I am a college junior who thinks she may have a vocation to become a nursing sister. An appendectomy I had eighteen months ago turned my life around, partly because I was frightened and began thinking a lot about life and death, but more because I became friends with one of the sisters at the hospital. Since then I have gotten my life straightened out and gone to confession regularly. When I came back to school last year, I also began going to daily Mass, saying the rosary with a friend most days after lunch, and making a fifteen-minute visit to the Blessed Sacrament in the evening.
I have been doing these things partly to test whether I really do have a vocation. It obviously would be silly for me to become a sister if I cannot be comfortable with going to Mass and praying every day—if I can’t do these things well and find some satisfaction in doing them. The biggest problem I have is being distracted. It’s strange, because when I was going to Mass only on Sundays, I seldom had any trouble paying attention. Now, during Mass and whenever I am trying to pray, I keep thinking about whatever is most on my mind: studies, friends’ problems, news from home, plans for the weekend, whatever.
Here at school, the only person who ever says anything about prayer is the priest to whom I go to confession. I asked him about my problem with distractions, and he told me that it used to be a big topic in books of spiritual formation for priests and religious, since everybody has the same sort of problem. His advice was simple: Stop praying so much and so long; go for quality instead of quantity.
His advice makes sense and seems to work, but I am worried that I am not carrying out all the regular prayers I had undertaken and wonder whether that shows I do not have a vocation. I am not familiar with the books he referred to and wonder if there is something else I should do.
This question calls for an explanation of what prayer is and how to deal with distractions, and for guidance about how a vocation is discerned. Satisfaction in prayer and ease in avoiding distractions are not criteria of its quality. So, though the quality of prayer is more important than its quantity, one should not try to reduce distractions by praying less. While prayer is essential to discerning one’s vocation, the questioner should not be using a program of prayer to test her possible vocation to become a nursing sister. A possible vocation to religious life can only be tested rightly as a candidate progresses through a formation program and arrives at the moment for commitment.
It is good that you are thinking seriously about your vocation and that you have undertaken a more devout Christian life. Plainly, through the sister who became your friend, God is blessing you with some special graces, and you are trying to cooperate with them. I trust you thank God every day for his goodness to you and also are grateful to your friend, the sister, for having been a channel of God’s grace. Your gratitude will be an important gift to her, since it will strengthen and encourage her in fulfilling her own vocation.
You ask what to do about distractions in prayer. I agree with your confessor—everyone who prays has the problem.31 Just as one should try to learn how to do without distractions other things that require concentration, such as studying, so one should try to overcome distractions in prayer. Nevertheless, the most important thing one does in praying is to choose to pray and do one’s best to carry out that choice. In making the effort, one remembers God and tries to converse with him, and he, like a mother delighted by her baby’s first attempts to talk, understands and helps:
The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Rom 8.26–27)
Thus, weakness need not limit prayer’s fruitfulness. When distractions continue to occur despite one’s best efforts, even that has a good aspect—it offers occasions for repeatedly reaffirming one’s determination to pray.
Moreover, the appropriate standard for judging the quality of one’s prayer is, not whether prayer is satisfying and distractions infrequent, but whether one’s hope to live with God forever grows, so that doing his will becomes easier and temptations to sin become less frequent. For prayer’s perfect fulfillment is in being happy with God forever in heaven, and Jesus teaches: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Mt 7.21).
But perhaps you are more distracted than you might be. If so, the problem’s principal cause may be that, in undertaking your program of prayer as a kind of test—Do I have what it takes to be a religious?—you have made a mistake. By using prayer as a test, you have lost its immediate significance, which is to make your relationship with God the center of your present, daily life.
If we live in God’s presence, strive to do his will, and avoid mortal sin, we are in union with him, since we are consciously cooperating with him. All our good works are his before they are ours, and they always remain more his than ours (see DS 1545–50/809–10; CCC, 308, 2008). Working closely with God, we must try to understand the general plan of his work—of creation, redemption, and sanctification—and try to discover our own small part in that plan. So, we must listen constantly for God’s direction. At the same time, just as in working with anyone else, we should tell God how things are going with us, seek his help in every need, freely express our feelings toward him, apologize to him, and thank him when appropriate. Thought of in this way, prayer is conversation with God, never long interrupted (see CMP, 706–7). Like conversations with other friends and loved ones, prayer is not so much a means of seeking the goal of union with God as it is an intrinsic and central aspect of communion with him, which already exists but may never be taken for granted.
