Does Your Mind Wander When You Pray?

Praying the Rosary

Praying the Rosary

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.

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About the Author

Stacy Trasancos is a wife and homeschooling mother of seven. She holds a PhD in Chemistry from Penn State University and a MA in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. She worked as a chemist for DuPont in the Lycra® and Teflon® businesses.

She teaches Chemistry and Physics for Kolbe Academy Online and Homeschool Program and serves as the Science Department Chair. She is teaching a set of summer mini-workshops titled "Science in the Light of Faith" for students, parents, other educators, or any Christian interested in the nuts and bolts of navigating science.

Similarly, she is teaching a "Reading Science in the Light of Faith" at Holy Apostles College & Seminary next Fall (2016). The course is funded by a John Templeton Foundation grant through John Carroll University for teaching science in seminaries. She is on the Board of Directors for ITEST (the Institute for the Theological Encounter with Science and Technology) where the essays from the course will be shared with the public.

Also in the Fall of 2016, she will teach a "Theological History of Science" course at Seton Hall University, where her mentor, the late Fr. Stanley L. Jaki was a distinguished professor. She is the author of Science Was Born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki.

Her new book, Particles of Faith: A Catholic Guide to Navigating Science is forthcoming with Ave Maria Press...

She teaches, researches, and writes from her family's 100-year old restored mountain lodge in the Adirondack mountains, where her husband and children (and two German Shepherds) remain her favorite priorities. Here is her website.

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26 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for reassuring us that it isn’t a terrible sin when our mind wanders away during prayer time. Thank you for telling us that God sees our inmost intention & sincerity. 😀

  2. Perfect timing on this post. This question always comes to mind when I realized I fell asleep praying the night before. I keep reassuring myself with the words of our pastoral assistant at our church on praying, “If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly”

  3. Thank you for this. On a related topic, praying with children sometimes seems so dry you wonder if they will ever grow from it. We have a brief period of time after the rosary, which I strictly enforce even if everyone is distracted, during which we all remain silent and pray quietly to ourselves. Sometimes I’ll gently call on the Holy Spirit a little bit. This has definitely helped with any rushed, ritualistic, or empty feeling when there are interruptions during the rosary. Thanks again.

  4. Thank You Stacy! HAVE always felt bad for my mind wandering. When I realize it I beg forgiveness from Our Lord. So True that we are weak and thankfully the Holy Spirit can speak for us. GOD BLESS

  5. Last night, family prayers consisted of 11 of us, trying to pray JUST ONE decade of the rosary, while the 2-year-old danced around the living room (because we were a captive audience), the 4- and 7-year-olds had a clandestine tickle fight, the 9-year-old was nodding off to sleep….. oh, and then the cat barfed all over the back of the couch, just as we got to the “All Glory Be.” Thank you for assuring me we still prayed. 🙂

    1. Sounds like our house! If anyone has any prayer routines that seem to work, I’m all ears. I think I wil start with the two books mentioned below.

  6. Thank you for this post ! It is so frustrating NOT being able to concentrate on the Rosary for its duration, but I do persevere. Thanks again for the post !
    Be Well !!

  7. I always enjoy articles by Stacey Trasancos, and this is one of her best. I have two thoughts in response. St. Teresa of Avila wrote about the importance of praying and concentrating on the “Our Father” and how difficult she often found it. Since I read her on the subject forty years ago, I’ve been trying, but have yet to manage to have gone the whole way through without concentrating on every word. The other thought is a comment that a priest made to me a long way back, that the thoughts that come into your head when you are trying to concentrate on prayer can be as important as the original intention as they are messages from God. He did add that he hoped they were!

  8. Two very accessible books on internal prayer, and the problems which arise, such as those listed above as well as also common unusual sensory experiences, visions, etc., would be “The Cloud of Unknowing” written by an anonymous spiritual director of the 12th century, and “Common Mystic Prayer” by Fr Gabriel Eieffenbach OFM Cap in 1947….both are available in paperback reprint. The Johnston translation is good of The Cloud, and the Dieffenbach book is worth owning if only for the bibliography of spiritual classics unknown by most modern readers.

  9. Stacey, I’m hoping some Catholic inventor comes up with an electric Rosary that will shock me back to attention when my mind wanders.

