Note from the Chair:
Dr. Kevin Vost is a good friend and was among the greatest sources of encouragement when my first book “Faith at Work: Finding Purpose Beyond the Paycheck” was released. In today’s guest post, Kevin shares his gift of encouragement with us all. I don’t know about you, but finding my mind wandering during prayer is nothing new. After reading today’s post, I hope you’ll join me in persevering.
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I get distracted when I pray. Does God stop listening?
No, He doesn’t. One of St. Thomas Aquinas’ questions in his masterful Summa Theologica is “Whether Attention is a Necessary Condition of Prayer?” His answer may be a bit of a surprise (and perhaps a relief):
“Purposely to allow one’s mind to wander in prayer is sinful, and hinders the prayer from having fruit….But to wander in mind unintentionally does not deprive the prayer of fruit.” (ST, II-II, Q. 83, a. 13).
Thomas lists three main effects of prayer:
1) merit that comes from all acts inspired by the love of God,
2) impetration (the production of petitions or requests to God), and
3) the spiritual refreshment of the mind of the one who prays.
For the first two effects, simply the initial intention to pray is sufficient, even if attention is lost, although one must have the initial intention. For the last, the immediate effect of spiritual refreshment of the mind comes only while paying attention.
Further, Thomas describes three kinds of attention we can bring to vocal prayer:
1) attention to the words so we say them right,
2) attention to the meaning of the words, and
3) attention to the end or goal of the prayer—that is, God.
Here, only the third is essential. Thomas notes that even the slow-witted who can’t remember or understand the words of certain prayers are still able, within their limits, to raise their thoughts to God. Further, even among the learned and holy, “this attention, whereby the mind is fixed on God, is sometimes so strong that the mind forgets all other things…” (ST, II-II, Q. 83, a. 13).
So, to put it in a Thomistic nutshell, no one is more aware than God of the limitations of our human nature, fleeting attention and all. God appreciates the fact that we try to pray, even when our wandering minds go astray!
Dr. Kevin Vost is the author of several Catholic books, including, The One-Minute Aquinas, (Sophia Institute Press, 2014), from which this post was adapted. Dr. Vost drinks great drafts of coffee while meditating mirthfully on Thomistic tomes in the company of his wife, two sons, and two dogs, in Springfield, Illinois. Kevin can be found online at www.drvost.com.