Spiritual but not religious

Our monthly feature seeks to offer open-minded, clarifying, and meaningful responses to readers’ questions about spirituality. Send your questions to The Resident.

Q: I’d like to take my prayer life more seriously. Can you offer any suggestions or resources?

This is a timely question as winter approaches. Winter calls us to draw close to our hearths, to quiet our bodies, and to take advantage of the early darkness for rest and recovery. Many religions recognise special times of prayer and observance in the late fall and winter, such as Diwali, Advent, and Hanukkah. Having a community that holds to a tradition and rhythm of practice is truly worthwhile and a valuable source of inspiration and support for one’s spiritual life.

My own practice tends toward the contemplative. I like to find time alone, and space in which to experience as much silence as possible. It is particularly useful, however challenging, to set aside a time of day and commit a specific length of time to prayer. Sitting upright, adjusting the body to a comfortably still position with feet on the floor and head and shoulders relaxed, helps with breathing. Contemplatives learn to pay attention to their breathing so that it becomes regular and deep.

Many beginners find themselves distracted by their thoughts. It is nearly impossible to “empty the mind” – a more practical attitude is to let our random thoughts come and go without seizing on any one of them, and when we notice ourselves becoming distracted, to simply return attention to the breath. A repetitive phrase of scripture or music can help maintain focus.

Some books I can recommend include The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, and Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill. Thomas Merton wrote extensively on prayer and contemplation. Masters from outside the Christian tradition include Tich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chodron, and John Kabat-Zinn. The internet also offers many resources such as daily meditations from Richard Rohr.

Prayer is a vast category. There are multiple methods and styles that can be adapted to one’s own best use. Seeking advice from friends whom you know to have an intentional spirituality is one place to start. A spiritual director, guide, or companion can be helpful. The trick is making the decision to begin. According to the Prophet, God says: “Take one step towards me and I will take ten towards you.” (Hadith Qudsi).

The Rev. Reid Hamilton
St Vincent’s Church