Subjectively, virtual attention suffices; habitual does not suffice, neither does interpretative. Best of all is actual attention, but it is not necessary, because it is not always within the power of mortals.
This want of internal attention is called mental distraction. Theologians distinguish two kinds of distractions, voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary distractions are thoughts which the mind freely and directly embraces to the exclusion of pious thoughts which should occupy it in prayer, of which the office is a high form; or they may be thoughts which arise from previous laziness, thoughtlessness, pre-occupation or some engrossing worldly affair. Involuntary distractions are those which come unbidden and unsought to the mind, are neither placed directly, nor by their causes, by the person at prayer.
Does a person reciting the Hours sin if he have distractions?
If the distractions be involuntary there is no sin. But if the distractions be voluntary there is sin, But, unless the mind be altogether filled with distractions, not thinking of God, of prayer, of the words or of the meaning, and unless the distractions are fully voluntary and reflective during a notable part of the office, there is no mortal sin. Hence, St. Alphonsus, the great Doctor of Prayer, wrote, “ut dicatur aliquis officio non satisfacere, non solum requiritur ut voluntarie se distrahat, sed etiam ut plene advertat se distrahi, nam alias iste, licet sponte se divertat non tamen sponte se divertit a recitatione” (St. Alphonsus, n. 177). Therefore, before a person accuse himself of not satisfying the precept of recitation, on account of inattention or distractions, he must be able to affirm positively (1)that he was wilfully distracted, (2)he must have noticed not only his distraction and mental occupation by vain thoughts, but he must have noticed also that he was distracted in his recitation; (3)he must be able to state positively that the intention, resolution or desire to recite piously, which he made at the beginning of his prayer, was revoked with full advertence and that it did not exist either actually or virtually during the time of distraction in his recitation. Seldom, indeed, are these conditions fulfilled, and seldom are there gravely sinful distractions.
This subject of attention in prayer, in the official prayer of the Church, is important. Long and learned disputes about its nature and requirements occupied great thinkers in times long gone by. To-day theologians argue on different sides; and anxiety, serious, painful and life-long, reigns in the souls of many who struggle to recite the office, digne, attente ac devote.
Authors generally give six causes which excuse a person from saying the Hours: lawful dispensation, important work, grave illness, grave fear, blindness, want of a Breviary. They are recorded in the well-known lines:—