Godtalk: On being endlessly distracted



To be a human being is to be endlessly distracted. We aren’t persons who live in habitual spiritual awareness who occasionally get distracted. We’re persons who live in habitual distraction who occasionally become spiritually aware. We tend be so preoccupied with the ordinary business of living that it takes a hurricane of some sort for God to break through.

C.S. Lewis, commenting on why we tend to turn to God only during a hurricane, once put it this way: God is always speaking to us, but normally we aren’t aware, aren’t listening. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us is in our duties, shouts at us in our pain.  It is God’s megaphone  for rousing a deaf world.

However none of us want that kind of pain; none of us want some disaster, some illness, or some hurricane to shake us up. We would prefer some kind of miracle to happen to us to awaken God’s presence in us because we nurse the false idea that if God broke into our lives in some miraculous way, we would then move beyond our distracted spiritual state and get more serious about our spiritual lives.

But that’s the delusion of the character in the parable of Lazarus and Dives, where the rich man asks Abraham to send him back from the dead to warn his brothers that they must change their way of living or risk the fiery flames. His plea expresses exactly that false assumption: “If someone comes back from the dead, they will listen to him!”

Abraham doesn’t buy that logic. He answers: “They have Moses and the Prophets. If they don’t listen to them, they won’t be convinced either, even if someone came back from the dead.” What lies unspoken but critically important in that reply, something easily missed, is that

Jesus did come back from the dead - and how good are we in listening to him?

Our preoccupation with the ordinary business of our lives is so strong that we are not very attentive to the one who has already returned from death.

This truth, in a way, is more consoling than chiding. To be human is to be habitually distracted from spiritual things. Such is our nature. But knowing that our endless proclivity for distraction is normal doesn’t give us permission to be comfortable with that.

Great spiritual mentors, not least Jesus, strongly urge us to wake up, to move beyond our preoccupation with the affairs of everyday life. Jesus challenges us not to be anxious about how we are to provide for ourselves. He also challenges us to read the signs of the times, namely, to see the finger of God, the spiritual dimension of things, in the everyday events of our lives. All great spiritual literature does the same.  Most spiritual traditions challenge us to be mindful, not mindlessly absorbed in everyday affairs.

But great spiritual literature also assures us that God understands us, that grace respects nature:  and that God didn’t make us in such a way that we find ourselves congenitally distracted and then have to face God’s anger because we are following our nature. Human nature naturally finds itself absorbed in the affairs of everyday life, and God designed us this way.

So God must surely be more like a loving parent or grandparent,  looking at his or her children at the family gathering, happy that they have interesting lives that so absorb them, content not to be always the centre of their conscious attention.  But that should not leave us complacent. Realising our condition, we must make sure we give time to prayer, asking God to help us hear even that whisper.

Peter Knott SJ