Spirituality and the Spa: How Did Self-Indulgence Become Impressive?

The New York Times recently featured a meditation on “The New Spiritual Consumerism: On shows like ‘Queer Eye,’ makeovers, shopping and redecorating are presented as deeply meaningful.” Amanda Hess tartly comments on the remedies offered by the show’s makeover gurus: “Their salves penetrate the skin barrier to soothe loneliness, anxiety, depression, grief, low self-esteem, absentee parenting and hoarding tendencies. The makeover is styled as an almost spiritual conversion. It’s the meaning of life as divined through upgraded consumer choices.”

Along the way, Hess properly mentions Marie Kondo (guru of decluttering) and actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who heads the very strange GOOP company. The patron saint of shops and spas as sites of salvation, however, doesn’t get noticed. But surely she is Oprah Winfrey, the queen of vertical integration—from lipstick to divinity. (Note her role as gigantic demigoddess Mrs. Which in the latest movie version of A Wrinkle in Time—the role she was born to play.) Ms. Winfrey has played a huge part in North American consciousness generally as she has happily commended self-improvement in a wide range of forms as a kind of spiritual quest.

Mysticism throughout history and across the globe, however, typically has tended toward the ascetic, not the aesthetic. It’s not easy to train one’s mind on challenging intellectual and spiritual concepts while trying to connect one’s soul with ultimate reality as one wallows in a warm mud bath, listening to Enya and sipping on an expensive water.

More basically, however, in the spa the vectors all point toward oneself, a little black hole of consumption. True spirituality—as least as Christianity defines it—reverses the vectors: getting one’s life in line with the universe, getting along with one’s (non-soothing) neighbours, and, above all, getting in touch with God…and not God as friendly therapist or supportive patron or indulgent grandparent, but God as Sovereign Creator toward whom one owes abject service, however inconvenient such obedience might be to one’s preferred lifestyle, or however embarrassing that identity might be to one’s carefully curated social media presence.

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