How to Pray in a Distracted World – The Philosophy of Maurice Blondel as an Aid in the Spiritual Life

Maurice Blondel

In yesterday’s post, I spoke about the importance of prayer in order to become a saint, and I spoke especially about listening in prayer.  I would like to develop that thought a bit more with the help of a recently acquired new friend: Maurice Blondel.

Let me, first, tell you a little bit about Blondel.  He was born in France in the area of Dijon in 1861.  He is a philosopher who’s most popular work “L’Action” was defended at the Sorbonne in 1893.  Blondel was a devout Catholic and felt that philosophy gave way too much to positive science: philosophy was only being based on the quantifiable.  Blondel was not pleased with this and developed a philosophy of action.  It is in this philosophy of action that he demonstrates that philosophy cannot avoid the religious problem, though it also cannot answer it.  He was a major influence on many of the theologians who would give shape to the Second Vatican Council.  As Bishop Peter Henrici states: “Blondel is the philosopher of Vatican II”.

So, why am I speaking about a philosopher with regards to prayer and the spiritual life?  It is because in his philosophy of action – which, admittedly, I have yet to finish – I have had  a spiritual encounter, all due to the fact that Blondel is an astute observer of human nature.  So, before I go into why he is important for prayer, I want to speak, in as simple a way as I can, about his philosophy of action.

Blondel argues that if we look into the life of our mind, we see a limitless number of choices.  Our reason goes through these tendencies and desires and we make a judgment: “This is the good thing to do.”  Yet, it is not enough to will to do a good thing.  Let us use a consistent example.  We are in the Church about to start praying a rosary.  Yet, just as we are about to begin, we find ourselves seemingly overwhelmed and outnumbered by many other desires and tendencies.  Perhaps we feel like going out for a coffee instead, making a phone call, checking our e-mail, talking to a friend, etc.  The other possible choices seem endless and the choice to just say the rosary seems overwhelmed by these other desires.  Blondel goes into some fine tuning with regards to this, but that is generally the point.  So we are faced with a choice: do we will to do the rosary or allow the variety of other tendencies and desires to overwhelm us?  Where does our true desire lie?  Before I go on, Blondel makes an interesting point: if we choose not to act, then we submit our self and our will to our tendencies, giving them more power over us.  We have a choice: to act or not to act (though to not act is itself an act, though not in the positive sense)

Let us presume we are holy people – or at least attempting to be – and thus say we see, in this moment, the greatest value to be the rosary.  But it is not enough to intend to say the rosary: one must say it.  Blondel states that the will is perfected in its choice only when it is acted upon.  Furthermore, action is a synthesis for the entire person: it “sums up” the person as both body and soul.  When an action happens – in this case saying the rosary – we become aware in a deeper way that this is our true value because it is the choice we have acted upon.  The action also sums up all our other desires and tendencies: they are given a new life in the action that has been chosen.  In short: action reveals our self to ourselves.  We see – either good or bad – what we are really like, what is really what we value, etc.  Thus, even bad actions have a positive end: if we choose them (and we do: we’re sinners!) then we are aware of what needs to be worked on in our life.  Furthermore, every time we act, we hone our will, especially when it is towards the same desire.  By constantly acting on the same desire over and over again – in this case prayer and love of God – then that virtue becomes habituated in us and the other tendencies, though present, lose their power over us.  In short: Blondel is promoting fasting, penance, asceticism: by saying yes to one thing, we are saying no to a seeming infinite.

This may seem a bit dense – I am still unpacking this myself – but the principle is really simple: action has consequences, both positive and negative for the spiritual life.  When we are praying, many thoughts enter our minds.  We often give too much credence to these distractions.  What Blondel has been helping me with in my spiritual life is to see that a) the spiritual life is a battle and b) that I have a freedom over what I act on with the grace of God as my help.

The Spiritual Life is a Battle

The fact that there is one thing I can only choose against an infinite number of other choices seems daunting, but my experience is in accord with that truth.  Thus, I allow myself to be overwhelmed with the infinite and do not see the power of the choice.  The choice for that deeper value, that truth – God’s love and grace present in my life – has a power over my other tendencies and desires.  In short, when I am praying or choosing to pray, I have a choice: I can listen to those distractions or I can shut them up.  Yet the only way I can begin to shut-up the distractions is by acting on the good grace that has been given me by God.  Action is the only means to experiencing the freedom of God’s love.  If I stand around and allow the distractions to overwhelm me, then I allow the distractions to take hold and either do nothing or allow the distractions to become habituated in my life through action.  We act no matter what: what will we do with this necessary action: that is up to us with God’s help.

So, it is a battle, a fight against concupiscable desires.  It means it will not be easy, but it means, in each moment, saying “YES” to the Lord and no to the other desires that hinder us from following Him.  As we continue the battle, we will find ourselves more attuned to the grace given then the possible sins.  Yes is the means to freedom.

Freedom to Act on God’s Grace

When we are praying, many distractions come up.  When we desire to pray many distractions come up.  Distractions are a natural part of life; they are the unfortunate adversary of our spiritual life.  When we are in prayer though, we may be praying the rosary when suddenly the idea pops in our head: “oh yeah, I need to get that organized for tomorrow.”  We cannot, per se, control that: distractions will lessen the more we choose in our actions the Lord.  However, when the distraction arises, we act on it: “I have a choice in front of me: I can either give into the distraction and listen to it while I say my rosary or I can concentrate on the mystery I am praying.”  It really is that simple!  Do you choose Jesus or the distraction?  This is difficult at first – unfortunately most of us are habituated to letting the infinite desires take a reign in our life – and thus it causes suffering, pain, and effort.  But the freedom that comes from it is worth it and we experience the joy of that when we make that firm choice in our action for the Lord: “I will focus on that mystery”.

These, in the end, are just preliminary thoughts I have had about Blondel and the prayer life.  I have found it helpful, and I know I have to “unpack” a lot more of his thought (I am only half-way through L’Action) in order to see how much benefit it has.  I have a feeling it will only get better.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “How to Pray in a Distracted World – The Philosophy of Maurice Blondel as an Aid in the Spiritual Life

  1. Geoff W

    Do you read french?

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