Does your mind wander when you pray? For me, this has been one of the most difficult aspects of developing a prayer life. At first (as a new Catholic ten years ago), I loved memorizing the prayers. It was like having a new app or device to carry around in my pocket. Wherever I went, if I was not sure what to do and needed a quick fix of grace, I had an Our Father or a Glory Be right there at my disposal.

The effects were tangible, empowering actually. Many times I prayed for guidance and received answers. I grew confident that I could practice virtue, and if I erred (which I did a lot), I learned to trust myself to pray and prudently make a correction. When I memorized the entire Rosary, I really do not know how to put the joy into words, except to say that I have never felt alone since. I can address Mary in a most appropriate, pleasing, and intimate manner, and she will show me her Son. The more I meditated on the mysteries of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, the more my life started to make sense.

But like any relationship—and prayer is a relationship—I grew too comfortable with it. Daily prayer became, at times, a burden. Still now, I feel guilty if I do not pray, yet I find myself often rushing to finish so I can check the obligation off my daily list. The words become like music playing in the background while my mind sorts through the mundanes. Should I cook dinner or plead exhaustion as I heave a frozen pizza into the oven? How am I going to help my daughter with algebra when she is convinced that letters in math are evil? Can I devise some brilliant system to organize laundry? Like, so I don’t even have to fold it?

Before I know it, I am crossing myself and done. I cringe to admit these things. On the chance that I am not the only person who struggles to pray attentively, let me share something I discovered. St. Thomas Aquinas addresses wandering minds in the Summa Theologiæ, the Second Part of the Second Part, Question 83, Article 13. He asks, “Is attention a necessary condition of prayer?” His answer, in the distinctive Thomistic style, is yes and no.

In an original sense, yes of course attention is necessary. To pray, we first must intend to pray. This is almost so obvious as to be a pat on the head, but it is fundamentally true. When we articulate a plan or desire to pray, we intend to fix our minds on God, and we are paying attention. That counts for something.

In a meritorious sense, no it is not necessary to be attentive the entire time we pray. “Even holy men," St. Aquinas says, "sometimes suffer from a wandering of the mind when they pray." (Tired moms too!) He cites Psalm 39:13 where the author laments “my heart hath forsaken me” and reassures us that, to an extent, an inattentive mind is natural.

"The human mind is unable to remain aloft for long on account of the weakness of nature, because human weakness weighs down the soul to the level of inferior things: and hence it is that when, while praying, the mind ascends to God by contemplation, of a sudden it wanders off through weakness."

Nevertheless, laziness is no excuse. The original intention is lacking if we only intend to pretend to pray and let our thoughts drift anywhere. This is not prayer, nor is it meritorious. It’s like if I invite a friend out for lunch but stare at email on my phone the whole time. What have I really done? I have insulted my friend because I never intended to spend time with her in the first place. Not only was I negligent, I was dishonest. Likewise, it is a sin to purposefully allow our minds to wander when we pray.

Prayer is something we owe God, and I appreciate how St. Aquinas puts prayer in the context of virtue. Question 83 appears in the part of the Summa where St. Aquinas addresses the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love and then the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. The question about prayer is embedded in the section on justice, in the subsection on religion as a show of justice owed to God for our existence and for His love. Therefore, prayer is a duty. As such, prayer is also never going to be perfect since we can never fully repay our debt to God. We are off the hook, you might say, for any requirement to achieve a perfect prayer life. Still, we must try.

The reward for praying attentively, for granting assent of our minds to God so thoroughly that we forget everything else, is that we attain the “spiritual refreshment of the mind.” Prayer may be an obligation, but it is also a gift. To receive those fruits of prayer (the indescribable joy I mentioned before), the formula is simple. The New Year is as good a time as any to redouble our efforts, so let me summarize St. Aquinas’s 3-point punch list for vocal, common prayer (which also works for mental or individual prayer). We must:

  1. Say the words correctly.
  2. Attend to the meaning of the words.
  3. Focus on God.

But let’s face it. A life of prayer is not all about reining in wandering minds, nor does prayer always result in immediate reward and happiness. There are times when we truly struggle to pray because of illness, loss, isolation, depression, or frustration. There are periods when it seems our prayers are not heard. Here, I think, is where intent counts the most. If we cannot pray attentively because we are hurting, healing, or suffering from addiction, the merit is in trying. Citing St. Basil, St. Aquinas reminds us of our humanity.

“If you are so truly weakened by sin that you are unable to pray attentively, strive as much as you can to curb yourself, and God will pardon you, seeing that you are unable to stand in His presence in a becoming manner, not through negligence but through frailty.”

This last part reminds me of the end of the Hail Mary prayer, when we say, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of death.” Perhaps at the end of our lives the particular instances will not count so much—such as all the nights we drifted off to sleep in the middle of a prayer with Christ’s name on our lips, or the days we rattled off the Rosary in six minutes because the chores of daily life competed with our sanity, or the periods when prayer filled us with so much grace we thought our rejoicing hearts would explode, or the dark times we sat weeping in despair barely able to say “Jesus.” Perhaps what will count at the hour of death is the journey, the way our whole life became our unceasing prayer — because through it all, year after year, day after day, we never gave up and never stopped trying to do better.