We usually think of distractions as coming from 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. Peter Kreeft has observed, “God made eyes to see everything but themselves” (Practical Theology, p. 223). And while we sometimes must “look” inward to examine our conscience or to know our inner self, what God most often wants us to see and focus on is outside and above us. Look to the beauty of creation, the wonder of others, the magnificence of God. These are not distractions; they are often exactly what God is trying to say to us, what He is revealing to us.
We are called to a kind of ecstasy in which we look outward and upward. The English word “ecstasy” comes from the Greek ekstasis (ek- (out) + histanai (to place or stand)), which means “standing outside yourself.”
Yes, looking outward and upward is the key. St. Thomas Aquinas makes an interesting observation regarding Mary’s astonishment at the greeting of the angel: “To a humble mind nothing is more astonishing than to hear its own excellence” (ST III, q. 30, art 3). Humility is self-forgetful and looks more to God’s glory, on vivid display outward and above.
St. Augustine described one of the essential problems of the human person as being incurvatus in se (turned in on himself). In doing so, a whole host of distractions assail us and we begin to think or say,
- I’m bored.
- I’m tired.
- What will I do next?
- What do people think of me?
- Do I fit in?
- Am I attractive 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 that right?
Yes, distractions like these (and myriad variations on them) swim through our mind when we are turned inward. Most of them are rooted in pride and its ugly cousin, vainglory.
But as the opening parable from the desert fathers teaches, it is the absence of self that brings true 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 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 only fictional.
- Perhaps it was being powerfully aware of the presence of others and listening carefully to what they said.
- Perhaps it was being in the company of close friends, where I was less concerned with seeking approval and could just relax in the moment and enjoy what was happening.
- Perhaps it was a moment of deep appreciation of the natural world, when I walked through a field and was captured by “the color purple” and deeply moved by the beauty of God’s creation (some philosophers call this “aesthetic arrest”).
- Perhaps it was a moment of deep and contemplative prayer when, by God’s gift, I forgot about myself and was drawn deeply into the experience of Him.
In moments like these, God takes us (who are so easily turned inward) and turns us outward and upward. The myriad distractions that come from self-preoccupation are hushed for a time, and forgetting our very self, we are almost wholly present to others, to creation, and to God. The noisy din of anxious self-concern quiets and our world opens upward and outward.
The Psalms often speak of God placing us in a spacious place (e.g., 18:19; 31:8; 119:45): You have set my feet in a spacious place, O Lord (Ps 31:8). There is nothing tinier and more cramped than being turned in on oneself.
Ask the Lord to set your feet in the wide spaces, to open you outward and upward. The worst distractions are not the noises outside us, but rather the ones within us, noises that come from being too preoccupied with ourselves. The silence that we most crave is not found in the absence of sound, but in the absence of self-preoccupation.