We usually think of distractions or interruptions as coming form the world around us. But is that really the most fertile or frequent source? Consider the following parable drawn from the stories of the early Desert Fathers and monastic experience:
Sometimes there would be a rush of noisy visitors and the silence of the monastery would be shattered.
This would upset the disciples; not the Master, who seemed just as content with the noise as with the silence.
To his protesting disciples he said one day, “Silence is not the absence of sound, but the absence of self.”
The fact is, our greatest distraction is usually our very self. And if this may surprise us, we should probably chalk that surprise up to pride. Why? Because what God most often wants us to see and focus on is outside and above us: in the beauty of creation, the wonder of others, in the magnificence of God. These are not distractions, they are often exactly what God is saying to us, revealing to us.
St. Augustine described our essential problem as Homo curvatus in se (man turned in on himself). And in so turning inward, a host of distractions assail us:
- I’m bored.
- I’m tired.
- What will I do next?
- What do people think of me?
- Do I fit in?
- Am I handsome/pretty enough?
- Have I made it?
- What does this have to do with me?
- What have you done for me lately?
- When will it be my turn?
- What about me?
- Why are people upsetting me? What gives them the right?
Yes, distractions like these, a thousand variations swim through our mind as we are turned inward, most of them rooted in pride and its ugly cousin, vanity.
But as the parable above teaches, it is the absence of self, that brings truer focus and serenity. Indeed, of this I am a witness, for my freest and most joyful, and most focused moments have come when I was most forgetful of myself:
* Perhaps it was simply a movie that gripped my attention and drew me outside of myself into the plot and the moments in the lives of others, even if they were fictional.
* At other times, it was being powerfully aware of the presence of others and listening carefully to what they said.
* Perhaps it was just in the company of close friends where I am less concerned to seek or need approval, and can just relax in the moment, and enjoy whatever is happening.
* Perhaps too, it is in those moments of deep appreciation of the natural world where I walk through a field and am captured by “the color purple” and am deeply moved by the beauty of what God has done.
* And surely there are those moments of deep and contemplative prayer when, by a gift of God, I forget about myself and am drawn deeply into the experience of God.
In moments like these God takes us (who are so easily turned inward) and turns us outward and upward and the ten thousand distractions that come from self-preoccupation hush for a time and we, being self-forgetful, are almost wholly present to others, to creation and to God. The noisy din of anxious self concern quiets, and our world opens up and out.
The Psalms often speak of God placing us in a spacious place (e.g. 18:19; 31:8; 119:45; inter al): You have set my feet in a spacious place, O Lord (Ps 31:8). There is nothing more tiny and cramped than to be turned in on ourselves.
Ask the Lord to set your feet in the wide spaces, to open you outward and upward. For the worst distractions are not the noises outside us, but rather, the noises within us, noises that come from being too self-preoccupied. The silence which we most crave is not really found in the mere absence of sound, but in the absence of self preoccupation.