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“Ask a Priest: Is Willful Distraction During Prayer a Serious Sin?”
Q: Is willful distraction during prayer grave matter? I sat down to pray the rosary with a podcast and was going to put my watch in the charger and noticed that I needed to walk around for a minute (fitness rings on Apple Watch). Since I often pray while walking around the neighborhood, I didn’t think this would be a distraction. But it turned into one, and instead of just forcing myself to go sit down, I finished the minute and started the rosary over from the top. Now obviously I consented to the distraction, and that is disrespectful to God and Mary so it was sinful. I struggle with scrupulosity due to the fact that while living a bad Catholic life, I actually thought I was living my faith appropriately. I never had a properly formed conscience, and I don’t trust it when it says, “You are probably OK,” because history has proven that false. So here I am, one and a half hours before Sunday Mass and I don’t think I can go to communion because I am stupid and cared about my stupid watch. I don’t want to fall into a lax conscience situation, but neither do I want to abuse the sacrament of confession by being in there every other day, since venial sins are forgiven in communion. – S.R.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: Distractions in prayer are common. Willful distractions, as you say, aren’t very respectful of God.
Nevertheless, unless there was special malice in your intention, it doesn’t seem like a grave sin in this case. If, on the other hand, you habitually give in to distractions to the point of neglecting prayer altogether, that could be a serious fault.
Prayer, like the spiritual life in general, can be a battle. One way we progress is to recognize the potential pitfalls in our life, and to adjust accordingly.
In this case, if you know the phone will be a distraction, consider leaving it in another room when you pray.
It might also be good to step back and see how you can detox from phones and smart watches and media, etc., during the day. Constant exposure to screens and images can cripple our interior life and sense of recollection, and make prayer much more difficult.
At a deeper level, it would be good to find a regular confessor who can help you deal with any tendencies toward scrupulosity.
Going to the same confessor who knows about your struggles with scrupulosity helps him to teach you basic rules and principles for evaluating these situations, and he will hold you accountable to them. He might also help you identify whether something psychological needs to be addressed too.
You mention that you previously didn’t have a properly formed conscience. One way to form your conscience is with a steady diet of solid Catholic books.
And when you have a genuine fall, don’t despair. Get up, seek forgiveness, and move forward.
God wants you to be a saint – and you can become one with his grace.
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