If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell (Mark 9:47).
My godmother sighed with sorrow as she told me why her husband had recently been asked to stop acting as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion after many years of devoted service. He had become somewhat frail and his health was poor, but he was still able to distribute Communion and loved doing so. But parishioners had complained to the pastor that they were afraid that her husband was going to stumble and drop the Eucharist. So, my godmother told me, the pastor asked her husband to step aside from serving at Mass.
On the one hand, I know that my godmother’s husband was elderly, frail, and in ill health. There was no reason to suspect that his death not long after this conversation took place had anything to do with his having been pushed out of a liturgical ministry he valued and that gave meaning to his life. On the other hand, I couldn’t help but wonder. People have been known to die of a broken heart.
A few years later, I was visiting a friend who was getting married soon. I had been asked to be one of her bridesmaids and was rather excited because I’d never had a chance to be a member in a wedding party. The bride was happily showing off some new clothes she’d recently bought and held up a pair of bright red capri pants for me to admire. She loved them, she told me, but she had to return them to the store.
“Oh, why?” I asked.
It seems she’d shown the pants to her fiancé and he’d asked her to return them. He told her that he thought seeing her wearing these pants would be too distracting for him and an occasion of sin. So, she said, she needed to return the pants. My face no doubt showed my consternation because she suddenly broke into reassurances. Her fiancé had never before asked her to do something like this.
I didn’t say anything, just watched her fold the pretty red pants and set them aside to be returned. But I couldn’t help but think that once she returned those pants that it might not be the last time her soon-to-be-husband would exercise control over her choice of clothing.
My pleasure in participating in that wedding suddenly dimmed considerably.
When I was working, I usually ate at my desk during my lunch hour and spent my break surfing the Internet. One day I stumbled across a local Traditionalist Catholic chapel’s rules for Mass attendance. I nearly choked on my sandwich when I found this directive from the pastor: “During [the] Canon of the Mass please refrain from going to the restroom. It is distracting to most parishioners and [the pastor]. It may invalidate your Mass attendance.”
Once I managed to swallow my bite of food, I wondered idly if the pastor would grant a dispensation for what might happen to the pew if someone with an overactive bladder didn’t go to the restroom during the Canon of the Mass. When adults need to go to the restroom during Mass, it’s either because they’re shepherding a small child who has to go potty, or because they have a medical problem that requires them to go. Adults don’t generally slip off to the restroom just for kicks.
And since when does needing to use the bathroom during Mass invalidate someone’s Mass attendance?
When did “distractions” stop being our own responsibility to manage and begin to become the responsibility of others to protect us from? In the reading I’ve done on the spiritual life, spiritual masters mostly seem to be concerned with exhorting Christians to strive toward self-mastery over those things—thoughts, images, or noise (internal or external)—that pull them away from prayer.
Now, everywhere I turn, someone is solemnly warning people, often in the context of women’s dress but sometimes in other aspects of daily life, that it’s their responsibility to protect others from being “distracted.” The “distractions” can come from children, either very young or with special needs, who are noisy in church. Or, the “distractions” can come from the clothing worn or not worn (such as head coverings), either at church or elsewhere. Or the “distractions” can even come from tending to personal needs, such as leaving the pew to use the restroom. In the case of my godmother’s husband, he’d never dropped the Eucharist but parishioners were afraid he might do so because of how frail he appeared to be. They were “distracted” by his frailty and claimed they were just worried for the Eucharist.
The more I think about it, the more convinced I become that the Distractions Lectures are cover for something else. What a lot of Christians, both clergy and laity, appear to want is conformity to an aesthetic ideal. But to say everyone needs to either dress and behave according to a specific code of conduct for the sake of aesthetics or to disappear from public view sounds just as selfish and cruel as it certainly is. Instead, we get lectures about how we have a moral responsibility to be our brother’s keeper, to protect others from distraction during the liturgy, and that this is a matter of Christian charity.
No. Sorry. Real distractions are the responsibility of the individual Christian to overcome through personal self-mastery. One of the best ways I’ve found to do that during Mass is to keep my eyes on the altar or my own prayer book. In other words, I do my best to mind my own business at Mass and think only about the state of my own worthiness to receive Communion.
Do I notice other congregants at Mass? Sure. But I think far less about them than I used to. And I hope they are not thinking about me.
What would Jesus have us do about distractions? He said that if your hand, or your foot, or your eye causes you to sin, you should cut it off. He didn’t mean that literally, of course, but his point was that you’re responsible for managing your own wayward body parts.
If you see a frail old man holding a ciborium and are worried he’ll drop the Eucharist, close your eyes and get back to prayer. If your fiancée’s clothing “distracts” you to such an extent that you’re afraid you’ll sin against chastity (to put that as delicately as possible for the sensitive souls), call it a night and go home to a cold shower. And if you’re a priest who can’t manage to keep his mind on the liturgy when a parishioner slips out of a pew to go the restroom, then you really ought to find a new line of work.
What you don’t have the right to do is to make your distractions someone else’s problem.
Michelle Arnold was a staff apologist for Catholic Answers, a Catholic apologetics apostolate in the Diocese of San Diego, California, from 2003–2020, answering questions from clients about the Catholic faith via phone, letter, email, and online platforms. She contributed essays to Catholic Answers’ online and print magazines, and wrote four booklets for the apostolate’s 20 Answers series. Her 20 Answers booklets were on Judaism, the New Age, witchcraft and the occult, and the Church’s liturgical year. Now a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, Michelle Arnold has a blog at the Patheos Catholic channel. A portfolio of her published essays is available at Authory.