Loving God Unto Distraction: St. Bernard and the Struggle of Prayer
Today is the feast of the twelfth century Cistercian mystic, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who stands as one of the few saints in Church history to have a papal encyclical written about him. The pope declared Bernard doctor mellifluus, the honey-sweet doctor, for his unparalleled eloquence. Bernard was an exceptionally influential author, a persuasive negotiator, and a steely-willed reformer. His massive commentary on the biblical Song of Songs stands among the greatest works of spiritual and exegetical literature in the medieval western Christian tradition.
All that said, the first impression I got of St. Bernard, which has kept with me to this day, is the story a Trappist monk told me about Bernard after I shared with this monk my own personal struggle with discouraging distractions during prayer.
Bernard was riding his horse up into the Alps to give a retreat, and as he passed a farmer along the road he heard a loud grunt. He stopped to look down at the him, and the farmer remarked, “I envy you, with nothing to do but pray while I have to kill myself working in this rocky soil.”
Bernard said, “Well, praying can be even harder work that digging around those stones.”
“I doubt that very much,” the man said, “With that beautiful horse and the gorgeous saddle, what do you know of hardship?”
Up till then Bernard hadn’t given any attention to his mount. He said, ”It is a beautiful horse, isn’t it? I’ll tell you what, if you can say the Lord’s Prayer from beginning to end without taking your mind off it, I’ll give you this horse.”
“That’s so generous of you,” the man said; and he began praying, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be…do I get the saddle too?”
Loving God unto Distraction
Bernard’s conviction is shared universally by all the praying saints of our tradition. Actually, anyone who has ever tried to persevere in prayer, not just for ‘an hour’ here or there, but daily for years on end, will find that prayer is truly - as the Catechism aptly terms it - “the battle.” The late Fr. Tom Hopko argues that the best way to empirically demonstrate the existence of the Devil is to commit to daily mental prayer (i.e. attentive prayer) and watch all hell break loose to wrest you free from your “dangerous” commitment to make space in your life for God alone.
St. Teresa of Jesus, speaking about her own wrestling with distracted prayer, says,
I was more anxious for the hour of prayer to be over than I was to remain there. I don’t know what heavy penance I would not have gladly undertaken rather than practice prayer….the intellect is so wild that it doesn’t seem to be anything else than a frantic madman no one can tie down….All the trials we endure cannot be compared to these interior battles…[Yet,] do not imagine that the important thing is never to be thinking of anything else and that if your mind becomes slightly distracted all is lost…think of distractions as mere clouds passing in the sky, momentarily taking your gaze from the Sun of Righteousness…
Again, St. Francis de Sales, in a very comforting image, reminds us that every distraction in prayer becomes a fresh opportunity to turn our hearts yet again toward the Face of Jesus.
So as you set time aside to pray today with this great saint of Christ’s sweetness, face those inner storms with serene confidence, keeping your eyes fixed on Jesus and judging your prayer not so much by the absence of struggle as by the presence of your love’s resolve to look at Him again and again with love.