A profound statement I once saw on the internet came to mind again recently. Some searching revealed that it is an old idea with no clear place to attribute it. As I remember it (there are variations), it was stated thus:
Can you smoke while praying? Of course not.
May you pray while smoking? Of course.
It addresses questions of intent and attention quite well. It applies not to smoking alone, but could be used to address many activities.
We normally say evening prayer together as a family. Even with teenagers, distraction can loom large at times. “Can I ____ (color, draw, crochet, etc…) while we do evening prayer?” More and more my answer is “no.” When our intent is to pray, we should seek to direct all of our attention to God.
But we must also allow for the Holy Spirit to woo us. We must be open to our Father at all times, and that may cause us to pray, even in the midst of other activities. It is a tradition as old as religion itself that monks pray while performing manual labor. They also have set times of prayer. The two are not exclusive of each other, but compliment each other.
If you are married, consider talking with your spouse. There are times when you talk while doing something—taking a walk, driving, eating dinner. There are some times when you just need to talk, with no distractions.
Another way to think of it is as a parent with a child. If you take your child to a place where they are enjoying themselves—the zoo, for example—they will talk to you, but they will also be focusing on the wonders around them. This can be an enjoyable experience as a parent, to share in the wonder of your child. There are also times when you and the child will talk with nothing else happening, sitting side by side on the couch, or before bed. Both are important forms of communication. One occurs in the midst of another activity, while the other is completely focused.
I think of times I’ve gone hiking or birding. Sometimes prayer happens. Mostly it is on the level of thanking God for the beauty around me, the peace and quiet of the woods or lakeshore. On occasion, it has turned to deeper conversation. These are important moments in my walk—literally and figuratively.
However, it would be foolish of me to go for a hike as my only means of prayer. I am too easily distracted. I don’t go into the woods solely for God. I go to see the birds and the environment in which they live. I think it is not just for modesty’s sake that Jesus instructed his disciples:
But when 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 (ESV)
God deserves our focused attention. But he is also too big to fit only in our times of set prayer. Thus, when we pray, we should pray. When we do anything else, we may also pray.