“What a piece of work is a man!
How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty!
in form, in moving, how express and admirable!
in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god!
the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!
And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”
Hamlet last night. Benedict Cumberbatch’s powerful performance at the Barbican, streamed live to the Rose Theatre at Edge Hill. An impressive production.
However, as Benedict’s high-octane Hamlet was battling to resolve his destiny, as Ophelia (imaginatively played by Sian Brooke) was straining to maintain her grip on reality, I had my own existential battle. The two women sitting directly behind me were eating popcorn from vacuum-sealed bags, large bags I sadly noted.
Even worse, they were in synch – eating taking their turn to rustle and crackle the packaging, the metallic kind, before quietly crunching their way through the first two acts of Shakespeare’s masterpiece.
Such is the seating at the Rose Theatre I worked out that their bags were about 12 inches from each of my ears, so that I had the full stereo effect. It didn’t help either that they both tried to be surreptitious. In a strange way, that only made things worse.
The problem is that with Shakespeare I need full-on concentration.
Folks, I tried everything to filter out the distraction, all the psychological tricks I knew. But without success. The very act of trying not to hear a certain sound only gives it a closer attention. I began to anticipate every crunch.
Jacqui – who acted as my very own Horatio – checked me from becoming a news item on this evening’s North West Tonight.
Eventually, they finished their popcorn and to my relief didn’t stock up during the interval.
But maintaining concentration in a hectic world can be a problem -especially in prayer.
Shakespeare’s contemporary, John Donne – the poet who gave us “No man is an island” – speaks of this battle for focus when praying.
“I neglect God and his angels for the noise of a fly, for the rattling of a coach, for the whining of a door.”
So what do we do?
Clearly there are times when we just have to get on with it.
My hero C.S. Lewis is as practical as ever:
“If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavourable. Favourable conditions never come.”
But there are things we can do to reduce distractions.
So Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount gives us some direction. “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:6).
To give the full context Jesus is talking about not showing-off with our prayers. But nevertheless, he is giving us some valuable advice here. Galilean houses did not have many rooms and few if any windows. Jesus could well have been speaking of a tiny inner room without any window. So shut the door.
We do need particular times of focussed prayer – which will resource practicing God’s presence (and presents) throughout the day. And so we do our best to minimise external distractions.
And then, as Jesus taught, our prayers are to be simple and straightforward, no need to pose and certainly no need to repeat ourselves.
But what about our minds, buzzing and swarming with all kinds of thoughts? To quote Dean Donne again: “A memory of yesterday’s pleasures, a fear of tomorrow’s dangers, a straw under my knee, a noise in mine ear, a light in mine eye, an anything, a nothing, a fancy, a chimera in my brain troubles me in my prayer.”
The answer here is what I am about to do now – and so don’t go away.
Right, I’m back.
Just had morning prayer in church, today with Derek and Graeme. Praying with others makes all the difference. There is something special, Jesus tells us, where two or three gather in his name. His promise? “There am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20). Praying with others gives an invaluable discipline.
Also liturgy helps; it helps me a lot. Over the years I have followed the Anglican practice of Morning Prayer1. I realise it’s not everyone’s cup of tea but following the liturgy day by day, it becomes part of you. For me an invaluable framework, a focus for an ever-wandering mind.
Thankfully, neither Graeme or Derek had brought any popcorn this morning.
1(Incidentally the app is brilliant. Daily Prayer: from the CofE. The full text. £1.49 per year from Google Play Store or Apple App store.)