We usually think of distractions or interruptions as coming form the world around us. But is that really the most common source? Consider the following parable drawn from the stories of the early Desert Fathers and from 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 surprises 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: the beauty of creation, the wonder of others, the magnificence of God. These are not distractions; they are often exactly what God is saying to us, what He is revealing to us. We are called to a kind of ecstasy in which we look out and up.
St. Augustine described one of our essential problems as being curvatus in se (turned in on himself). And in so turning inward, a whole host of distractions assail us and we begin to think and say,
- 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 or that 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 and a thousand variations on them swim through our mind as we are turned inward. Most of them are 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, I am a witness of this, for my freest, most joyful, and most focused moments have come when I was most forgetful of myself.
- Perhaps it was simply watching a movie that gripped my attention and drew me outside of myself and into the plot and the lives of the characters, even if they were only fictional.
- Perhaps it was being powerfully aware of the presence of others and listening carefully to what they said.
- Perhaps it was just being in the company of close friends where I was less concerned with seeking approval and could just relax in the moment and enjoy whatever was happening.
- Perhaps it was in those moments of deep appreciation of the natural world where I walked through a field and was captured by “the color purple” and was deeply moved by the beauty of God’s creation. (Some philosophers call this “aesthetic arrest.”)
- And surely there have been those moments of deep and contemplative prayer when, by a gift of God, I forgot about myself and was 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. The thousands of distractions that come from self-preoccupation are hushed 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 being 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 preoccupied with ourselves. The silence which we most crave is not really found in the absence of sound, but in the absence of self-preoccupation.