Yet another helpful theme in John Chapman’s Spiritual Letters, one related to his thoughts on dryness and aridity (see previous post), is that of distractedness during prayer.
His advice to those concerned about this has two main aspects:
- First, if you are distracted, accept this as being God’s will for you in that time of prayer: “Accept with simplicity or (better) take and seize with both hands, whatever feelings God sends you” (p.42).
- Second, the very fact that you are concerned about your distracted state of mind is a sign of spiritual health: “If you were not seeking God, you would not feel this spiritual worry and bewilderment” (p.43). It would be far worse to feel that one was doing rather well at prayer (“Thou sayest that thou art rich”); distraction helps keep you humble.
Abbot Chapman argues that true fervour manifests itself in “a profound dissatisfaction with our own state”. He continues:
[P]eace with God is the paradoxical result of this state of mind. Only it is not a peace which is felt (emotionally, sensibly), but supersensible. If you try to translate it into language, you may find yourself saying something like this:
“What does it all matter? What does it matter whether I enjoy Mass, or feel distracted or annoyed? What do my feelings matter? I came here for God, not for myself. What do I matter? Only God matters. The whole world doesn’t matter. Glory to God, that is the whole of everything.”
And you look down at your soul, with a sort of amused pity, as a little wriggling worm, that won’t keep still.
In my pre-Lutheran days, I used to be very troubled if I found myself distracted during a church service so that I didn’t feel I’d paid enough attention to what was going on. Similarly in my own personal Bible reading and prayer.
I still think it’s important to pay attention as best one can. However, it is not our own conscious efforts to hear and retain what is said that feed us, but the work of the Spirit. As the Augsburg Confession says:
So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the gospel and administering the sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and the sacraments as through instruments the Holy Spirit is given, who effects faith where and when it pleases God in those who hear the Gospel.
While Abbot Chapman puts the point slightly differently, there is a fundamental similarity between what he says above and the Lutheran attitude: namely, that we shouldn’t be looking inwardly, to our own thoughts and feelings, constantly taking our spiritual temperature; but instead looking outward to God and his promises, trusting him to work within us in a way that is “supersensible”, and giving us the peace of God “that surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).