Herbert McCabe was a Dominican priest, theologian, and philosopher. I love what he said about prayer:
People often complain of “distractions” during prayer. Their mind goes
wandering off on to other things. This is nearly always due to praying
for something you do not really much want; you just think it would be
proper and respectable and “religious” to want it. So you pray
high-mindedly for big but distant things like peace in Northern Ireland
or you pray that your aunt will get better from the flu–when in fact
you do not much care about these things; perhaps you ought to, but you
don’t. And so your prayer is rapidly invaded by distractions arising
from what you really do want–promotion at work, let us say.
Distractions are nearly always your real wants breaking in on your
prayer for edifying but bogus wants. If you are distracted, trace your
distraction back to the real desires it comes from and pray about
these. When you are praying for what you really want you will not be
distracted. People on sinking ships do not complain of distractions
during their prayer (God, Christ, and Us, p. 8).
It reminds me of the advice Dallas Willard gives on prayer, that we ought to just pray about what we genuinely care about, not what we should care about. Do try to pray about things we don’t actually care about is to kill prayer before it even begins. But if we simply and humbly pray the things that we actually do care about, pray about the things we actually do want, it accomplishes at least two things for us.
First, we realize what we really care about. This might seem elementary, but we are so talented at deceiving ourselves that most often we imagine ourselves to be more holy and pious than we actually are. Prayer forces us into a realization of the things we really do care about (getting a raise, new carpet for the living room) and the things we really don’t care about (Darfur, poverty), and provides us with reality as a starting place for growth. Seeing the reality about ourselves is important – even though most of the time it is uglier than we had imagined. But it is the only place to start. So we start praying about the things we actually want.
The second thing that happens as we pray about the things we actually care about (lest we assume that we’ll be stuck in a lifetime of prayer about salary raises and bigger houses and calmer children), our concerns are shaped and directed by God as we pray. This means that if we take the step of bringing before God what actually concerns us, He will make sure that our concerns are steadily and gradually conformed to His concerns. We can be sure that our wants will conform more and more to our needs, and our desires will steadily become those things that bring glory to God and healing to His world. But we never get there if we insist on praying in fantasy-land, pretending we care about things we don’t actually give two hoots about. We must start from the humble and sometimes humiliating foundation of praying about the things we actually care about.