It is one of the most distressing aspects of personal religion that we all waste so much of the very limited time which we are able to give it. The waste can be classified under two main heads: distraction and dryness. No one escapes these, but it concerns us all to reduce them as much as we can. Of dryness I will speak later. As to distraction, this is of two kinds, which we might call fundamental and mechanical. Fundamental distraction is really lack of attention; and lack of attention is really lack of interest.
We are seldom distracted where we are truly keen – where the treasure is, the heart is sure to be. Saint Teresa’s advice to her nuns, to “get themselves some company when first they go to prayer” is one prescription for the cure of fundamental distractedness. Another, particularly suitable for those who find it impossible to forget the pressure of external cares and legitimate interests, consists in making those very cares and interests the subject-matter of the prayer, thus conquering the distraction by absorption instead of by conflict.
Mechanical distraction, on the other hand, seems to be connected with the element of reverie which is present in meditation and mental prayer; and the difficulty, inherent in this type of thinking, of maintaining complete concentration. In such mechanical distraction the deeper soul remains steadfast in prayer, the will and intention do not vary; but recollection is disturbed by involuntary thoughts and images which perpetually pass across the field of consciousness. The remedy for this is a steady, patient training of the mind; the gradual formation of channels along which our devotional energies can flow . . . .
Finally, I want to say something about a factor which is always present in every developed life of prayer: The liability to spiritual dryness and blankness, painful to all fervent Christians, but especially distressing to those whose business it is to work in souls. The times when all your interest and sense of reality evaporate; when the language of religion becomes meaningless and you are quite unable, in any real sense, to pray. Everyone is so off-colour from time to time; and it is one of the great problems of the priest and religious teacher, to know how, under these conditions, he can best serve God and other souls. Now first of all, it is possible to reduce the intensity of such desolations – to use the technical term – by wise handling of yourselves; and here prudent self-treatment is plainly your duty – the dictates of grace and common sense coincide.
The condition is largely psychological. It is a fatigue state; a reaction sometimes from excessive devotional fervor, sometimes from exacting spiritual work, which has exhausted the inner reserves of the soul. It almost always follows on any period of marked spiritual progress or enlightenment. In either case, the first point is, accept the situation quietly. Don’t aggravate it, don’t worry, don’t dwell on it, don’t have contrition about it; but turn, so far as you can, to some secular interest or recreation and “wait till the clouds roll by.”
Many a priest ends every Sunday in a state of exhaustion in which he cannot possible say his own prayers; in which, as one of them has observed, the only gift of the Spirit in which he is able to take any interest is a hot bath. That is a toll levied by his pyscho-physical limitations. Effort and resistance will only make it worse.
- Concerning the Inner Life