Shopping as a Spiritual Practice

The following is an extract from the book Heaven All Around Us: Discovering God in Everyday Life. At the conclusion of a chapter entitled God at the Supermarket, I offer this brief reflection on shopping as a spiritually formative practice.

Ok, so it might be a long shot, but given how much of our lives (and money) we spend doing it, it’s worth a thought!

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The idea that shopping could be a spiritual practice—one that disciples us more deeply into the way of Jesus—may be as challenging to get our heads around as any other I suggest in this book. By shopping, of course, I refer to far more than what we do in a supermarket. We shop at department stores, on high streets, in shopping malls, craft markets, big-box retailers, and corner stores. We are lured to spend our money at the online mega-marts of Amazon and Costco and in the open digital marketplaces of ebay and Gumtree. The question is, in what ways can we embrace our shopping as a routine and intentional expression of our Christian faith? As a spur to your own thinking, let me suggest three. 

1. Shopping for Connection 

Chris and Maria have run a small corner store in a neighborhood close to my own for just on thirty years. We Australians call it a milkbar. They carry a basic selection of groceries, milk, bread, and cigarettes; there are snack-foods and newspapers, toiletries, and a modest display of stationery. They make sandwiches and have a see-through display of hot pies and pastries, a freezer full of ice-creams, and a glass-fronted refrigerator full of drinks. As it happens, Chris and Maria live behind their shop in a small three-bedroom flat in which they raised three children. For fifteen hours each day, seven days a week, you’ll find the door open and at least one of them standing behind the counter. 

Sadly, shop-owners like these are a dying breed. Stores like Chris and Maria’s milkbar struggle to survive in today’s marketplace. A twenty-four hour Seven-Eleven has opened just two doors up and two national brand supermarkets are just five minutes’ drive away. When I see them, I wonder how much longer they can last. While I suspect that a nostalgic yearning for what used to be has a limited shelf life—our lives are full, and the lure of the convenient one-stop mega-store is hard to resist—it is worth noting what we are losing in the process. Honestly, I know full well that the sixteen-year-old casual who scans my groceries at the supermarket is someone I’ll most likely never meet again. Next week there will be someone else in her place. In contrast, the Chris and Marias of this world will always be glad to see me, always ready for a chat and good for some neighborhood gossip. They will have little handwritten notices stuck to the window: a lost kitten; a neighborhood reading group; a bike for sale. In a world of constant movement and change, their shop remains a stable and enduring presence. 

There are certain values we bring to our shopping, often unarticulated but present no less. They might include priorities like value-for-money, convenience, status, or quality. What if one of the values we prioritized was connection? This might well be expressed in the choice to shop at a local business wherever possible, or to build relationships with particular retailers over the long haul.

My beloved has gone to the same hairdresser now for twelve years. No matter where we have lived, her relationship to Tony and his team remains. So, too, she takes her shoes to be repaired at the same store, no matter how inconvenient the location compared to closer options. Choosing to make the local corner store, butcher, green grocer, or boot maker a regular part of our routine will not always be the most convenient or cheapest option available. Perhaps in doing so, though, we make a small investment in the neighborhood or in other relationships in everyday life that pays important dividends in the longer term.

The Catholic writer Vincent Bilotta identifies the search for intimacy as one of the fundamentals of living. He describes it as the everyday task of seeking intimacy with ourselves, with others, and with God. The intimacy he writes about is an “ordinary intimacy,” one that is fostered most effectively in the rounds of daily life and in the encounters we have in the mundane spaces of our lives. It’s an intimacy different than that of family or close friends, but one no less important to our formation in the world. It’s the intimacy we foster in line at the grocery store or as we interact with the salesperson at the service desk in the department store. It is not about becoming best friends, nor about sharing the deepest secrets of our lives. It is more to do with honoring the person with whom we interact as a fellow human being, a person with a story, a history, hopes and fears as real and complex as our own. It is this sort of ordinary intimacy that the writer Barbara Brown Taylor calls us to. 

“The next time you go to the grocery store, try engaging the cashier. You do not have to invite her home for lunch or anything, but take a look at her face while she is trying to find “arugula” on her laminated list of produce. Here is someone who exists even when she is not ringing up your groceries, as hard as that may be for you to imagine. She is someone’s daughter, maybe someone’s mother as well. She has a home she returns to when she hangs up her apron here, a kitchen that smells of last night’s supper, a bed where she occasionally lies awake at night wrestling with her demons and angels.”

If connection was to become one of the guiding values of our shopping—honoring and nurturing the relationships that shopping provides—we may well find that its impact helps to keep in check some of the more alienating forces of consumerism in our lives. 

2. Shopping for Sustainability 

There is a language that has entered the retail environment in the past decade that points to a renewed awareness of consumerism’s impact upon our world. It’s the language of Fair Trade, organic, free range, palm oil free, FAD free, No Sweat, and more. It highlights a rising consciousness among shoppers in developed economies that our purchasing choices have impacts beyond our own tables. Indeed, through our shopping we are connected with people and communities we will never know face to face. What’s more, we are connected afresh with the earth beneath our feet and the air we breathe. These connections are played out in the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and the transport we use. 

