Harvard Divinity School Ministry Fellow Casper ter Kuile explains how to elevate mundane aspects of your life into enlightening, uplifting and necessary rituals.
Harvard Divinity School Ministry Fellow Casper ter Kuile — co-host of the “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text” podcast — guides you in transforming daily events into meaningful rituals that connect you with yourself, others, nature and the transcendent. Ter Kuile emphasizes — in a conversational, accessible style — that you don’t need to belong to any particular faith to re-imagine and adapt traditional religious practices such as the Sabbath, pilgrimage and prayer to add spiritual depth to your contemporary, secular life.
As dogma grows less appealing and religious institutions lose prestige, people seek authentic spiritual practices that respect their individuality.
Ter Kuile’s guide takes routine, mundane activities and mindfully transforms them into sustaining spiritual practices. Intention shapes rituals, attention focuses them and deliberate repetition elevates their importance. Rituals help people experience life’s essential connections to themselves, to others, to the natural world and to that which is beyond.
Your True Self
Modern society tells people they’re not who they should be and distracts them from their authentic thoughts and feelings.
We can read our favorite books not just as novels, but as instructive and inspirational texts that can teach us about ourselves and how we live.Casper ter Kuile
Christian monks used the ancient spiritual practice of Lectio Divina — spiritual readings — to delve into scripture passages for reflection and prayer. You can adapt this practice to explore the resonance and meaning of books you hold dear, whether contemporary fiction or classic authors. Returning to a familiar text can bring you richer, deeper insights into the content and yourself.
Sabbath is for quietly reconnecting with yourself.Ter Kuile recommends a “tech Sabbath” — that is, putting your devices out of sight one day a week.
Sabbath is not simply the pause that refreshes. It is the pause that transforms.Theologian Walter Brueggemann
Turn little escapes — such as a weekly yoga class or a long evening walk — into deliberate rituals that you schedule, transition into intentionally and honor even when that proves challenging. Build deliberate respites into your daily life.
Eating With Others
Eating together reinforces mutual support and builds kinship and a sense of family.
By eating together over and over again, we learn that we don’t have to like a person in order to love them.Casper ter Kuile
To establish a community-building ritual around meals, you can say a blessing or express gratitude before eating. A pause, a prayer, lighting a candle — these simple gestures focus people’s attention on connecting and the joy of sharing food. When you eat alone, savor the taste and scent of your food, remembering with thankfulness everyone who brought it to your table.
Treating your exercise classes as rituals offers the religious aspects of repetition, participation and emotional resonance. Your physical exertion and vulnerability create a cathartic environment that enables bonding. When people elect to do the same thing together at the same time, they join a communal ritual.However, when you select an exercise class or any other group activity, beware of organizations that monitor or suppress your individuality; those are cults.
Set a purpose for your journey — grieving, celebrating, embracing a transition, healing or undergoing something new. The physical effort, the pleasures and discomforts, the changed environment and your interactions come together to make up the essence of a pilgrimage.
A pilgrimage is an intentional journey focused on the world around you.Casper ter Kuile
When you reach your destination, consider a ritual “circumambulation,” say, walking around it three times — to show its significance. Memorialize your journey with a framed photo or a story you share with others.
Celebrate the Seasons
People live mostly disconnected from the natural world and the rhythm of the seasons. Heed the seasonal markers of ordinary annual celebrations: How long are the days? Have the leaves fallen? Which buds are opening?
City dwellers can connect with nature through the urban landscape: the tree or weeds between the sidewalk and the road, the changing sky and even the pigeons. Bring the cycles of nature into your home with artwork, potted plants, or seasonal arrangements of flowers, gourds or greenery.
Prayer connects you with the transcendent, the mystery beyond human experience.If worshipping a deity doesn’t touch you, focus on the beauty and awe-inspiring complexity of the universe. Music, movement or making art can help you express this prayer or connection.
The very moment when [people] feel connected to something more than themselves is when they also feel most authentically true to themselves.Casper ter Kuile
Release feelings of guilt or shame by becoming aware of and acknowledging that you may not have practiced your values, but reach that realization in light of the brighter possibilities that await you and the time when you have lived up to your highest standards. Express contrition through music, art or movement. Showing gratitude acknowledges the goodness you’ve received and recognizes that it has an outside source. Reflecting on mortality enhances your gratitude for life and love. Expressing your fears, wishes and need for help enables you to be kinder to yourself and others.
“Rule of Life”
Codify your meaningful rituals and practices with what medieval monastic communities called a “Rule of Life.” A Rule describes the structure of your ritual practices and becomes your spiritual manifesto — a guide and a reminder of what matters.
Spiritual growth doesn’t depend on doing more than the soul is probably already doing, but on doing the same things in a design instead of in a muddle.Casper ter Kuile
For each value — self, others, nature and the transcendent — write a rule describing why it matters to you and the practice you will pursue to bring it to fruition. Practice your rule for a specific period — a month or a season. Post a short list of your regular practices. These choices foster your growth and deepen life’s meaning.
Psychoanalytic pioneer C.G. Jung held that as modern society de-emphasizes ritual, people — who have a profound, innate need for spiritual ritual — will neurotically ritualize meaningless activities to their spiritual detriment.
Ter Kuile provides an alternative. He does readers a service by explaining — in secular terms — how genuine rituals can reconnect you to your authentic self. He avoids any preaching or advancing of one concept of faith over another; this makes him by definition, a humanist. And ter Kuile’s profound compassion for human nature — which evokes a spiritual path exemplified by, for example, the Dalai Lama — elevates his guidance to the poetic and profound. Everyone, regardless of religious leanings, can apply his advice.
Other worthwhile books on ritual include Healing Dream and Ritual: Ancient Incubation and Modern Psychotherapy by Carl A. Meier; Destination Simple: Everyday Rituals for a Slower Life by Brooke McAlary; and Rituals For Life: Finding Meaning in Your Everyday Moments by Meera Lester.