What to do about Distractions During Prayer

A customer recently asked me a question that I wanted to respond to on the blog.

Hi Jonathan! How do you personally stay focused while praying the rosary? My mind tends to wander.

It's a great question, and one I have been asked before.  When it comes to meditation which is the objective of praying the rosary, I am not an expert.  Many saints and great writers have covered this topic, and I would recommend looking for books on the subject.  Here are a few that have helped me along the way:

My Experience

I have been praying the rosary daily for almost a decade. I am no less distracted now than when I started. However, I have learned quite a bit during that time that I’d like to share here. 

1. Remain Faithful 

It is precisely because of our weakness that God gave us the rosary through Mary.  He asked Mary to give us this simple form of prayer that anyone can do.  And just like the promise that the invisible realities of the sacraments are real, so too are the promises made to us by Mary about the power of the rosary.  The power doesn't come from us, praise God for that.  All we have to do is humble ourselves enough to accept the truth we have been told, and faithfully pray the rosary. 

2. Let your distractions be a clue 

Human formation is often overlooked. We are mind, body, and soul.  The integration of all 3 is paramount for union with God. Those distractions can clue us into parts of our life on a human level that need attention. Get curious. The goal is not to diagnose, problem solve, or fix. The goal is to notice so that you can bring that thing into the light and allow God to reveal something that was previously hidden.  
For example, when I pray the rosary there is a recurring theme I’ve noticed recently, "I’m not good enough". Sometimes this looks like an impulse to work in my head.  As The Catholic Woodworker, it can be easy to judge my own prayer tools (I made them, afterall). This altar isn’t quite right or I wish this cord had different properties or this centerpiece shape isn’t quite right.  It can snowball from there.

Problem solving (not the right strategy) looks like this: I need to call my jewelry designer and update the design so that the lines flow better.  Yes, I feel better in that moment, but in reality all I’ve done is put a bandaid on the problem which goes much deeper than design flow. It usually leads to more of the same types of “distractions”. 

Noticing looks like this: I’m curious about why there’s a part of me that thinks this centerpiece design isn’t good enough, especially right now while I’m trying to pray my rosary.  I might ask myself this question: what am I afraid might happen if I left it just the way it was?  This might happen while I’m praying or I can pause and make time for that interior exploration. There might even be a part of me that thinks, “I don’t have time for this distraction. If I give it any attention I won’t have time to finish my rosary”. That alone is a clue that there’s a part of me that holds some intrinsic value in finishing all the prayers as if my rosary doesn’t count if I don’t complete it. I could also validate that concern by saying to myself, “that’s a good observation. I’ll spend some time processing that feedback later today”, and write it down. Then gently redirect my attention back to the mystery. 

Other times there is something that happened or didn’t happen that needs to be addressed. For example, maybe I can't stop thinking about a meeting I had the day before.  When I stop and get curious about why it's coming up, I notice some guilt about being too critical of a co-worker or not doing my best work on a recent project. Again, the goal isn’t to resolve it or fix it, but to notice it and get curious about it.  Now that I've brought that situation into the light, I can see clearly that I need to repent.

In my experience, distractions are more often a blessing than an obstacle to growth in holiness. Notice the distraction, get curious about it, and bring it into the light so that God can reveal something to us about Him or ourselves.  No matter what happens, remain faithful to the invitation to pray the rosary daily, and offer to Jesus through Mary whatever you can that day.  It will never be wasted.
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