distraction God

The Lost Virtue of Recollection

6:00:00 AMTheresa Corgan

It's a new year and that means new resolutions.  Many of us will make resolutions regarding our prayer lives.  Many of my friends have recently signed up for a holy hour, committed to a daily rosary, or purchased a brand-spanking new leather-bound Bible.  Prayer is in the air.    

Prayer, however, can be a tricky business.  We've all been there: we have every intention of taking time for prayer or stopping by the chapel for a visit, and it somehow never happens.  Or, we sit down with an open book or journal and immediately our minds race from subject to subject.  We think about our schedule, our next meal, or even something as mundane as our chipped nail.  We just can't focus.  We know it's important to pray, but why is it so ridiculously hard to pray sometimes?  Why are we so distracted?  

I think it is because we have forgotten how to recollect ourselves. 

What is recollection? 

Dietrich von Hildebrand says that recollection is an antithesis to distraction.  Our minds tend to fly from one thought to another, and this state of mind is at the mercy of our mechanism of associations, never touching anything but superficially.  Hildebrand writes: "A person who exhausts himself in the moment's concerns, who passes without a breathing space from one concentrated work to another, who always give his unreserved attention to the task of the hour without ever recollecting himself - such a person is as little recollected as one who dissipates his life in dreaming, playing and empty chatter." (1)  

Recollection, the offers us an enhanced consciousness of our central direction.  "Recollection is a condition of all truly wakeful and deep modes of living." (2) 

True recollection integrates the entire person; it is a realization of the profound depths of our being.  "Recollection proper always means an awakening to the essential, a recourse to the absolute which never ceases to be all-important and in whose light alone everything else discloses its true meaning." (3) 

For example, when a task of great dignity is in front of us, we must “recollect” ourselves in preparation for it. We withdraw from our contact with our immediate duties and present concerns: we remove ourselves from the whirlpool of the great and small things of life and emerge towards God, the Cause and Goal of all being. We place ourselves before what is true and unchanging: our eternal destiny and supreme goal. We face God directly. Then, and only then, when we recover our deepest, unique direction towards God, do we actually recover ourselves and resume identity with our innermost selves. God reveals man to man. “In His perspective alone can we see every finite object in its proper place in creation, revealing, in the light of supreme truth, its particular meaning and value." (4) 

We find our way home to ourselves. To who we really are.

We must gain a full and adequate awareness of things, hearkening to God’s call from the depths of our being, and bringing our most intimate selves to full actuality. We are inclined to lose ourselves in the present situation; to forget the proper and ultimate meaning of our existence. In this dispersed attitude, we are not really and truly alive.

“He only who is recollected is really awake; he alone, therefore, is alive in the full sense of the word.” (5) Hildebrand says that without recollection, all good resolutions—all honest endeavors to overcome a defect or to achieve a supernatural transfiguration of natural virtues—are bound to remain impotent and sterile: “Without that mobilization of our depths which the act of recollecting ourselves implies, we cannot become marked with the seal of Christ." (6) 

How do we remain in a recollected state? To be sure, we must divert our whole attention from God and concentrate upon certain tasks at hand. However, we need not sever connection with the profound and ultimate center of our being. We can keep within the divine context. While we are attending, technically and intellectually, to the task in question, our awareness of God continues to resound in our soul like an unending melody.

This is the mark of the saints.

This is an attitude of holy sobriety.

We must integrate prayer into the events of our day. We must cultivate inner silence and stillness. We must interpret everything in the context of our spiritual destiny.

This does not mean, however, falling into the trap of “over-spiritualizing” things. Hildebrand warns us: “There is a tendency to misinterpret this or that purely natural and all too human attitude or state of mind as a manifestation of supernatural origin and dignity."(7) For example, “one will believe himself to be devoured with a holy zeal for the house of God, whereas in fact it is a purely natural urge for correcting and admonishing others, which prompts him continually to upbraid and to preach to his fellows." (8) We can mistake mere emotional realities as religiously significant. This is a rash blunder and not in accordance with the truth.

True recollection allows us to rightfully recognize our human faults and tendencies, precisely because it enables us to live in the light of truth. Recollection makes us, literally, collect ourselves again. And, I believe, we will never achieve a deep and profound life of prayer unless we can authentically recover this widely forgotten virtue.

Dietrich von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ, 105-108, 469. 
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