A very common confession and complaint of Orthodox Christians is that their minds wander at the services or in prayer.
It is spiritually hard to stay focused for most people, especially if we are used to being entertained – the TV screen or computer monitor does the work with its ever changing image. We don’t have to do anything but passively observe the flickering screen. But in the services and in prayer, change comes far more slowly and there is an intentional repetitiveness in liturgy and daily devotions which are hard for some to appreciate. Staying attentive, being vigilant, is however part of Christian discipline.
Of course there is the Gospel lesson of the disciples not able to stay awake with Christ on the night in which he was betrayed and arrested, despite his asking them to watch with Him. St. Isaac of Nineveh writing in the 7th Century offers some thoughts about the wandering mind and also shows us that the problem is not purely a modern one, but rather has been a common spiritual affliction of humanity through the centuries. He writes:
“It is the same with pure and undistracted prayer: this does not mean that the mind is entirely devoid of any thought or wandering of any kind, but that it does not wander about on empty subjects during the time of prayer. It is not the case that the mind is outside purity of prayer unless it wanders about on something specifically good, but it may also ponder on things that are appropriate and think thoughts pleasing to God during the time of prayer. Nor is it required of someone that empty recollections should not come at all when he prays, but he should not occupy himself with them and be distracted by them. For there is a good kind of wandering and a bad kind of wandering. When you are in prayer, do not seek to be entirely free of mental wandering, which is impossible, but seek to wander following something that is good. For even pure prayer consists in a wandering which follows something – but this wandering is excellent, seeing that the search for something good is excellent. Wandering is bad when someone is distracted by empty thoughts or by pondering on something bad, and so he thinks evil thoughts when he is praying before God.” (The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life, pg. 294)