If you’ve ever had trouble concentrating during prayer, take heart—even a seventeenth century theologian and ascetic writer admitted to the trouble. “That labor of the intellect which we call meditation,” wrote the Venerable Fr. Luis De La Puente (1554-1624), “is among the most difficult things about mental prayer.” We all know the reasons: “it is easy to have several things in mind at once, and to dash from one thing to another without order or concert, but it is very difficult to think about a single thing with concentration, with fixed memory and understanding of God, without diverting to or spilling over to other things; even the great Saints have this trouble sometimes, and they complain about it.” (Meditaciones Espirituales, available online here—in Spanish.)
Fr. La Puente prescribes four potent tools to avoid distractions during prayer:
- Profound humility
- Prayer itself
- Faith; and
- Spiritual fortitude
Fr. La Puente was the subject of Archbishop Óscar A. Romero’s thesis for his doctorate studies in theology. Romero never obtained the degree but he put Fr. La Puente’s methods into practice. Fr. La Puente spurred the young Romero to strive to perfect his devotion. “In recent days the Lord has inspired in me a great desire for holiness, after I had read some of Father La Puente,” Romero wrote in his diary in February 1943. “I have been thinking of how far a soul can ascend if it lets itself be possessed entirely by God.” But, like the saints that Fr. La Puente tells us had trouble concentrating during prayer, Archbishop Romero sometimes felt distracted. Persecution, assassination, and a downward spiral toward civil war all around you can have that effect: “I wonder if it is the result of my habitual dissipation on account of the special circumstances I have experienced since I became archbishop,” Romero wrote during a retreat in January 1978, confessing, “I have the feeling I have lost some ability to turn inward.” (Compare Blessed Teresa of Kolkata: “When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul.”)
Although there are times when our prayer life is carried by the Spirit, we must develop defenses against distraction, Fr. La Puente writes. We must not be sailors who can only glide when the wind is filling up the sails; when the gust of the Holy Spirit does not push us forward, we must learn to row on our own. We must deploy the four tools prescribed by Fr. La Puente. Archbishop Romero deployed all of them.
First, Archbishop Romero exhibited great humility. Fr. James R. Brockman, Romero’s biographer, writes that the Archbishop’s “words written during his last retreat, shortly before his death, indicate an emptying of self and a mature acceptance of God.” Fr. Brockman points to the annotation from Romero’s last spiritual retreat: “I place under His loving providence all my life, and I accept with faith in Him my death, however hard it be ... it is sufficient to know with assurance that in Him is my life and my death.”
Second, Archbishop Romero believed, like Fr. La Puente, that prayer itself could help develop a more fervent practice of prayer. Romero pointed to the Bible image of Aaron and Hur holding up Moses’ hands so that they would not tire in prayer, as an inspiration for the faithful to support their pastors in prayer (see, Exodus 17:11-12). “There is a need for everyone to become those aides of Moses, to become another Aaron and Hur and together to become this people of prayer,” preached Romero. “My heart is filled with joy when I listen to people who tell me: We are praying for you. We lift you up in prayer.”
Third, Archbishop Romero had Faith that God does not present us with tests that he does not provide us the talent and ability to overcome, even if it requires us to make an effort to overcome such challenges, and that therefore the God who requires our prayers also furnishes the means for us to pray effectively. “Thank God,” Romero wrote during the 1978 retreat during which he confessed difficulty turning inwards, “I find that when I go at it seriously I am able to concentrate and to rise to prayer. God is good and I find him easily.”
Finally, Archbishop Romero was possessed of the spiritual fortitude that Fr. La Puente prescribed to avoid losing focus during prayer. Archbishop Romero had the opportunity to exhibit such spiritual fortitude in November 1979, when he was called to negotiate a hostage standoff at a church called El Rosario (The Rosary). Leftist guerrillas were holding a soldier inside the church as a human shield, while riled-up soldiers loyal to the regime surrounded the church threatening to open fire and storm it. At one point, Romero stood in the middle of the street with his hands outstretched in the form of a cross, trembling in fear and drenched in sweat as the soldiers yelled out sacrilege and vulgarities.
Juan Bosco Palacios was Romero’s driver. In the documentary, Monseñor:The Last Journey of Óscar Romero, Palacios recalls feeling dumbfounded by where Archbishop Romero’s attention was focused as the emergency unfolded. “One of the things that has struck me is that at that moment of the worse crisis,” Palacios recounts, “what he brought out was his Rosary and he began to pray the Rosary.” (1:03:15 of video.)
Palacios, who was a seminarian, had not thought that prayer was apropos at this precise moment. “Well, I was wondering, since I was standing close to him, ‘Just what is he thinking when he starts to pray the Rosary instead of trying to figure out how the blazes we are going to get out of this situation!”
Romero, however, was deep in prayer. “And I grew even more concerned when after finishing the First Mystery, he turns to me and asks, ‘And what should we do if they fire?’
‘Oh, well’—I said to him—‘we should probably get on the floor behind that little wall’—I said to him—‘in case of anything.’
‘Ah, I see.’ He kept praying.
He pauses again. ‘And why must we get on the floor?’
‘Well, because these fools fire from the waist up’—I said to him—‘and [being shot] from the waist down has lesser impact, but from the waist up they’ll kill you.’
‘Ah.’” Romero nods. But he continues praying. The next time he pauses, he says to Palacios with a wry smile, perhaps a little bit of gallows humor: “Behind that little wall looks like a good place for us to jump, eh?” The bemused seminarian replies, “That’s assuming we have time, because if you’re praying while you’re attempting to go behind the wall, you might not have enough time to get there.”
This is the spiritual fortitude that Fr. La Puente urges. Fr. La Puente writes that spiritual fortitude means “deliberately making a valiant resolution not to admit any thought that will separate us from what we are praying,” even if the distraction is something that “appears very important.” After all, nothing is more important “than to tend to what I pray and to God, before whom I am in prayer.” Therefore, “when I become unwittingly distracted, I will go back again to tie the thread of good thought and the discourse started, and if I should become a thousand times distracted, then a thousand times will I return to the same without losing courage or confidence.” (Op cit.)