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Real spirituality involves others

02 November 2006


RELIGION: as the late Spike Milligan used to say in a rather different context: "There's a lot of it about." The Benedictines at Worth Abbey have just ended their three-week run on prime-time television; the annual Mind, Body, Spirit Festival has just said goodbye to its 20,000th visitor; and, on Monday, a new reality-TV programme, Spirituality Shopper, began on Channel 4, exploring the spiritual dimension of contemporary life.

Over the next few weeks, volunteers will be given a spiritual makeover at the hands of an assortment of faith-based practitioners doing to their beliefs what Alan Titchmarsh and Charlie Dimmock once did to their gardens - but without a yard of decking in sight.

Of course, it is not exactly "religion" that is proving so popular these days, so much as its exotic cousin "spirituality". Like the long-lost relative who has lived his life in foreign parts and who has now come home to make his mark, spirituality has made its way back into the popular consciousness, and is determined to get itself noticed. From crystals to auras, from chanting to meditation, the spiritual supermarket is stocked to the rafters with a dizzying array of products on offer - all, usually, at a price.

The reason for this renewed popularity is, according to conventional wisdom, people's longing for something that organised religion cannot provide - though the Benedictine abbot from The Monastery, Fr Christopher Jamison OSB, wondered ruefully this week whether seekers would seriously prefer "disorganised" religion as an alternative.

What spirituality provides is a means of believing without belonging: believing in something indefinably beyond or outside the world of the here and now, while not belonging to any established form of religion.

But not belonging comes with dangers, too. The implication is that we can find the object of our souls' desire alone, with no reference to a community beyond ourselves.

With his characteristic blend of the down-to-earth and the magisterial, the Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, writes about this in his new book on the ethics of human responsibility, To Heal A Fractured World (Continuum). He argues that personal growth and self-fulfilment are ultimately empty concepts, unless they connect with the wider world.

Only when we share our gifts with others can we truly claim to be doing our religious duty, and, simultaneously, achieving our spiritual goals. Those gifts might seem unremarkable: the gift of friendship, of hospitality; the gift of listening patiently, or of setting aside our own precious time to improve someone else's. They include prayer for others, too.

Interestingly, the upcoming TV programme encourages exactly this. In addition to learning the exotic arts of Buddhist meditation and Sufi whirling, one of the first spirituality shoppers is encouraged to try a spot of charity work in the form of helping the homeless and visiting an elderly neighbour. Then she is told to attempt a series of small sacrifices for Lent, and to host a supper for friends, colleagues, and family.

As a piece of television, it doesn't sound, well, gripping. But as a practical example of real spirituality, it is spot on. Only when preoccupation with self is transmuted into concern (and prayer) for others will the real spiritual quest begin. It's just a shame that we need the telly to remind us.

Trevor Barnes presents Reporting Religion for the BBC World Service.

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