When I was a child, our priest preached a sermon every year on how we are to pray. He illustrated his point with the absurd example of a robot programmed to recite a prayer over and over. "This," he explained, "is not prayer."
From this, my childish heart took away the lesson that for prayer to "count," I had to "mean" every word of it. And since it was tied to the forgiveness of my sins, I figured this went double for penance prayers said after confession. So I would sit for long periods in the pew, obsessing over my concentration on every single word of my three Hail Marys.
The importance of the moment of consecration as the climax of the Mass was also impressed on me, so I figured that it was critical to focus on it. To be distracted from it was surely a sin.
This was long before anyone -- least of all me -- knew that my mind is more distractible than the typical person's.
For those of us with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), perfect focus on prayer is simply not possible. (I don't know how possible it is for less distractible types, for that matter.) It is entirely natural for one's mind to drift right at the apical moment of consecration. I now think in different way about prayer.
- First, turn your mind and heart to God. This is the most important thing. God understands if your mind wanders; he created it that way. What is important is that your will chooses prayer even if your attention does not always obey.
- If you are reciting a prayer, consider its topic and theme first. Try to focus on that, rather than on the individual phrases.
- Use a physical object to focus your prayer, such as a Bible or rosary. The sensory feedback from holding it in your hands will help you focus. (Why do you think the string of beads used for the rosary has always been popular?)
- Likewise, praying with your body as well as your mind will help with focus. Kneel while praying. Or pray during physical activity -- I had some of my most fruitful meditations in college, when I would pray while walking to class.
- Pray unscripted, rather than reciting a prayer. A spontaneous conversation with God will occupy all your attention, and you can let it wander wherever it will. If you are new to this type of prayer, simply talk in your mind as if he is listening -- he certainly is.
- If you find yourself anxious about your mind wandering during the liturgy, relax and remember the words of the prayer said during the Mass immediately after the Lord's Prayer: Keep us free from sin, and protect us from all anxiety. Trust that if your mind and heart are turned to him, God will not blame you for human weakness.
For further reading:
- All About Catholic meditation
- Forum discussion on concentration during the rosary
- Centering Prayer: How not to pray
- Quietism heresy: What happens when you remove all distractions
- Protect Us From All Anxiety: Meditations For The Depressed, a book by William Burke