“Ask a Priest: Is Willful Distraction During Prayer a Serious Sin?”

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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.

This can range from the Catholic Bible (especially the Gospels), to the Catechism (and its Compendium), to books on the spiritual life (see this list, for instance).

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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One Comment
  1. The line that stood out in your response Father is:

    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.

    It’s true… the constant exposure to visual images, makes the need for Introspection, aka INTERIOR SPIRITUAL SIGHT all the harder. Think: Doubting Thomas who ‘had to touch the wounds in Christ’s side or see Him physically to believe.’ Thomas was totally ‘IN’ the physical world. Faithful Catholic Christians are ‘IN’ but not OF THIS PHYSICAL WORLD. We walk by FAITH and NOT SIGHT. This seeing ‘what is above’ and not below (earthly) is a growth in spirit . . . and easier as we age ‘gracefully.’ (easier but never easy)

    In the Glorious Mystery of the Rosary of THE ASCENSION OF CHRIST, the apostles were watching Him ascend until ‘a cloud’ took Him from their sight. It puzzled me for a long time what this cloud was that blocked their view of FULL HEAVEN… then the thought came: ‘their minds’ aka INTELLECT, which is part of the soul . . . was not as yet PURIFIED of all that IS NOT OF GOD. The ‘distractions’ of earthly living separate us from being PURELY with GOD (WHOLE … HOLY) and from seeing our departed loved one’s who are FULLY WITH GOD for all their ‘acts of faith and sacrifice’ while on earth.’ BUT, they IN GOD can see and hear us.. So WE CAN PRAY with them, ask of them to pray for us (Communion Of Saints)

    ALLOT time JUST FOR PRAYER (talk) to GOD. Morning prayer, Evening prayer. And as I have heard, its ok to give short (lets call them ‘tweets’ to use today’s vernacular) SHORT TWEETS of Sacred Heart of Jesus I place my trust in you. (when doing something that has to be done, though we’d rather be chatting in social media or talking on a cell phone while walking the neighborhood, or listening to an iPod music song) SHUT DOWN all media as Father said… and ‘OFFER UP’ that dish to wash, laundry to fold, rug to vacuum for (name an intention) GOOD ACTIONS offered up are a form of prayer without saying a word.

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