Calming the Chattering Monkeys During Prayer
Rev. Dr. John Fullerton
If your prayer time is completely focused, spacious and unhurried, never filled with distractions, and always with deep communion with God, this post is not for you. You are exemplary in your prayer life. You can stop reading. For the rest of us, let’s talk about practical matters during prayer.
Most people describe the challenge of their prayer life as thoughts crashing into each other while praying. For example, you start to pray for someone in need but that leads to thoughts turning over what happened to that person, which leads to how to fix it which leads to why it was a problem in the first place. Soon, you are miles away from the simple and deep act of prayer. All of those various thoughts are like chattering monkeys in your head.
Maybe that is not how you would describe it. Maybe for you it is not thoughts rumbling and crashing into each other. Maybe you start talking with God and then, while praying, you remember to turn off the lights in the other room. You go turn off the light. That is followed by needing to add something to your grocery list, which you do. That then leads you on a chain reaction of distractions from your time of prayer. For those who log prayer requests on a smartphone app like I do, the phone itself can be a source of distraction. Less than one inch away is the button to check email, YouTube, social media, or any other app on the phone. All of those are just another form of chattering monkeys that are distracting you while you pray.
The question is, what to do about it?
Wise Words on Distractions
Years ago, I mentioned the distractions above to a spiritually wise friend who was a spiritual director. A spiritual director is someone who helps another person in life, not as a therapist, counselor, or pastor, but as a fellow believer helping another believer see the hand of God in situations of life.
I described how thoughts seemed to accelerate every time I began to pray and how I felt like I had situational attention deficit disorder – only during prayer! I wanted to know if there were any tricks to help.
My spiritual director friend described two approaches that were helpful.
- First, was to let the thoughts come in, let the monkeys chatter in your head, and then let them drift out of your mind. Don’t fight it. Just let them pass.
- Second, was to concentrate your attention on some object in the room like a candle or cross as a way to refocus the mind.
Both approaches have worked well over the years, but I was interested in the unusual way my friend described this with the words “kataphatic” and “apophatic.” Have you heard of these words? I hadn’t until my friend told me of them.
Kata What? Apo What?
Kataphatic comes from ancient Greek word meaning affirmation. Kataphatic theology is based on affirmations of what is true or who God is. Kataphatic prayer is praying using words, thoughts, and images.
Apophatic comes from the Greek meaning negation or denial. Apophatic theology involves defining or knowing God through negative statements. Our language cannot adequately describe the vastness of God who transcends all human concepts. God is known by what can’t be said. In our prayer life, apophatic prayer is prayer without words, thoughts, and images.
We pray both ways. Sometimes we pray kataphatic prayers and other times we pray apophatic prayers. What follows is a simplification of these terms applied to prayer.
Prayers with Words, Thoughts, or Images
How does this help when the monkeys are chattering or the distractions are real and abundant in prayer? When the distractions come, use words, thoughts, or images to refocus.
One example of how this works my friend told me was to have a cross or a candle or some other object you know symbolizes the presence of God. When the distractions come, turn your eyes and thoughts to that symbol. Concentrate on the meaning of the symbol or the message of the symbol. When your mind wanders off, turn to a cross or Bible or some other symbol, concentrate on that image, let your prayers flow, and see what happens.
Prayers without Words, Thoughts, or Images
A different approach to prayer is the apophatic prayer. Again, these are prayers without words, thoughts, and images. It means emptying the mind of words and ideas and simply resting in the presence of God.
Imagine watching a driftwood floating by while you watch from a riverbank. My grandmother’s home was between two bends in the St. John’s River in East Palatka, Florida. I spent hours on the river side watching the boaters and wildlife on this quiet section of the river. I’ve watched driftwood or a patch of hyacinth plants floating by my spot on the river on many days. I saw these things come into my field of vision and then I watched them float by and around the bend in the river. These prayers do the same thing with distractions. Let them come in, watch them, notice them, don’t get frustrated by them, and then let them float by and then return to prayer.
It Helps Me
Don’t get stuck on the terms. The point of either approach is to find ways to get past the distractions during prayers. The idea is that in some moments, the most useful thing to get back to prayer is going to be to refocus the thoughts by viewing an object like the cross or saying a prayer. In other moments, the most useful thing is to try to let our distracted thoughts float in and then out again.
To this day, I’ll sit with my prayer list and within minutes and while still in prayer, have my calendar out, start an email, and fiddle with things in the space around me. Distracted! I will laugh, speak something like, “Ok, Lord. Here I am again. Now, remind me of your presence.” I may stare at a cross on the wall or the Bible next to me or a candle and let the meaning remind me of the great privilege of being able to speak intimately to the Creator of the universe who knows me and loves me. In other moments, I may knowingly not fight the stray thoughts and just wait them out patiently. Let the driftwood float by, and then return to the conversation with God.
If you are distracted during prayer, you are not alone. Throughout history, many have and still do struggle for the same reasons. If you find yourself distracted, try one of the approaches described above and my prayer is that your moments of prayer will be transformed. More than anything, I long for a great prayer life for you.