Michael Mcmahon

Luxury Goods SpecialTreasures in Heaven

Goodies for the soul

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Ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in the fullness of Time, even Rolexes rust. Fast cars, foxy clothes, fancy wines and fine jewellery are fun while you can enjoy them, but when you find yourself facing Eternity, you can't take those goodies along. When push comes to Judgment Day, all such trinkets turn to trash. If you want real, lasting luxury, it's not your body you should be pampering, but your soul.

There are certainly plenty of people happy to take your money: the Bond Street of spirituality is chock-a-block with shops. Many of them are tour operators, and though their brochures don't offer one-way tickets to Paradise, they do contain suggestions for stopovers en route. 'Our tours and retreats ...will help you discover and awaken your spiritual self while you are pampered in a relaxing, comfortable environment,' promises Divine Tours, of Portland, Oregon. The company's 'awesome, powerful, spiritual vacations' are 'not associated with any particular spiritual path or religious belief', though one of their offerings does give participants the opportunity to meet the 'Brotherhood of Ascended Masters of Light', which sounds pretty particular to me. Their mastery, it is claimed, enables them to teach you how to receive 'profound meditation experiences and spiritual breakthroughs in the most profound energy vortexes of the USA', and how to 'begin to transform your physical body into a light body'. If you find dieting and exercise as difficult as I do, you might be tempted to make a trip to meet the brothers light fantastic; if you have met as many nutters as I have, you might not.

If you're in search of something a little more mainstream – and you're Jewish – you might like to book yourself 'a luxury vacation combined with spiritual and personal renewal ...designed to enrich you spiritually, intellectually and physically while at the same time offering a relaxing vacation in a complete comfort'. Isralight's spiritual retreat at David's Lake has four 'brand-new' tennis courts and a private swimming-pool, serves kosher cuisine ('How can healthy food taste so flavorful and rich?') and is staffed by a 'world-class rabbinic team' that teaches 'the ancient transformational wisdom of Torah, Talmud, and Kabbalah'.

Access to even more ancient religious wisdom is offered by the Australian travel company Inner Journeys, which organises retreats and 'adventure travel journeys' to visit 'traditional healers, shaman and spiritual leaders to learn of their culture and spiritual paths', in which 'each retreat has its own special focus, including a holistic approach mixing free time for relaxation, spiritual awareness, transformation, personal pursuits or pampering yourself'.

To those brought up in the Christian tradition, the notion of a luxury retreat will always be a contradiction in terms. You don't get full English with the Cistercians, and if some Benedictine monasteries are less austere, they are certainly not places people go to to be pampered. The idea that there is virtue in withdrawing from the world while still revelling in its comforts just doesn't wash – any more than St Simeon Stylites did, when he spent all those years stuck up on a pillar. You won't find contemporary tour operators offering spiritual retreats like his – though Ancient World Tours does have a package that includes a visit to the place where the arch-hermit perched. Unfortunately, this month's trip to Syria and Jordan has been postponed on account of certain local difficulties, but if it had run it would have set you back £1,875.

Paying even modest amounts for things that are good for the soul can be tricky for orthodox Christians, for whom buying or selling 'such things as are spiritual or annexed unto spirituals' amounts to simony, a sin named not after the man on the pillar (who was above such things) but after Simon Magus, the sorcerer who tried to buy supernatural powers from the apostles. Their refusal is a matter of record, but their successors once sailed pretty close to the wind in the matter of doling out indulgences for dosh. That particular wheeze hasn't been tried for centuries, but in my own Catholic primary school in the 1960s we used to raise money for the African missions by collecting pennies to sponsor the baptism of 'black babies'. Our individual contributions were recorded in the class register, and when we had raised enough (was it half a crown? I cannot now remember) we were given a photograph of the child whose salvation we had bought. That, at least, is how we understood it at the time.

Less controversial, perhaps, to spend your money securing your own immortality – though you won't get far with 12.5p. Founding a college, funding a scholarship or donating an art collection to the nation can keep your name alive for ever – at least, for as long as this world lasts – but it won't necessarily get you across the toll bridge to Eternity. Unfortunately for today's Gettys and Sainsburys, it is no longer theologically acceptable to build a chapel and endow it with enough money to pay for Masses to be said for the repose of their souls until the sounding of the Last Trump. Even when it was, the rich knew that establishing a chantry didn't guarantee eternal salvation; it merely shortened the odds.

Belief in the chantry system may have faded, but there are still plenty of people for whom the Four Last Things are death, judgment, heaven and hell, and not turning off the telly, putting out the cat, checking the alarm clock and switching off the light. Faced with eternal reward or everlasting punishment, spending money on saving your soul makes sense. The Bible suggests that it might be easier for one of Mr Fayed's camels to get through the front door of Harrods than it is for the man himself to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but it doesn't say that he or any other department store owners shouldn't try. Or media moguls. Or supermarket magnates. Or mega-bankers, or anybody else who just happens to be up to his armpits in green-backs. Or, for that matter, people who are just financially comfortable.

If you fall into any of those categories – or, indeed, if you have only a bob or two to spare – you could do worse than chuck some lolly at a monastery. Monks and nuns pray for all their benefactors daily – and they pray on behalf of them, too, which is a consolation to those who know they really ought to pray regularly themselves, but all too rarely get round to it. Don't waste your cash on dwindling communities that have reformed themselves out of religious recognition: go for a real, no-holds-barred set-up where the monastic life is lived in its traditional totality. There are some such places, and they are flourishing. Bang in the middle of France is the abbey of Fontgombault, the very model of timeless monasticism. The abbey church is elevatingly Romanesque; its spaces ring with the sound of Latin plainchant and the mutter of the ancient Mass. Its sister foundation at Le Barroux in Provence is just as beautiful. To visit either is to take a small step towards Heaven, and there are few luxuries as rewarding as that.