Conversation unites friends and loved ones when it is authentic sharing about things close to their hearts. When you talk with a member of your family or a good friend about something you really care about, I am sure you seldom if ever find yourself being distracted. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:
The habitual difficulty in prayer is distraction. . . . To set about hunting down distractions would be to fall into their trap, when all that is necessary is to turn back to our heart: for a distraction reveals to us what we are attached to, and this humble awareness before the Lord should awaken our preferential love for him and lead us resolutely to offer him our heart to be purified. Therein lies the battle, the choice of which master to serve (cf. Mt 6:21, 24). (CCC, 2729)
You would do well to study the cited passages of Matthew’s Gospel, and indeed the whole of chapter six, which contains much of Jesus’ own teaching on prayer. The key to dealing with distractions is to put God first in our lives and to organize everything else so that it carries out his plan for us.
Therefore, while I agree with your confessor that the quality of prayer is more important than its quantity, I do not think the quantity of prayer is the principal reason why one is distracted. Most of us probably could reduce the amount of our prayer to the vanishing point and still be distracted. Perhaps, though, your confessor’s real point was to warn you against trying to carry out a program of prayer as a test of your possible future vocation, and to encourage you to integrate prayer more closely with other aspects of your present life. Part of that life, of course, is preparing for the future, and your prayer will help you do this, provided it is a genuine conversation in which you listen to God’s plan for your life.
If you have stopped going to daily Mass, I think you should begin again. Daily Mass differs from all other prayers, since the Eucharist should be the center of every Catholic’s life, and daily participation is appropriate for everyone capable of it (see LCL, 150). If you find yourself distracted, ask God to help you with that problem as you would ask his help with any other, try to overcome the distractions you experience, bear with those you fail to overcome, and be patient with God and yourself.
What does try to overcome distractions mean in practice? As I already explained, when we talk with someone we love about something we care deeply about, we are rarely distracted. The way to overcome distractions at Mass is to care more about what is going on. In this context, caring more primarily means choosing what is good with greater appreciation of its true goodness, and then bringing feelings into line with that choice. Briefly preparing oneself before Mass helps focus the commitment to participate properly. To care more, it also will help to understand the Mass better, not simply as a sort of performance one attends, but as cooperation with Jesus by which we offer our lives to the Father, join in Jesus’ sacrifice, receive him bodily, and so are intimately united with him—and in him also with one another.
Probably it will be fairly easy to overcome distractions during the readings and the other parts of the Mass that change day by day. It may help if you obtain a missal and read these in advance. Then, as you listen to them, ask yourself what they mean and what message is there for you, or, perhaps, for passing on to someone else.
Your mind is more likely to wander during the parts of the Mass that do not change day by day, which are more familiar, but whose meaning you may not sufficiently understand. Some people find it helpful to use a missal to follow the Mass. Reading a sound theological explanation of the Mass also will help. Although addressed to priests, John Paul II’s letter, On the Mystery and Worship of the Eucharist, will reward your careful study; perhaps you could get your confessor and/or some of your friends to work through it together.32 You also would do well to study the eucharistic prayers, so that you will better understand each of their elements. As you understand the more familiar parts of the Mass more deeply, you can put your imagination to work, picturing yourself doing what you are in fact doing: joining with Jesus at the Last Supper, being with him on Calvary, celebrating his resurrection with him and the whole throng of angels and saints in heaven, and being swept up into their intimate communion with the Father in the Holy Spirit.
