A specific example of how I reference this “handbook” is that I always use the church’s designated Lenten pillars of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer to guide me in how I honor this important season within the church year. I choose something to fast from; I designate a new way to give; and I make some sort of fresh prayer-related effort within my spiritual life.
In the past, my prayer-related efforts have varied widely. One year, I meditated for twenty minutes every day (this one did not go well for me; my meditation time turned into a nap forty out of forty days). Another year, I prayed the rosary every day. Another year, in an effort to ingrain prayer in my “everyday moments” more consistently, I decided to pray as I brushed my teeth each morning and evening.
This year, rather than introducing a new form of prayer or trying to pray more in a specific way, my prayer effort is to increase my focus during prayer time. I decided on this intention because I was finding that my mind often wanders during prayer, and I desire to go deeper in communication with God.
Here are four strategies that I am trying to sharpen my focus during prayer:
I Start My Prayer Time with the Suscipe
The Suscipe, a prayer written in the 15th century by St. Ignatius Loyola, is one of my all time favorite prayers, but until the start of this Lent, I hadn’t thought about it in a while. With the intention to focus more during prayer, it came to my mind.
That line, “Everything is yours,” reminds me that every aspect of my life — my memory, my understanding and my will, but also every thought that passes through my mind — belongs to God. This concept, for whatever reason, puts me in a mental and emotional space where I am more able to hand my mix of disparate thoughts over to God and then enter my time with God with a greater ability to focus. So, throughout this Lenten season, I am beginning each quiet time by reciting the Suscipe.
Use a Journal
The fact that I can tell you that my first journal was pink, with a plastic heart-shaped lock and a key that I kept on a piece of yarn and hung around my neck will tell you that I have been a long-time journal-er. I have been writing in diaries, notebooks and journals since the time I could write in complete sentences. I’ve also been using journals as a tool in my spiritual life for at least a decade, documenting scripture passages and lines from spiritual books that stand out to me, keeping track of prayer intentions that others have shared with me, and reflecting on incidents and experiences in my life. That being said, I have never been particularly consistent in the way that I use my journal for prayer, or used journaling as a specific strategy for staying focused, and that’s what I’m trying this Lent. Part of what keeps me from focusing while I pray is that I always have a million thoughts running through my head that distract me. With that in mind, I’m using my journal as a place to collect my racing thoughts so that I can enter prayer with a more clear — and able to focus — head. By writing down my racing thoughts, I’m able to get them out of my head and heart, so that my head and heart are more available and ready for prayer.
Light a candle
I’ve realized that part of the reason why I sometimes have trouble focusing while I am praying is that I haven’t fully entered a mental prayer-space. I’m sort of praying with half my brain, but the other half of my brain is thinking about what to cook for dinner and trying to remember to send my sister a birthday card. And I think the whole of my brain has a hard time entering prayer-land at times because my body hasn’t entered a prayerful space. Let’s put it this way: I have a much harder time focusing during prayer when I am in a cluttered kitchen than in a quiet church that smells of incense and pew polish. While I can’t just drop my obligations and head to the church anytime I want to pray, I can do things to make whatever space I am in more conducive to prayer. One of those things for me is to light a candle. With a flame that reminds me of the light of Christ and a waxy smell that instantly transports me to a more serene moment, candles are an easy way to help me bring about focused prayer wherever I am.
Pray the Rosary
When all else fails in helping me focus during prayer, I turn to the rosary. There are many good reasons to pray the rosary, but its ability to capture my concentration as I recite its ancient prayers and feel the smooth beads is one of my favorites. I always finish praying the rosary feeling as if my mind and heart were in the same place as my body — with the beads, with Mary, and with God.