THE TIMES 24.12.96

Not long ago, I was walking in Hyde Park and I bumped into a friend I hadn't seen for ages. In the course of conversation I mentioned something about Spirit. He listened for a moment or two and then asked in a tone of absolute astonishment: 'Catherine, have you become religious? I sensed he would have been less shocked at the possibility that I had become a prostitute or a drug addict.

Hastily I reassured him that I hadn't, and then felt guilty for betraying what I have become. So I added: "At least not in a conventional way. But I do believe we are all connected by Spirit..." From the expression on his face, I could see my explanation wasn't going down well, so we parted company.

His thoughts I can only guess at, but mine were clear. Why, I wondered, do I feel such acute embarassment at publically admitting my spirituality? How as a society did we lose our belief and respect for matters of the spirit to such an extent that it has become social suicide to even mention God? It seemed especially ironic, given that only a stone's throw away Oxford Street was an orgy of people Christmas shopping.

The answer I fear is obvious. We are living in an age and culture where intellect and scepticism triumph. The existence of God can only be felt in the soul; it cannot be measured with a ruler or proven with a calculation, therefore God does not exist. It is that simple.

I used to be a product of this mindset. I was brought up as an atheist to believe that Religion is preposterous. Faith in God is either for the weak or feeble minded, those not strong enough to survive the ordeal of living without some kind of crutch. Or worse, it is evidence of an appalling arrogance, in which man tried to deify himself, by casting God in his own image.

Several years of compulsory church attendance at school did nothing to kindle my faith and when I finally escaped from my formal 'religious education', I assumed my dealings with God were over. Then, at eighteen, I spent three weeks hiking in the mountains of Oregon. It was the first time I had ever seen such beauty and I found it awe-inspiring. I soaked up the magnificence of the rocks, the trees, the mountains and the light above them, so shatteringly clear.

I felt a tremendous sense of joy and I realised if this beauty was in everything around me, in every scrap of matter, then it must also be within me. My heart literally broke open and my soul leapt free, exulting in this moment of inter-connection. Then I went home and forgot about it.

At least I thought I did, except I now had a mysterious hunger of the soul. Something deep within me came to the surface that summer, bringing with it a longing that I couldn't name or satisfy. The only time I felt peace from it was in nature, where I re-experienced the joy of union and the feeling of expanding into the infinite.

One day it dawned on me that this joy was a spiritual experience. I was horrified! But the feeling was so powerful and the logic so overwhelmingly simple, my intellect had no chance to defend itself and for the first time I understood the presence of God in everything.

Not that this made it any easier to accept. My rational mind was outraged and civil war broke out between my head and heart. Over several years my experiences of the presence of God grew stronger and stronger. But this only intensified the conflict, because I still didn't understand what God is. I could not get past the idea of an old man with a white beard, up in Heaven and I was torn between the undeniable truth of my own experience and the doubts and taunts of my disbelieving mind.

Until one day a couple of years ago. I was in the countryside on my own and I'd spent several glorious summer days walking in the hills. One evening I was sitting quietly, when suddenly everything around me dissolved. 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. I was conscious, but 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 an old man in the sky, it is a limitless ocean of consciousness, of unmanifest energy and the source of everything in existence from the largest planet to the smallest insect.

Gradually things re-materialised and, although they were exactly the same, I was completely different. Suddenly everything made sense. It was like watching the sun sail out from behind a cloud - the light was there all the time, but now I knew its source and everything became more radiant.

The understanding of God, is a feeling of coming home in the fullest sense, of finally knowing one's true nature, because everything we experience, from joy and love and acts of genius to pain and grief and destruction, all come from this source. And knowing this has taught me to be grateful for every breath.

This is why the loss of Faith is so devasting to our society, because we no longer have a way of recognising and celebrating what is precious and sacred. It is only when we experience a crisis like the death of Princess Diana, that we see the appalling emptiness of our lives. Or at Christmas, where our pursuit of the material and the meaningless reaches its peak and yet does nothing to satisy our deepest needs.

So, contrary to my expectations believing in God has nothing to do with arrogance. Instead it creates true humility, because it reminds us that everything we are is thanks to God, that we are each a speck in the Divine whole. And it is certainly not a crutch, because admitting our divinity demands we give everything.

I'd like to say it has been easy since that moment of revelation, but it hasn't. I have found it brings with it an awesome responsibility. For it is not enough to live an ardent, but secret spiritual life. It forces one to come out of hiding and own it publically - to allow the Divine to shine through and, as Buddha said to "make of thyself a light." Or as Christ instructed to, "stand and testify."

That brings me back to my conversation in the park, for clearly I am still struggling against my conditioning. When I think of the prophets, mystics and millions of ordinary people who have been willing to share the truth with others, I know it is an honour to be a part of this tradition. But I also know because of the tryanny of doubt in our society, that to speak of God is to risk becoming an outcast.

Christmas is a good time to speak of God. Nowadays I appreciate Christmas far more, because I understand the truth in Christ's teachings and I may well go to church to honour his birth. But to me, it is more important to practice what Christ and all the other great prophets preached, which is to love - to love God, thy neighbour and theyself. This awareness allows me to enjoy every aspect of Christmas and it also reminds me there is something far more precious than presents or turkey and Christmas pudding.