    Ridiculous? I’m only half kidding!

  10. Oh Stacy I can’t tell you how often I have lost track of how many Hail Marys I’ve said whilst driving and then proceed to say an extra 5 just to be sure I’ve said enough. And then I can’t remember which mystery I was on!
    God be with you girl, you have given me grest encouragement with this post.

    1. Sean,

      I struggle with this as well. If you say the Rosary while driving, may I recommend getting a CD or MP3 version of the Rosary to listen to? It helps me retain my focus while actually driving.

      Godspeed!

    1. Manny, that’s the beautiful thing about the article. Dr. Trasancos gives us the profound connection from the Summa that prayer and worship are acts of justice. We don’t think it’s a “sin” to fall asleep while praying. We see it as a sad injustice because worship is God’s due, and out duty because of our relationship with him. Think of Peter and the apostles who fell asleep the night before Jesus was crucified. Jesus was heartbroken, can no one stay awake with me?

      1. Jeff, in a recent Reflection during our Divine Mercy 1st Saturday of the Month Prayer Day, the Priest asked us as Parents….”get in this picture in your minds….when your two-year-old something, all excited on your lap is telling you haltingly what she did at Baby Class and then falls asleep, what do you do? Well, most of us obviously replied… “we would just gently make the child comfortable and let her sleep, lovingly watching as her little flushed face relaxes in sleep. He then told us.”that is how God reacts when you fall asleep while praying”.

  11. that the thoughts that come into your head when you are trying to concentrate on prayer can be as important as the original intention as they are messages from God.

    I agree!!!

    I’ve been reading regarding prayer, meditation, contemplation and all the rest for at least six years or so!

    I’ve been praying and practising in various ways since then, BUT alone, in solitudes, obvious I have no children to take care of only 2 grown up sons, and my wife, but my intentions are to build a relationship with THE LORD.

    Humbly,I am in a position to tell you, that one either be a sailor of tempest, or you are not a sailor at all!

    I experienced from high level of spiritual consolations periods, to a disappointed, difficult, and bad aridity, but as St. Teresa of Avila made clear of: NEVER GIVE UP PRAYING!

    God’s ways are different from our ways, and once we are determined in the truth that we want to do something for THE LORD’S LOVE, we must stick to it and it’s process no matter what!

    St. Teresa also said that the fact that God takes from one source it means that he would give to another source, SOMETHING WHICH I EXPERIENCED!

    So we must be honest with God, and pray FOR HIS LOVE, not as a routine,and let the tempest come, it is only a proof that God is making us powerful through our own weakness, he is revealing to us that we are over burdened with worldly general processes!

    So once we keep on fighting, and quit all that comes in BETWEEN GOD AND US while praying, the HOLY SPIRIT through our Mother Virgin Mary in us, would be MYSTERIOUSLY working for sure in our souls and definitely would be doing GOD’S WILL!

    Luke 2:35 And thy own soul a sword shall pierce, THAT , OUT OF MANY HEARTS, THOUGHTS MAY BE REVEALED!

    The fact that OUR VIRGIN MARY incessantly insisted on PRAYING!

    THE MOST FRUITFUL SPIRITUALLY CONSUMED TIME!

    Which should never be SPIRITUALLY interrupted, THEREFORE KEPT RECOLLECTED even THROUGHOUT THE DAY!
    LIKE ST. PAUL SAID :

    Thess. 5:16 Always rejoice. 17 Pray without ceasing.

    Peace and love in Jesus

    Carmel

  12. So lovely and so true.
    One of my favorite quotes about the Rosary/wandering attention, and showing up for prayer anyway, comes from St. Therese of Lisieux:

    “When I am alone (I am ashamed to admit it), the recitation of the Rosary is more difficult for me than the wearing of an instrument of penance … I force myself in vain to meditate on the mysteries of the Rosary: I don’t succeed in fixing my mind on them … For a long time I was desolate about this lack of devotion that astonished me, for I love the Blessed Virgin so much that it should be easy for me to recite in her honor prayers that are so pleasing to her. Now I am less desolate; I think that the Queen of heaven, since she is my mother, must see my good will and she is satisfied with it.”

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