Dear Father Joe: Sometimes, there are so many distractions at Mass that I can’t concentrate. It’s really frustrating – what can I do?
I love this question because I assure you, that as I am the poster child for ADD, I may be able to offer some help here. Let’s get to it.
First, I want to look at the idea of distractions as normal. After that, I’m going to look at some of the common reasons we are distracted and offer some advice as to how to deal with them.
So … distractions. Sometimes, I think we make it harder on ourselves because we interpret inconvenience or struggles with the idea that something is wrong with the situation. For myself, I’ve learned to see inconvenience and struggle as a sign that something may be wrong with me, not the situation.
To be distracted is a normal experience for humans. We were created with a hunger to know and, because of that, our mind is always looking about to “know more.” This is a gift, but like most gifts, our task is to ask God to refine it and hone it so that we use it well. Our curiosity does not always need to be satisfied.
Don’t panic or fall into anger when you get distracted – simply acknowledge the distraction and push on with your communal prayer. If you allow anger in, or if you are surprised that you were distracted, you’ll stay in that place. Instead, recognize what’s happening and then turn your mind back to the Mass.
So, with that in mind, let’s look at some distractions that people talk to me about and see if I can’t offer some help.
This is the most common thing I hear about, and it’s something I talk about often. As a priest, I’m blessed to hear about it from both sides: parishioners who are angry at children being loud and parents who are mortified and embarrassed at their children’s behavior at Mass.
So, what do we do? I’ll start with the parent who feels shame at the noise their kids make at Mass.
Let it go. In the name of Jesus, let that shame go. You are giving your parish community a gift: the gift of presence, the gift of right priority, the gift of life. Your children are, first and foremost, children of God – and we are so grateful they are here. Kids make noise. Kids wiggle. Kids cry, laugh and make all sorts of sounds, and that is what they are supposed to do. I invite you, I beg you, please do not feel like a burden or a distraction. If you sense something in your heart that says you are a problem or distraction and feel you shouldn’t be at church, you need to rebuke that: it’s not from Christ. If someone gives you a dirty look or, God forbid, chastises you, they are not an ambassador of Christ, they are from the other side of the equation. It may be that you feel called to step into the vestibule or out of the area because things are out of hand. Feel free to go ahead and do so but please come back and know that you are welcome back.
For those of you distracted by kids at Mass, I need to tell you – the hard stares and the dirty looks hurt. Please don’t do that. If the parent could ‘make their kid not do that,’ they would. When we glare at people, when we sigh dramatically and make sure parents know how pained we are, we drive new life away from our Church.
So, with that in mind, here is our challenge. Please, I invite us all to respond to the perception of being distracted by praying and/or offering to help. Pray that God bless these parents for making the holy and loving choice to raise their children with faith. Pray that your heart and mind remember how hard it must be to feel like a burden to others. Pray that God bless us with more kids in our parish family. Pray that you will be patient. In terms of action, thank those parents. Welcome them. Let them know that we are blessed by their presence.
Troubles in our lives
This is a big distraction. The daily grind and wounds of life are baggage we carry into church. It’s not uncommon that we sit there and rehash “that conversation,” and think about how we are going to respond to our difficult circumstances, etc. This is normal. I have a very simple method of dealing with it: I take each instance of this kind of distraction as an invitation to prayer. If I’m thinking of family troubles, I say to God, “I give my family to you.” If I’m distracted by parish troubles, I say “I give my Parish Family to you,” etc. No matter what pain or worry pops up, I simply say, “Jesus, I give this to you.” Wash, rinse, repeat as many times as necessary.
People find themselves distracted by music that they perceive not to be “good” or music perceived not to be “done well.” In these instances, pray to hear the person or instrument as God hears them. It will blow you away how much God loves our best effort, even when it seems a bumbling or bad effort.
I know my tribe can unintentionally be a distraction. Some of us are not the best preachers. Some of us are having bad days and making you pay for it. Some of us aren’t following the rules properly, or are praying in a voice that is grating to you. Please respond to this invitation with prayer for us. We are not all gifted in the 1,000 areas people would like us to be gifted in. If you are distracted by your priest, pray for him. And pray for the grace to let go of what you are not called to control, if, deep in your heart, you know that is the root of the problem.
I’m almost out of room, so allow me to summarize. Some of our struggle can be slowly healed when we ask God to heal our narcissism. Keep in mind, the Mass is not about you. You may want a perfect liturgy, you may want perfect kids there, it may be that you want perfect music and a perfect priest, but what you want is not important, nor possible. What is of paramount importance is what Jesus wants. And Jesus does not seem as obsessed with perfect kids, perfect circumstances, perfect order, ideological comfort and neatness as we are. What he wants is people to come to him, especially his children, so that we can find the joy and sense of wholeness that comes from worshipping our God and being loved by him.
Enjoy another day in God’s presence.