19th Sunday Ordinary Time

Deacon William Meehan

Preached: August 13, 2023

The attention span of a goldfish is approximately 9 seconds. And according to a study by Microsoft back in 2000, the average attention span of a human person is 12 seconds. So we are only doing just a little bit better than goldfish.

Being distracted seems like a normal part of the human experience. Distractions are natural. What takes effort is being productive, focused, and concentrating. But distractions do not only impede our productivity at work or impact our relationships with others. They also arise in our spiritual and prayer life.

A few years ago, I read a book by Carmelite nun Ruth Burrows called Guidelines for Mystical Prayer. It was all about the spiritual life and, in particular, the struggles that we all face in trying to pray. She said that prayer is like walking on a path, like being on a journey. If we persevere along this path, we will experience God’s presence.

However, like a dog who impulsively stops to smell every tree, or to pick up every stick, we too have a tendency to get distracted and to veer off the path. There are things which catch our attention and which draw us away from where our focus should be – they draw our attention away from God – they distract us.

We see this danger very clearly in the account of Peter with Jesus on the water. Peter recognizes Jesus standing on the water and he immediately wants to go to him. He wants to be close to Christ, and so he walks toward Jesus. And for as long as Peter keeps his focus on Jesus, everything is fine. However, he quickly becomes distracted by the wind; he is concerned with the storm – he is preoccupied. Peter
should have known that he would be safe – he should have had faith that Jesus would protect him. But he allows himself to be distracted – he takes his gaze off of Jesus. And what happens? He begins to sink.

Ruth Burrows says that these kinds of concerns are common. We are all here today because we believe in God, because we want to experience God’s love, and because we hope in the beatific vision, in heaven. We want this to be our focus, but when we pray there are still distractions. There are the things which occupy our lives, and which take our focus away from God. The problem with distractions is that they can be dangerous. When we focus on ourselves, when we focus on material instead of spiritual goods, we become weighed down and, like Peter, we are going to sink.

I think that we can all agree that there are those distractions in our lives which we know are harmful and which we strive to avoid. And that is wonderful. But, Ruth Burrows says that there is another kind of distraction. There is the distraction which comes when we ourselves turn away – when we follow the wrong trail sign, when we make a wrong turn on the path, thinking that we know where we are going. And this type of distraction is just as problematic.

When Elijah goes up the mountain, he expects to see the Lord. God is mighty and all-powerful, so it is a great surprise that God is not found in the violent wind, the earthquake, or the fire. Instead, against all expectations, God is present in the silence.

In our prayer we expect to hear God speak to us as some great voice from above. We think that when we pray, it is always going to be some wonderful mystical experience – like the ecstatic union experienced by Saint Teresa of Avila.

But this is simply not the case for the overwhelming majority of us. And the problem is that, when we are looking for God in the great wind, or the earthquake, or the fire, we end up missing the fact that God has been, and continues to be, present in the silence. As we go about our daily lives, God is present. It is in the small things, in the silence, in our every-day encounters that we should be expecting to experience God. Prayer is, most often, going to be quiet. When we remember this, we are much less likely to become distracted and to veer off the path of the spiritual life.

Distractions are inevitable, and when it comes to prayer, they are very common. So do not be discouraged. Yes, there are things that we can do to try to keep on the right path, to keep our gaze fixed on Jesus. But there are times when we, like Peter, are going to be sinking. In those times when you feel distracted, or you feel like God is silent and you worry about taking the wrong turn, do not be afraid. Peter was afraid, and it was this fear that caused him to sink.

Even when we are distracted, even when we turn away, Jesus remains focused on us. He keeps his
gaze on us, and he reaches out to us in the midst of these distractions. Jesus is reaching out, offering to pull us back onto the right path. What we need to do, on our part, is to accept his help – to let him catch us.

When we find that we are distracted either because something has drawn our attention away from God, or because we have been looking for God in the wrong places, we need to accept that we have strayed and to allow Jesus to pull us back. We need to trust in his presence, even when it comes in the silence. We, like Peter, need to call out to God and say: “Lord, save me!”

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