WHAT HAPPENED to the spiritual life? Did it die quietly when we discovered, in the early Thatcher years, that the rules of the market- place were far more important than the dreams of the monastery? Have the torments of religious doubt, which afflicted our Victorian ancestors, been replaced by equally taxing anxieties about our sexual prowess or mortgage rates? Whatever caused the decline in the life of the spirit, it has failed to pass the only test considered vital as we approach the millennium. It can't attract business sponsorship. Wordsworth communing with the universe under his lonely umbrella, Julia of Norwich in her cell, the metaphysical poets ecstatically in love with Jesus, would apparently have done nothing to enhance anyone's brand image. No corporate handouts are available to provide the necessary pounds 12m to finance the "Spirit Zone" in the Millennium Experience.

There is a real danger that those in search of spiritual experiences will not be able to visit a section of the exhibition entitled "Make your mark" and get in touch with the infinite by leaving a token of themselves, "perhaps writing a message and tying it to a tree". No one may ever enter the "contemplative area" in the blunt-topped pyramid and have their visionary powers stimulated by a "sound-and-light display", or pass through the 14 sponsored zones dealing with such spiritual subjects as "mind", "body", "work", "identity" and "mobility", enlightening as such an experience might be.

Religious faith is not, however, totally dead. As Chesterton said, when people stop believing in something, they don't believe in nothing, and our spiritual values have found other objects of veneration. A Northampton rugby club has depicted three of its leading players as saints in prayerful attitudes, framed in stained glass windows, for an advertising campaign for which sponsorship was no doubt readily available. Perhaps the stub- topped pyramid should be filled with today's objects of worship: footballers, badges, bicycles, veal calves, nicotine patches, cricketers who score a rare English victory, and, of course, mementoes of Princess Di. Such a spiritual zone would certainly attract business interest, although as Michael O'Connor, director of the Lottery Commission which is giving pounds 399m to the Dome said, "God might be excluded from his own birthday party". Perhaps getting in touch with "Intimations of Immortality" is best done alone, in the Lake District, under a leaky umbrella.

AMONG THE religious icons would not be a motor car, because, although we all secretly worship our cars and use them at every available opportunity, we are meant to regard them as engines of the devil causing pollution, mayhem and sudden death. In an age when privatisation has wrecked the railways, and buses have disappeared from the countryside, what is the only method of transport for many people has become an object of horror and disgust. The result has been the destruction of many country towns by the soulless "pedestrian precinct", a sad promenade between identical chain stores, where the wind blows empty Coke cans against the dying shrubs and the walkways between Next and Toys 'R' Us are littered with the remnants of Thai take-aways. Now the bad news is that Trafalgar Square may become a pedestrian precinct and there are drawings in the papers of happy, sunlit people free to walk in the road outside the National Gallery (they'd be far better off going inside and standing in front of the Piero della Francesca "Baptism", a true religious experience). So traffic will be banished from the square, and left to clog the surrounding streets.

THE DOUBLE standard of Jaguar-driving, car-denouncing ministers and motorised, helicopter-owning, pedestrian-precinct-designing architects is matched by animal rights protesters who tuck into roast beef on Sundays. I came back from Italy to news of protests at the destruction of rabbits on the South Downs, and owe this particular gem to David Dimbleby who remembers a cull of wallabies which had become over-prolific in Australia. An animal rights enthusiast confronted one of the hunters and said it was a terrible crime, one that should never be forgiven, to shoot a wallaby. Asked if she was a vegetarian, she confessed that leg of lamb was her favourite dish. "Well, sheep have to be killed for that." "Oh, it's all right for sheep," she said, "they're used to it."

IN ITALY THE temperature hovered around 100F. I had written a film script which caused three great British actresses, Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Judi Dench and Lady Olivier to be performing in an airless garage in Rome wearing lisle stockings. I thought of the casual way writers inflict suffering on actors, knocking off scenes that cause them to simulate sex in sharp and damp woodlands, to mount nervous horses for the first time in their lives, or, in the case of my daughter filming in Australia, to risk the prospect of bungee jumping. You can't drive down any country lane now without meeting a film crew, complete with Winnebagos, honey wagons (travelling lavatories) and an assistant director stopping the traffic because of a scene a writer dreamt up in an idle half-hour.

The square in San Gimignano was packed, as for a football match, for the performance of Rigoletto at the foot of the towers. The excellent Communist mayor was in the front row with his beautiful wife and Armani outfit. We sat, almost in the orchestra, and watched the violas swapping chewing-gum and flirting outrageously during unoccupied moments in the perfect score, while the moon rose over the battlements. Verdi's operas are full of fathers who love their daughters. This week, in Simone Bocanegra at Glyndebourne, a father falls for a girl who turns out to be his long- lost child; the great second act scene in Traviata has exactly the same feeling, although it's between Violetta and her lover's father. So far as I remember,Verdi's children by his first wife died young. Was his ideal daughter a lifelong fantasy? Perhaps it was a fear of shattering this illusion that prevented him from composing a longed-for opera based on King Lear.