Do you have trouble paying attention while praying? Does your mind wander? Do you sometimes fall asleep? Do you forget where you were and stop? Do you then feel ashamed and disappointed in yourself? Do you get frustrated? Do you want to give up trying to pray long prayers like the Rosary? Do you give up? Or do you keep trying?
I can answer “yes” to all of these questions except the italicized one. After ten years of developing a prayer routine for myself and with my children, I have lost track, fallen asleep, stopped, felt ashamed, felt frustrated, given up at times, but ultimately kept trying. Still, when I sit the kids down to pray, there are sister-slap fights when they think I’m not looking, the little brother won’t be still and join in, the dogs take up the couch and distract everyone, somebody always touches somebody else who doesn’t want anybody in her space, and by the end of the prayer, almost nightly, there are sleeping kids intertwined with Rosaries sprawled across the sofa. This is not the perfect picture of discipline and reverence I envisioned.
With his typical real life wisdom, St. Thomas Aquinas addressed this question. He asked whether “attention” is a necessary condition of prayer. The answer is: It is and it isn’t. Attention is necessary in the original intention. We have to intend to pray to fix our minds on God, but if our minds wander during the prayer, the loss of attention does not render the whole prayer void, nor is it necessarily a sin.
“On order to realize this effect [that the prayer is meritorious], it is not necessary that prayer should be attentive throughout; because the force of the original intention with which one sets about praying renders the whole prayer meritorious, as is the case with other meritorious acts.”
When we intend to pray so that we are closer to Christ and willing to open ourselves to the will of God, and when we actually do pray, even if we only begin the prayer and later mess up, it is an act of charity and virtue. It is a meritorious act, a good work recognized by God. If, of course, that original intention is lacking, if we just pray because we are supposed to pray but we do not pray to be closer to God, then the prayer is not meritorious. The key is in our original intent and action, even if the fullness of the action is not perfect.
Our minds wander because we are human. It is natural. “Even holy men,” St. Aquinas wrote, “sometimes suffer from a wandering of the mind when they pray.” How much more so will children (and tired mothers) succumb to the wandering of the mind.
“The human mind is unable to remain aloft for long on account of the weakness of nature, because human weakness weighs down the soul to the level of inferior things: and hence it is that when, while praying, the mind ascends to God by contemplation, of a sudden it wanders off through weakness.”
When we pray intentionally, we strive to lift our hearts and minds toward God, but our minds also want to relax to lower thoughts. Does that mean we should just shrug it off and accept that our minds will wander? No, for that would contradict the original intent to pray in earnest. We must not enter prayer lazily, expecting that we will wander when we want to wander or sleep when we want to sleep. “Purposely to allow one’s mind to wander in prayer is sinful and hinders the prayer from having fruit.”
It’s always a good idea to read articles of the Summa Theologiæ in their fuller context. This explanation is Article 13 of Question 13 entitled “Prayer,” which is in the Second Part of the Second Part where virtues are discussed. First St. Aquinas discussed the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. Then he began the cardinal virtues, prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. The question about prayer is located in the section on “Justice,” in the subsection on religion as a show of justice because we owe God for our existence and for His love. Prayer, then, is an act we justly owe to God so that we can know, love, and serve Him better. We can never fully repay our debt to God, but we can “intend” our actions toward Him.
What that means in real life is that we have to keep trying even as we know—and accept—that we are not perfect. Though we fall asleep, get distracted by other thoughts, or fail to remember when we said we would practice a better prayer routine, if we intend sincerely to pray, our prayers have merit. The point is: We have to keep trying.
When we strive for virtue by striving for faith, hope, and love in God, and then by striving in that faith, hope, and love for prudence and justice in our lives, we grow in virtue. In turn, growth in virtue strengthens our minds. We become better persons, more who we are meant to be.
Sin weakens us. If we do not try to avoid sin, we cannot pray as we should. Nonetheless, if we are so weakened by sin that we cannot pray attentively, our merit is in our trying. We try as hard as we can to pray, even if we can only say one word, “Jesus.” St. Thomas cited St. Basil who said that God will pardon us if we are unable to approach God attentively because we are frail.
And when our Blessed Mother prays for us sinners, I don’t think she will focus on the night we drifted off to sleep with her name on our lips or on the day we sat weeping in despair barely able to voice her son’s name. She won’t remember all the failures along the way. She will remember our journey. At the hour of our death, I think she will remember that we tried and never gave up.