow are we that far through already,” you think to yourself. Better yet, you’re on your way home after mass and your parents are talking about something controversial the priest said in the homily but you can’t remember anything from the homily at all. I mean how would it have been possible when there was a baby four pews ahead on the right?

Sound familiar? You might be a distracted Catholic. I am. I’m easily distracted. In fact I put the Dis…ooh pretty butterfly… in distracted. I wrote the book on distraction, or at least I would have if I could concentrate long enough on the task.

Church can be a difficult place for the distracted. We live in a world of instant gratification and 6 second clips. The church asks us to slow down; to sit still and contemplate the face of Christ… which we can do for maybe 8 seconds before we have the urge to reach for our phones.distracted

The stakes are high!
I feel the weight of Jesus’ words to Peter and the disciples in the garden of Gethsemane after they had fallen asleep. “Could you not keep watch for one hour?” he asks. Yet how often do I fail to keep watch for one hour of mass or 10 mins of private prayer; falling asleep into daydreams and irrelevant musings oblivious to the gravity and importance of where I am.

You might be thinking “wait, so I’m meant to concentrate for a whole hour!” For some of us that’s an impossibly high bar. But the point is prayer is not just about sitting in a church, or by your bed thinking about random stuff.

I recently came across a little story about St Bernard of Clairvaux. After being criticized by a farmer he road past that he had it easy because all he had to do was pray he came back with,

“I’ll tell you what, if you can say the Lord’s Prayer from beginning to end without taking your mind off it, I’ll give you this horse.”

“That’s so generous of you,” the man said; and he began praying, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be…do I get the saddle too?”

The point is that prayer is difficult and the stakes are high. It matters if we’re distracted. Our Lord invites us to a supernatural banquet. We have the amazing opportunity to participate in his sacrifice on the cross and to receive him into our very selves as food. He wants to transform our hearts and bring us into an active relationship with him. Something far more important than the other things we would sometimes rather think about.

That said, being a distracted Catholic is nothing to get disheartened about. There also lies a great merit in just being physically present at church even if our mind isn’t. In addition to that, we can also find comfort in the fact that the disciples struggled as well.

You’re not alone!
There are many canonized saints who were distracted Catholics, and we know they’re in heaven! I like to think St Peter was one of us. He had a faith strong enough to step out of the boat and walk on water, but is almost instantly distracted by the waves surrounding him. As he begins to sink he remembers Jesus and calls out to him. Although he failed to keep his eyes on Jesus, our loving Lord pulled him up from the waves. We see a similar scene at the Transfiguration when Peter chimes in with “I will make them three tents.”

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Biblical scholars I’m sure have more nuanced theories about Peter’s exclamation but I like to think St Peter was a bit distracted. Jesus is there hovering and glowing, talking to two dead prophets and Peter’s thinking that it would be a nice spot to pitch a tent. I feel you Peter, I feel you.

Essentially, you’re not alone. Distracted disciples have been a thing as long as disciples have been a thing. The Good News is God loves us in spite of our quirks and failings and constantly falling short of what he asks of us.

Furthermore, with such a long history of distracted Catholics there’s lots of advice from saints and aspiring saints who’ve learnt how to focus on Christ amidst the waves of life.

So here are some tips

1. Change your habits and surroundings.

Arrive early to mass, take a few deep breaths and get yourself in the zone. This develops the habit that you’re here for something special and helps in not continuing with whatever train of thought you were on while on the way to mass. Sit near the front if you get distracted by parishioners in front of you. Read along with the readings in a Missal or on your phone (I highly recommend the Universalis app) if you’re liable to tune out. I’ve seen some people take notes in the homily because they take more in if they do. Fidget if it helps you focus, my mother (from whom I inherited my short attention span) was taught by the nuns at school to twiddle her thumbs, and it helps her concentrate at mass.

2. Make use of prayer resources.

I found booklets with pictures and scripture reflections helped me pray the rosary, it gave me more to think about and at the very least I was concentrating on the mysteries for the few seconds it took to read the scripture passage. Other resources like bookmarks with steps on how to pray provide reminders of where you are when you get off track. Sometimes we need to get creative about our prayer. A priest recently retold how he advised a med student who was learning the rosary to think of what medical treatment he’d give to Jesus as a way of meditating on his Passion. This struck me as a pretty creative approach which took the focus off trying to concentrate and looked from a different perspective at the biblical events.

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3. Learn the difference between the big distractions and the little distractions.

I once heard the analogy of distractions being compared to bugs. There are some bugs like flies for example that are best ignored or swatted away while you get on with the task at hand. There are others like a wasp or poisonous spider that you should really do something about. Maybe you just noticed halfway through the consecration of the host that the lady in front has the price tag hanging off her jeans. It’s probably best not to dwell on it. Swat that fly and focus back on the mass. On the other hand, perhaps something is really troubling you in your private prayer. Instead of just pushing it aside you may have to bring it into your prayer and converse with God about what’s troubling you. Then of course there’s the “you really should just stop praying and deal with the issue” kind of bugs. Let’s call them the “kill the spider” distractions; such as when you’re about to wet your pants or you remembered that you left the baby in the car. You should really do something about that.

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Blessed are the distracted! A priest once said to me that he thought people often have the wrong idea about distractions. Far from something bad and sinful, he suggested seeing them as an opportunity. An opportunity to choose Christ. When we notice we’re distracted, we are given the opportunity to choose Christ over our distraction. To call out like St Peter in the waves, turning back to our loving merciful Saviour and exclaiming “Lord save me!”

Full time youth ministry worker at CYM, Eliza is a passionate lover of Christ and his Church. She intends to spend her spare time outdoors exploring the world, having meaningful conversations, or in front of a fire place reading a book.  It’s often instead spent watching YouTube, napping, and snacking…