CONSULTING THE ORACLE: LIVING A SPIRITUAL LIFE THE MODERN WAY

THE TIMES: JULY 2003

When Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, announced recently that too many people are "hereditary Christians who have inherited their belief from their forebears as if it were something obvious," he was speaking not just to the problem of over familiarity within the Christian church, but to the greater challenge of how to maintain a vibrant and active spiritual life in a culture that is still largely devoted to the pursuit of the material.

"We have stopped being surprised," he continued "We look at one another with boredom and anxiety rather than the expectant joy of Christ. And we look, of course, at the world around us with boredom, greed, indifference, exploitation or whatever and we don't look at it first and foremost as the earth God wanted." Regardless of one's particular spiritual affiliation, it is obvious that he has a very important point.

After eight years of living abroad it is fascinating to come back and see the changes in England. It is wonderful to see the alternative health centres, the yoga studios and meditation classes that have sprung up everywhere. Yet despite this, it seems that the national psyche is more gripped by shopping fever and the need to impress and look right than ever. Think Heat magazine, Trinnie and Trannie and the countless makeover programmes on TV.

What is most striking is the way in which the 'Designer' has moved onto the average High Street. Even the once unbelievably dreary little town of Newport, on the Isle of Wight, where I grew up, now boasts a Monsoon, Accesorize, an Aveda store and an ultra trendy clothes shop selling Miss Sixty jeans and Camper shoes. And from the High Street it has moved into ordinary people's lives. Folding up laundry for a friend of mine I noticed that her children wear clothes by Kenzo and DKNY.

On one level I think this is great. I am all for style and beauty and the more accessible and available it is the better. And yet on another level it is troubling, because the desire for designer clothes and houses and celebrity lifestyles can become such an obsession that it leaves little time to consider anything else. Like how can we live the best and most meaningful life possible? And what can we do about the state of the world?

It is not that shopping is wrong per se. It is just that it needs to be done consciously, with an awareness of the real cost. We cannot continue to shop oblivious of the damage that the things we buy cause to the environment. Nor can we continue kidding ourselves that shopping gives us with what we most truly need, because ultimately it does not provide the fulfillment it promises. It cannot bring peace or lasting happiness or satisfy the hunger of our souls and until we realize this, we will live with a permanent discontent and emptiness, along with the "greed, indifference and exploitation" of which Dr Williams speaks.

It is part of the tragedy of modern western culture that we have forgotten how to satisfy this deepest longing. Yet there are clues to what we truly seek hidden in the most unlikely of places. Driving down the M4, with my friend Sophia, on our way to the shopping centre in Reading, to buy new shoes for Phoebe, her three year old daughter, we passed a sign for The Oracle.
"What is that?" I asked puzzled. Traditionally an Oracle was a medium of Divine communication, something which people consulted in order to receive inspiration from God and to seek their deepest truth and purpose in life. Suddenly I had an image of us as petitioners, driving through Ancient Greece, on our way to consult history's most famous oracle, the Oracle at Delphi. For a wild moment I wondered if Reading had taken the incredibly radical step of re-instigating the tradition. Oh how foolish I am, for of course they had done nothing of the sort.
"It's the new shopping centre," Sophia replied matter of factly.
"What! And it is called the Oracle?"
"Yes."
"But that is desecration," I protested. "It is corrupting our language and robbing it of meaning for one thing. Let alone eroding the value of what an Oracle actually is. It implies that shopping has literally become our God". And I sat quietly for a moment, feeling depressed and scared, because I honestly believe if that is the case, we are doomed. Then I thought how very ironic. Like finding a dock leaf in a bed of stinging nettles, the name itself is the antidote, reminding us that what we need is not another pair of jeans, but a way to reconnect with and embody the sacred in our daily lives.

To me that is both the value and the purpose of living an active spiritual life. This doesn't mean simply adhering to a set of beliefs about the nature of God or observing spiritual practices like going to church or meditation or yoga, although it might well include that. It means a deep commitment to life and to acting from a place of love, knowing that the true source of one's happiness and well-being lies not in possessions or personal gain, but in seeking the happiness and well-being of the whole.

I have learnt a lot about this from living in California. I know that seems a contradiction in terms, given that California is the bastion of consumerism at its most rampant. But scattered amidst the shopping malls and the freeways clogged with SUV's, there are many very conscious, progressive and spiritually active people, who have dedicated their lives to service. They might be teachers, activists, bakers or gardeners, but whatever it is they do, it is done in the spirit of contributing to the greater good.

There are a number of other key practical factors that underpin this way of life. One is to live with as little impact on the environment as possible. Like choosing to buy organic food, in spite of the extra cost and regardless of whether they are rich or poor. Not simply because it is better for them, but because it is better for the farm workers and better of course for the earth and everything that exists in this interconnected, living system called life, of which we are such a beautiful and deadly part.

Another is to choose a life of simplicity by treading the difficult line between wants and needs. I may want a new sofa or a holiday in the Bahamas, but do I really need them? No. Do I need food for dinner tonight? Yes. Do I need new clothes sometimes? Yes, of course. But not nearly as often as I - an inveterate lover of clothes - might like. These are the kinds of decisions that have to be made on a daily basis and they are not easy. It is nice to have stylish new things, especially when we are constantly told that they will fill the longing we have inside.

But that is another thing these people have realized. They know that longing can only be satisfied through connecting with the source of our being. Whether they are Pagan, Christian, Buddhist or Sufi, doesn't matter. What matters is that they have established their own personal connection to the ineffable realm of spirit, from which they seek guidance and draw their deepest strength and values.

As a result the people who have chosen this way of life are some of the happiest and most contented people I know. Not that they don't face the usual difficulties and challenges of life, with worries about work and money and relationships and children. But that by living an active spiritual life they have discovered the great truth, which is that life itself is holy. I know there are many people in Britain - and around the world - of whom this is equally true. People who are waking up out of the consumer culture and discovering that true satisfaction is to be found by living a life of love and reverence.