And rising long before daybreak, he went out and departed into a desert place, and there he prayed.
Ladies and gentlemen, I hold in my hand a box that contains something so important, that, if it were not for what’s inside this box, you and I would not be here today. “What, pray tell, is inside this box?” you ask. A dry compass! The dry compass was invented in the West around 1300 A.D. It consists of a magnetic needle on a pivot, and because the needle is magnetized, it points north. It was, mes amis, the dry compass that made possible Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World. Thus, if it weren’t for the dry compass, you and I, in all probability, would not be alive today.
Now as I see it, a dry compass works best under three conditions: First, if you want to use a dry compass, get clear of all magnetic fields. Second, stay still. Third, if at all possible, use a map.
In our Gospel today, we get a glimpse of Jesus at prayer. After a day filled with teaching and healing, Our Lord gets up very early the following morning, goes off by Himself, and prays. Here it occurs to me that the three rules for using a compass just happen to correspond to the three rules that Jesus uses in prayer, and these are the same three rules that you and I can use in our personal prayer.
Rule #1: If we wish to use a compass correctly, we must stay clear of magnetic fields. So too, if we are to find our life’s direction through prayer, we must get clear of distractions. In our Gospel, Jesus goes off to a deserted place to pray. If we want to pray effectively, we too must “get away from it all.” This may mean getting up extra early, as our Lord does. It will definitely mean turning off the cell phone. For some people, those in crowded homes, for example, it may even mean locking oneself in the car or in the bathroom.
What about the unwelcome distractions that come into our heads despite every effort to avoid them? Peter Kreeft says we should think of them as no more significant than gnats. Imagine, he says, that you are driving a school bus full of children and a swarm of gnats comes in through the open window right where you are sitting. Do you take your hands off the wheel to swat at the pests (I refer, of course, to the gnats, not the children)? Heavens no! You keep your hands on the wheel, your eyes on the road, and you keep driving. You tell yourself you have something more important to do than think about gnats. It’s the same with the mind’s distractions during prayer. Just tell yourself they are not important, keep your eyes on Jesus, and forge ahead.
Rule #2: if we wish to use a compass correctly, we must stand still. Likewise, if we are to find our life’s direction through prayer, we must be still. It’s hard even for the Holy Spirit to hit a moving target.
I once heard a story about an inquiry made to the Vatican. I don’t know if it’s a true story, but it ought to be. Supposedly, someone once wrote the Holy See, asking if it is okay to smoke while one prays. Well, one of the Italian cardinals is supposed to have penned this reply: “Never smoke while you pray, but by all means, pray while you smoke.” This comment, of course, has nothing to do with the health risks of tobacco. What the good prelate was trying to say is that as we go through our round of daily activities, it’s a good idea to keep up a running conversation with God. “By all means, pray while you smoke.” When, however, we set aside time specifically for personal prayer, we should do nothing else but pray. “Never smoke while you pray.” When we come before God in that special time devoted to prayer, we must give God, as we would a lover, our undivided attention. In other words, personal prayer is not an occasion for multitasking.
Rule #3: If we are to use a compass correctly, it helps to utilize a map. If we are to find our life’s direction through prayer, it helps to use the Scriptures. If there’s one book that will tell us where we are in life and where we are going, it’s the Bible. Unlike most of us, Jesus no doubt had much of the Scriptures memorized. He did not need to carry a scroll of the Old Testament with him. Not so with us. Yet Bibles are not a rarity today, as the written Scriptures were for Jesus. When we pray, we can read a passage from the Bible (I recommend beginning with the Gospels). We can chew on it, and then we can ask God what He wants us to do about it. We might be surprised at the answer.
You won’t be surprised to learn that I am a great fan of dramatized audio Bibles. I am not talking about mere audio Bibles, where a person simply reads the words of Scripture. I’m talking about dramatized audio Bibles. Here, actors read the Scriptures in character. No words are added to the sacred texts, but a few are taken away, for example, “Moses spoke…,” “Jesus declared…,” and “Peter said…” These words, naturally, are unnecessary, because the different actors’ voices make up for them. In addition, appropriate sound effects and music are added.
There are two good audio Bibles out there. You can purchase the Truth & Life New Testament in the Revised Standard Version—Catholic Edition (RSV-CE). You can also get the Word of Promise Audio Bible in the New King James Version (NKJV). In this audio edition of the entire Protestant Bible, the part of Jesus is played by none other than Jim Caviezel, the superb actor who portrayed Our Lord in Mel Gibson’s 2004 movie The Passion of the Christ. Both the Truth & Life New Testament and the Word of Promise Audio Bible are available from iTunes. You can obtain the audio CDs from Way to Emmaus (Emmaus, PA), from Abundant Graces (Bethlehem, PA), or even from amazon.com. If you sometimes find the Bible boring, you’ll discover that these audio Bibles really make the Scriptures come to life. In both editions, by the way, the Book of Revelation is stunningly magnificent.
To sum up: In order to use a compass well, we must get away from magnetic fields, stay still, and use a map. In like manner, in order to pray well, we must get away from external distractions, be still, and if at all possible, pray with the Scriptures.
Those who first sailed to the New World used a compass to make sure they were heading in the right direction. As I said before, if it weren’t for the dry compass, you and I, in all likelihood, would not be here at this moment. Our forbears in the Faith used prayer to make sure they were heading toward heaven. I’d be willing to bet that, in all probability, if it weren’t for their prayers, you and I wouldn’t be here at all!
 In the eleventh chapter of his book Prayer for Beginners (Ignatius Press, 2000), Peter Kreeft writes: “The problem of distractions in prayer is universal, and many books waste much too much attention on it, thus making the problem another problem and another distraction—from God and from loving him. The best “method” of dealing with distractions is no method at all. Once you discover that you have been out of his presence, simply go back. Do not berate yourself. Do not give excuses. Do not plan how to avoid it next time. Do not think about yourself or about your distractions at all. Do not give them the attention they do not deserve. They are like a million little gnats that keep buzzing around your head whatever you do. You cannot kill them with a direct attack, as you can kill one big bug with a stroke of a swatter. So don’t try. Just ignore them and turn to the business at hand—prayer–again and again. Do it a million times if necessary. Get right back on the horse every time you fall off. Suppose you were doing something very important and difficult that required concentration, such as driving a school bus full of children down a fast highway in heavy traffic. If a swarm of gnats surrounded your head and you could not get rid of them or stop the bus, you would have only two choices: you could pay attention to the gnats and swat at them, thus risking losing control of the bus; or you could pay attention to your job as bus driver and get the children safely out of traffic and to the school, whether one or a million gnats came at you.”