I had what I found to be a rather sad realization at work yesterday. We are a society that no longer knows how to communicate. We have all of this technology that enables us to be "plugged in" at almost all times; we have all this "social media" so that we can stay in touch with friends and family; we have all this information at our fingertips, and yet when it comes down to it we don't know how to communicate. Everyone's talking, but no one's listening.
I was watching a family eat dinner in Panera. The whole time the son was texting someone on his cell phone. I've watched friends have "conversations" with one another without even looking at one another. The whole time they were staring at their iPhones or iPads or whatever the latest craze is. They were saying a lot, but not listening, not being present to either the one they were talking to face-to-face, nor to the one they were communicating with over the phone.
This made me wonder, what kind of effect does such "communication" have on our prayer life? The Fathers are always talking about giving God our undivided attention during prayer, turning our heart away from all distractions and focusing on God alone. It was hard enough during times when communication was either done face-to-face, or through a very slow system of mail. How hard it is today when we are accustomed to "communicating" with four or five people simultaneously!
I know I personally tend to relegate a good chunk of my prayer time to my drive to work. There's nothing wrong with this, of course. It's good to pray whenever you have a chance to pray. But by limiting a good portion of my prayer time to that drive, I've realized how much my prayer life in general has suffered. Not only am I more distracted while I'm driving, I find that I have also become more distracted when I actually have the time to sit down and concentrate my attention on God in prayer. I find myself thinking of all the other things in need to be doing or getting done that day. I find myself thinking of other conversations I've had with folks. Heck, I even find myself interrupting my prayer time simply to make a phone call! What a failure on my part! I've allowed myself to turn from the one relationship, the one conversation in the day that matters most. But isn't this typical in our society of "mass communication?" Isn't this how we all converse now; always thinking about the next conversation we need to have with someone else?
It has always bothered me whenever I'm talking to someone, and instead of looking at me and paying attention, they're looking over my shoulder at the next person they need to talk to. But I know I've been guilty of doing that to others as well. How horrible! Here we are face-to-face with someone giving themselves to us by giving us a small bit of their time, and we're not willing to return the favor by giving ourselves to them by focusing our attention on them! And here, in prayer, we have God, our Creator, our Master, our Father, Brother, Spirit, etc., giving us their undivided attention, and we half-heartedly mumble a few words while looking over their shoulders so to speak. What a way to treat the one who suffered and died for us so that we might have life in the fullest in this life and the next!
Sts. John of Kronstadt (thank you Kim and Seraphim) and Theophan the Recluse are both very adamant; half-hearted prayer mumbled without the slightest attention in the heart is no prayer at all, but merely empty words. So during our prayer, they tell us, if we find ourselves becoming distracted, pause, take a moment, collect yourself, admit your failing and ask for God's mercy, then continue your prayer. In the Western tradition Sts. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross spoke of turning distractions into prayer as well. Fr. Robert Taft mentions talking to God about your distractions, admitting that you're weak and can barely focus for more than two minutes before a new thought pops into your head. I've found that sometimes, when I'm tempted during prayer, if I talk to God about the temptation or pray for the person causing the temptation, that I can actually turn the distraction itself into prayer. Sometimes it's best to gently bring your attention back into focus in this manner than to violently force yourself from distraction to focus. But the point is, we need to remember to redirect our attention to God during prayer, especially when we find ourselves tempted to distraction. May heaven consume us.