As for overcoming distractions in other prayers, I doubt that you should cut back on what you were doing. Indeed, I think you should make one addition to your regular prayer: a reflection, as you prepare for bed, on the various things you have done throughout the day, at the end of which you thank God for all that was good in it and ask his forgiveness for any sins. I would not stop saying the rosary, which is wisely designed in view of the tendency to be distracted: one says repeated vocal prayers while purposely distracting oneself by thinking about the mystery assigned for each decade. Thus, properly saying the rosary helps develop a habit of praying while doing other things. To exercise this habit, one can select certain events that occur routinely throughout the day—for example, getting out of bed, beginning to get cleaned up, heading for the cafeteria and for each class—and use these events as reminders that one is living in God’s presence. A moment of sharing naturally follows. Such a habit of praying often and briefly tends to make it easier to pray.
When distractions nevertheless occur, the general strategy will be the same as for dealing with distractions during Mass: deepen your concern about what your prayers are about. Finding yourself being distracted in prayer, do not focus on the distraction and try to get rid of it, but either turn back to what you were praying about or begin to pray about what is distracting you. For instance, if you make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament and find yourself worrying about a coming examination instead of concentrating on the prayer of adoration you meant to say, tell Jesus why you are worried, ask him for his help, promise him to do your best to prepare for the examination, and leave the rest in his hands. Then pause for a bit and listen, and be certain that, whether you do badly or well on the examination, there is nothing to worry about. Changes in the time and/or situation of prayer also sometimes help. For example, if you made your visit to the Blessed Sacrament first thing in the morning rather than in the evening, you might find it easier to pray for fifteen minutes without distractions.
Having tried to answer your explicit question, I wish to offer a few suggestions concerning vocation.
You can be absolutely certain you do have a vocation, since God calls each and every one of us to a unique life of good deeds (see Eph 2.10; LCL, 113–18). What you cannot be certain about at present is precisely what the content of your vocation will be at various stages in your future life. Right now, God seems to have called you to be a single person living in the world, a college student, a daughter of your parents, a friend of that sister, and so on. God has not yet called you to be a nursing sister, although you are right to consider the possibility that his plan for your life will unfold in that way.
Many people who have a profound spiritual experience such as you had while in the hospital think they must respond by committing themselves to some special form of Christian life, and many good-hearted people who begin to think seriously about their vocations are impatient to know for certain the later stages of God’s plan for them. Thus, your attempt to test whether you really do have a vocation to be a nursing sister is not surprising. Nevertheless, I think it mistaken, and your anxiety premature. At present, while rightly considering the possibility that you might be called to be a nursing sister, you simply are not in the appropriate situation to discern whether that really is your vocation. What you could discern now is whether you are called to seek admission to your friend’s congregation. Once admitted, you would proceed step by step through the congregation’s program of formation. Along the way, those in charge of the formation program might judge that your gifts do not suit you for their form of life and suggest that you leave, or you might come to see for yourself that, while God wanted you to enjoy the benefits of the formation program, he was calling you to a more or less different way of life. If you continue in the program, however, the time for discerning whether you were called to commit yourself to that form of religious life would come as the time for making vows approached. Stop trying to test now whether you are called to be a religious. Do not be anxious; be confident that God, who sees everything ahead of you, will lead you safely step by step.
I am a bit puzzled about your present academic status and plans. You say you are a college junior, but you do not say whether you are in a nursing program. If not, it seems to me you should try to discern whether to transfer into one, and, if so, whether to do that without first discerning whether you also are called to seek admission to a religious congregation.
Also, if you think God may be calling you to religious life, I suggest you carefully investigate not only your friend’s congregation but other institutes. Some, such as the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa, have implemented very well Vatican II’s directions for renewal, so that they are both up-to-date and excellent realizations of religious life. Some others, unfortunately, have deviated so greatly from the Council’s norms that it probably is a mistake for anyone to think she is called to join them.
Finally, you might share this letter with your friend, the sister, and discuss my suggestions with her. She will be able to provide all the information you will need about her own congregation, and she probably will give you additional advice about prayer and its different forms.
31. A brief, contemporary, and helpful summary of Catholic spirituality regarding prayer: Michael Francis Pennock, The Ways of Prayer: An Introduction (Notre Dame, Ind.: Ave Maria Press, 1987); on distractions, 28–31.
32. John Paul II, Dominicae cenae, AAS 72 (1980) 113–48, Flannery, 2:64–92.