CHRISTMAS SPIRIT

THE TIMES: DECEMBER 2003

I have always loved Christmas. I know that, for many people, it has become little more than a commercial nightmare, but for me it has always been magical. Although as a child that magic had mostly to do with presents and nothing to do with God.

But even then I recognised that Christmas had something special about it, because it was the one of time of year when my family made an effort to be loving towards each other. Round about Christmas Eve a truce was called on the usual state of internecine warfare and for a few delicious days we were kind to each other. I could never understand why we didn't always act that way. Looking back, I see that as the beginning of my spiritual path - born out of the conviction that it was possible to act from love every day.

Thirty years later my understanding of Christmas has changed considerably. Now I love its tradition and ritual. I love going into the woods and cutting fir, holly and ivy to make a wreath for the front door. I love making my grandmother's recipe for Christmas pudding. And I love the way "goodwill on earth" seems to bubble from people as they wish each other a Merry Christmas.

But most of all I love filling the house with lights and candles, because for me, the moment of lighting a candle captures the essence not just of Christmas, but of what it means to live a spiritual life. Lighting a candle is about bringing light into the world both literally and symbolically. And it reminds me that we can all be lights if we let the Divine flow through us.

I recognise how difficult it can be to talk about spirituality without sounding pious, but to me this sums up the heart of what it means to be on a spiritual path: to know God and to live a life of love. But I didn't come to that understanding by studying the Bible or going to Church. I still can't sit through a church service, with the vicar earnestly intoning about the eternal life and finding God through Jesus, without completely switching off. Instead I came to this understanding through nature.

As a child, because I rejected the idea of God as an old man in the sky - which was the only definition I had then - I rejected the possibility of God altogether. However, from as early as I can remember, whenever I went out into nature I could see and feel the presence of spirit - what Coleridge called "the one light within us and abroad" - shimmering and sparkling in everything. But I still didn't have a name for that light and I certainly didn't think it had anything to do with God.

Then one summer, when I was thirty one, I went to stay in Herefordshire for a week-end on my own. It was glorious weather and I spent the days walking through the hills, rejoicing in the light. One evening as I was sitting quietly, the world seemed to dissolve around me. It was like dropping through a trap door into darkness and I found myself in what I can only describe as a sea of sparkling energy and although I was conscious, nothing, including my body, had any form or structure.

At first I was astonished and then I realised that whereas before I had experienced the presence of God in all things, this was God. At least this is what people call God, for the sake of calling it something. Finally I understood God is not a being of any kind. Rather God is an ocean of unmanifest energy and consciousness: infinite, invisible, ineffable. And it is the source of everything from the largest planet to the smallest insect, so that beneath the appearance of individual form all life is One and that One is God.

In that moment the whole world made sense. This experience was the most ecstatic and blissful state I have ever known. I was swept by the feeling of boundless, unconditional love and joy and wild delight. And I knew that the only things that matter in life are love and truth and kindness.

Which brings me to the second part of the spiritual journey. For the point is not just to cultivate knowledge of God, wonderful thought that is. The point is let that knowledge transform us. Which means facing all the places in ourselves where the flow of love is blocked - our fears, our jealousies, our judgements, our expectations and the stories we tell about ourselves and other people. It is the process of releasing the grip of our egos so that we come into alignment with our souls, and it is like cleaning a dirty window. The more we scrub the more the light can shine through and although it is not always easy, all that is required is the willingness to try.

So this Christmas in the midst of the whirlwind of parties, wrapping presents, stuffing the turkey and lighting candles, stop for a moment and think about what it all really means and how you can let the light of divine love shine through you.