My friend Jonathan Cornford, a writer and teacher with Manna Gum—an organization that promotes practices of ethical and sustainable living—writes persuasively about the importance of ethical consumption to our spirituality. Ethical consumption, he says, is founded on two principles: (i) the need to reduce unnecessary or frivolous consumption so as to reduce the strain on the earth’s resources and all those who inhabit it; and (ii) the need to encourage production processes that take better care of the earth and its people. The challenge, of course, is in the doing. How do we translate principles likes these into the daily choices we make in our shopping? It’s a challenge Cornford wrestles with, along with many other people of faith. 

As difficult as these challenges are, the fact is we have never been so well served in the provision of information and resources to address them. Today I can open an app on my smart phone as I stand in the aisle of the supermarket and have a wealth of information at my fingertips. In seconds I can determine which of the tinned tuna on the shelf best meets the concerns of sustainable and ethical harvesting of tuna across the world. I can stand before the canned tomatoes and choose those harvested and processed locally and by a company that operates according to acceptable commercial standards. What’s more, I can do the same with footwear, electronics, clothing, and more. Granted, it takes some effort to begin with, but no matter where we are in the world there are organizations and resources, often just a click away, that help us to make purchasing choices that reflect our values. 

Amidst his reflections on these issues, Cornford provides a simple list of principles to guide our shopping more generally. These include: (i) buy less stuff; (ii) choose longer lasting and better quality; (iii) where possible, buy pre-used items; (iv) choose products with certification systems that provide protection for people and environment; (v) preference products made locally; (vi) get informed about the origins of products and the ethical commitments of the companies who produce and distribute them; (vii) use your role as a consumer to agitate for change in the work practices and environmental impacts of corporations. The fact is, our daily shopping lives are full to the brim with choices, many of them minor and apparently insignificant on their own, but as they accumulate they not only make a difference to the world, they shape our faith and character in the most important ways. 

3. Shopping for Attachment

The word detachment features prominently in historical writings on spirituality, and for good reason. Inspired by the Psalmist’s spiritual obsession with “one thing” (Ps 27) and by Paul’s testimony of pressing on toward the goal of full union with Christ, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” (Phil 3:13–14), we have understood the need to detach ourselves from priorities, obsessions, and preoccupations that distract us from the most important spiritual aspirations. Symeon sitting on his pole in the Syrian desert had a strong sense that this included detachment from material possessions and the ties they represent.

While there is a profound dose of truth in this assumption, it fails to acknowledge the full story. The truth is, when it comes to the nature of the spiritual life lived out in the world, a good deal of attachment is presumed; attachment of the right kind to the materiality of God’s world, one that leads us to embrace life in its fullness. Reflecting on this form of attachment, theologian William Cavanaugh writes: 

“In this spiritual universe there is no such thing as an isolated commodity confronting an isolated individual. All created things sing and dance and shout of the glory of God. People and things are united in one great web of being, flowing from and returning to their Creator. Our dissatisfaction with things does not lead us endlessly on to the next thing but to our true end in God. The Christian view elevates the dignity of things by seeing them as participating in the being of God, but simultaneously causes us to look through and beyond things to their Creator.” 

At its darkest end, the ill of consumerism is in its preoccupation with the wrong sort of attachment. In fact, as a values system consumerism is built on a profound sense of detachment. It proceeds on the belief that we will find our salvation and fulfillment in the pursuit of things we do not yet have and apart from relationship with the Creator of those things. Like the woman standing at a counter in a department store depicted in a New Yorker cartoon: she looks at the salesperson and asks, “What would you suggest to fill the dark, empty spaces in my soul?” Consumerism’s drive is in the wanting, not the having. It is the outworking of a restless and dissatisfied spirit, powered by a profound discontent with what we have and a belief that what we do not yet have will bring us the contentment we crave. 

In light of this, there is something to be said for engaging in the practice of shopping as a proactive nurturing of genuine attachments: nurturing deeper and more sustained connections to the material possessions we purchase, cherishing their worth, craftsmanship, history, beauty, or practicality as the gift of God. Sometimes we face a genuine need to purchase a product or service, or to replace a possession that is past its use-by date or simply worn out. There are many other instances, however, where the need is more a whim or the outworking of a deeper discontent within our lives. 

Recently the company product manager for a major furniture and homewares retailer in Australia reflected openly on the attitude of today’s consumers: “Young shoppers aren’t buying for life anymore,” she said. “Fifteen years ago people were likely to change their curtains every ten to twelve years, but now it’s every five to six years. It’s the same with furniture, they can afford to do it and, more importantly, what looked good six years ago is just so … six years ago.” 

If we are to embrace shopping as a spiritual practice, we need to bring to it a good dose of self-awareness and a willingness to critique our own engagement in practices that run counter to the values of our faith and discipleship. I once heard it said that the statement, “I am content; I have what I need” is one of the most countercultural affirmations a disciple of Jesus can make in daily life. The challenge to bring into sync the deep contentment that characterizes a life in God and our God-given identity as consumers is a life’s work. 

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Depending on where you are, you can purchase the book in a number of places.

If you are in Australia, the best place to go is the local distributor Morning Star Publishing. You can also order it through Book Depository.

If you are in the US, you can order directly through Wipf & Stock, Amazon or ChristianBooks.

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