Becoming present to God in the liturgical action (as Paul Ford put it), participating fully and willingly in God’s trinitarian act of salvation for us, is the ideal of liturgy. This willing participation, though, is a skill as well as a choice.
After all, at any age, it’s possible to be distracted at our liturgical celebrations. One of the Syro-Malabar rite Catholic youth I interviewed in 2008 had developed, in conversation with one of his pastors and others, a strategy for overcoming distractions during the liturgy. When he found that he was distracted, thinking about his outside responsibilities, for example, he would silently say a short prayer, like the following: “Mother Mary, please help me to have peace in my heart.” This prayer helped him “get back into the mass.”
The great thing about this strategy was it simultaneously released him from the distraction and from his awareness of the distraction, so he didn’t continue to be distracted by the guilty thought that he should be paying better attention.
It’s never too early to learn the liturgical skills we need to pray better, so this week I told Thomas I would teach him a prayer he could say when he’s having trouble listening in mass. He’s been asking about St Benedict and his Book (you can hear the capital when he talks about it) so I was inspired by the Rule of Benedict:
Jesus, help me listen
with the ear
of my heart.
He likes it. How do you cope with liturgical distraction?
There’s a quote from Pius X that I find helpful in its pragmatism: “The Holy Mass is a prayer itself, even the highest prayer that exists. It is the Sacrifice, dedicated by our Redeemer at the Cross, and repeated every day on the altar. If you wish to hear Mass as it should be heard, you must follow with eye, heart and mouth all that happens at the altar. Further, you must pray with the priest the holy words said by him in the Name of Christ and which Christ says by him. You have to associate your heart with the holy feelings which are contained in these words and in this manner you ought to follow all that happens at the altar. When acting in this way, you have prayed Holy Mass.”
Saying to myself all the words that the priest says helps me get less distracted. It’s a challenge to do that when there are sometimes several things happening at once!
Alternatively, there is the “cluedo” aspect of the Mass: looking for references to the day’s readings in the hymns and prayers.
Another game — sort of — to keep us on our toes: figure out, for each prayer, whether it is primarily addressed to the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit.
I also sometimes give myself a break. If the microphone is not working or if the homily is about sports or about money, I read the missalette or look at the stained glass and sculptures. Have spent a good bit of time doing that ever since I was a little kid.
Sometimes (not always) our distractions ARE our prayer, longing to be made, but suppressed because we feel they are “not good enough.” I am perhaps restless, sick, worried, unhappy with myself or with someone I love. The best solution is to bring it to prayer. By letting it flow through me, by accepting the fact that the mind wanders and the flesh aches even as part of the event of being in God’s presence, this too can bring peace.