Have you ever seen this sign at a church door: “Please turn off your cell phones”? We all know that we need to turn them off before Liturgy. We know that only the gravest emergency should interrupt church.
When we think about cell phones, we think about how connected we are, nowadays, to a wide community through the internet. We might think that our age poses a unique challenge for the Christian soul. We are connected with all kinds of news, events, and other people’s passing thoughts, in an instant, and constantly, in a way that human beings never experienced before.
However, the problem of the distracted mind was quite well known to the Fathers and saints of our church, since ancient times. The distracted mind is nothing new. Passing thoughts, called logismoi, are not important, yet they can spoil our peace.
Even if our cell phone is off, we may still be distracted by our thoughts. That is why we have a narthex. That is the area in the back of the church where we light candles. We light a candle and say a short prayer. This helps us to take a breath and leave the outside world behind. Now our mind is ready to focus on Liturgy.
I do not mean that we are to ignore the world and our family, friends, neighbors and co-workers, or our illnesses and problems.
On the contrary, the Liturgy gives us many opportunities to pray for the whole world. We do not forget, but we put these people and things into their right place in the context of our relationship with God.
Stray logismoi, however, are another thing. Our brains are constantly busy. Nerve connections are made and thoughts occur to us. Some are ordinary, such as ‘My garden has a lot of weeds,’ but others are thoughts that lead us toward temptation, such as ‘So and so’s shoes are nicer than mine.’ In either case, while we are at prayer, the Fathers teach us to do the same thing with this kind of thought: ignore it! Then it will pass right out of your mind.
There is no thought as important as your prayer. If something is truly important, it will recur to you after the Liturgy. You do not need to try to remember it later or note it down.
If you let a whole train of logismoi start from that one thought, or even if you try to think out reasons why it is not a good thought, it is much more difficult to let it go. You may start with: ‘I need to weed the garden’ and continue with: ‘What is the weather today?’ ‘Will I have time in my schedule? ‘Nobody is helping me with the weeding.’
By now not only are your thoughts getting involved, but you’re also becoming resentful! It’s harder to bring your mind back now. How much easier it would have been to ignore the weeds in the first place!
Likewise, do not get angry with yourself and say, ‘Why am I thinking about my garden during church? Or someone else’s shoes? I can not focus!’ You get yourself wound up again, just in another way. Don’t get frustrated with yourself. Just try again.
‘Stop thinking that thought’ is easy to say. Here’s what to do. Immediately move your mind on to something else. “Say Lord has mercy.”
Notice where we are in the Liturgy and focus on the actual words being said. Look at an icon and contemplate it. Bring yourself back to where you are standing, or sitting, or kneeling. Make your cross to remind yourself to pay attention. In a minute you will even forget you had the thought.
We know that St. John Chrysostom knew about the distracted mind, because there are so many times in the Liturgy where our attention is called back.
“Let us be attentive!”
“Wisdom! Let us attend!”
“Wisdom, arise!” Literally, we might say that this means, Straighten up!
People’s minds always need to be reminded to pay attention! It’s not just us in the 21st century. So... this means we have no excuse. We are still able to quiet our minds, as Christians in earlier ages have been able to do. When our mind is quiet, then we can pray and participate fully in our beautiful Liturgy.