Personally, I must admit that my mind often wanders during Mass, especially at daily Mass. Usually, I plop down in a pew thirty seconds before or after the priest has entered. My mind is racing and I’m distracted by a thousand little preoccupations. By the time the Gospel is finished being read, all too often l realize that I hardly heard a word. My response “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ,” sometimes elicits a silent chuckle as it comes at the end of a stream of thoughts that had nothing at all to do with Jesus. Then despite my sincere intention to concentrate on the homily, my mind is gone again. How terribly embarrassed I would be if my fellow worshippers were able to read my mind. No, holiness does not come easy to me. But over the years I have discovered some coping techniques that have helped me along the way.
One very practical solution I’ve discovered is to get to Mass on time. By “on time” I mean at least five minutes early. This brief period of silence often allows me to decompress. I also try to attend Mass in the morning instead of in the afternoon. In the morning, my mind is less inclined to wander because I have yet to engage the battle of each day. It is by rehashing and thinking about things that have happened earlier in the day that I often lose focus.
Throughout the Mass, opportunities abound for redirecting one’s attention back to the sanctuary. I am grateful that the liturgy is full of dialogue. This dialogue is designed to engage us and focus us on the divine encounter.
The Introductory Rite. Because it is short and interactive, and we have just changed postures, this part of the Mass yields less opportunity for the wandering mind; but even here it seems the liturgy requires us to pause and pay attention. Asking God for mercy three times instead of once helps us unite our hearts to the meaning of the words, even if only imperfectly.
Liturgy of the Word. On many days, this part of the Mass can involve an extended attempt to recollect ourselves. It is challenging because the whole congregation sits down and becomes silent. One remedy is to use a worship aid and read the Scripture as it is being proclaimed. Engaging one’s visual sense in addition to one’s auditory sense often is helpful.
Interestingly, at the Responsorial Psalm, the structure changes in order to call one’s attention repeatedly to a single thought. We repeat the response over and over as an act of worship no doubt, but also as an attempt to understand its meaning and to aid our meditation.
The Gospel reading holds pride of place in the Liturgy of the Word. Then, the homily is an attempt to break open the Word of God by explaining the Scriptures just read and exhorting the listeners to accept and embody them. We might wonder why something as powerful as the Word of God would ever need to be broken open. Sometimes it is because the meaning of the text is obscure. Oftentimes, however, the homily’s value lies in helping us get control of our wandering thoughts and truly focus on the Scripture’s meaning.
Liturgy of the Eucharist. This part of the Mass also employs dialogue. The many words of the Eucharistic prayers, regrettably, can sometimes put me into a trance. Fortunately, my parish also uses bells at the moment of consecration. This deliberate shrill noise alerts everyone to the supreme importance of the moment.
Then when we receive Holy Communion, we physically unite with our Redeemer. Is it bad to be less than fully attentive at this time? Yes and no. Full attention is most certainly the ideal for which we persistently strive, but isn’t being together even in an imperfect way better than being apart? When my children were young, wasn’t it good for me to hold them on my lap even when I was slightly preoccupied with other things? Returning to the pew, there are always a few brief moments of silence. Even when we can’t focus at all, Holy Communion allows us a few moments of warm sunlight on our souls. Even if we are distracted, who can argue that this is not something eminently worthwhile?
Once in a while, I get all the way to the end of Mass and as the priest disappears, I realize that I was simply going through the motions. What then is to keep me from staying a bit longer? Sometimes, these extra few minutes are the first time I am recollected at all. Fine. Better to have something rather than nothing. Better to try than not to try. Better to be clumsy in love than perfect in indifference.
Robert Kloska has served the Church as a high school teacher, college campus minister, professor of philosophy, college administrator, and most importantly father of five children.
This article was originally on page 9 of the of the printed edition.