Lent, as I just taught a Faith Formation class of sixth graders, is a season focused on three things: almsgiving, fasting, and prayer. As I was preparing the lesson, I found myself being able to explain the first two with ease, since they are essentially physical things: you can hear the clink of coins in a collection dish, and you feel (sometimes acutely) the discomfort of fasting. But prayer? What constitutes successful prayer during Lent?
Prayer has always been a difficult thing for me, during Lent in particular. The season is one of quiet reflection and prolonged conversation with God, but I get distracted easily. Reflections of light or a peculiar contour in a picture can catch my eye and any hope of focused prayer is lost. My brother has this same attention problem, and other people do too, though with different things: making to-do lists, peeking at a text, or looping through that song that’s stuck in your head. If we can’t stay focused enough to finish our thoughts, how can we even listen for an answer?
As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that the distractions will never go away. For better for worse, they are part of my personality. However, the effort that constitutes my successful prayer is working to minimize them and building discipline to refocus myself when my attentions do wander astray. During his ministry, Jesus went into the desert for forty days, to pray and fast in solitude. Imagine how distraction-free that must have been! We don’t have to completely isolate ourselves from civilization to pray, but we might want to follow the example in spirit. When we pray, we can try to make the effort to focus completely on God. After all, you wouldn’t hold a conversation with your best friend while scrolling through Facebook, or daydreaming. Especially during Lent, when we meditate on Christ’s great sacrifice for us, we can try to turn our attentions to him with as few distractions as possible. Then we can not only speak, but have the physical and spiritual quiet necessary to listen.