We humans are social beings. We need connection to survive and thrive. The trouble is we’re not getting enough of it these days. One of the cruelest effects of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it separates us from the people we’re closest to. It’s especially painful at this time of year. But even before the pandemic there was plenty of research documenting an “epidemic of loneliness.”
The Power of Ritual: Turning Everyday Activities into Soulful Practices by Casper ter Kuile is about how to transform everyday activities into rituals that can help us build deeper, more meaningful connections in our lives. ter Kuile is a writer and Fellow at Harvard Divinity School.
The Power of Ritual
By Casper ter Kuile
HarperOne, New York, 2020
Religions used to provide us with many of the rituals and connections we need. But in recent decades, religious adherence has fallen significantly. According to 2020 study by the Pew Research Center, about 28% of American adults claim either no religious affiliation or identify as agnostic or atheist. I’m one of them. The fall off is due, in part, to religious rituals seeming empty and irrelevant to our modern, global, technological lives.
ter Kuile argues that we’re filling in the gaps by building meaning and connection into our lives in secular spaces, outside the religious institutions and practices that many of us grew up with. But we’re doing it in an ad hoc, incomplete way.
He thinks religions still have a lot to offer, and that we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the holy water, so to speak. He suggests we “compost” religious traditions, unbundle and remix them into useful, modern, secular, spiritual practices. Rituals, in other words.
What Is a Ritual?
Before we go any further, what exactly is a ritual? And what makes a ritual different from an ordinary habit? ter Kuile says a ritual has three elements: intention, attention and repetition. Intention means being clear about “what are we inviting into this moment” which I interpret to mean that we have a clear purpose for doing the practice. Attention means we are present in the moment, focusing on the practice (so put away your phones, people!). And repetition is, well, repetition.
Here’s an example. Maybe you like to place a candle or two on the table when you have friends or family over for dinner. It feels special somehow, and makes the table look nicer. But just lighting a couple of candles isn’t a ritual. How could you turn it into one? Maybe make it a practice to light the candles just before everyone is seated, maybe saying a few words of welcome, and doing this whenever you have guests over. In this way, lighting candles might become your welcoming ritual, a practice that signals the start of a shared meal (itself a powerful ritual) and the strengthening of connection between you and your guests.
In The Power of Ritual, ter Kuile explores secular rituals that can help us develop deeper, more meaningful connections at four different levels:
- Connection with self
- Connection with others
- Connection with nature
- Connection with transcendence
He devotes a chapter to each type of connection.
Rituals to Build Connection
To give you an idea of what he’s talking about, I’ll recap a couple of the rituals ter Kuile suggests. His overall point is that we can make any activity, including ones we are already doing, into a ritual that leads to greater connection.
To connect with self, one of ter Kuile’s suggested rituals is what he calls “sacred reading”. Since I love reading, and you probably do too or you wouldn’t be reading this blog, I’ll describe this one in a little detail.
Sacred reading is the act, and maybe the art, of deeply analyzing a piece of text. It might be a single sentence, a paragraph, or a whole chapter. The point is to engage with the text, wrestle with it in order to understand fully and deeply what the text means, and specifically what it means to us. ter Kuile points to ancient religious techniques for doing this type of reading. Lectio divina, or “divine reading” in Latin, is one of them. It goes like this:
- First, we ask what is the literal meaning of the text, what is it telling us, what is happening in the narrative at this point in the text?
- Second, what is the metaphorical meaning of the text? Are there images or allegories that layer on a richer, deeper meaning?
- In the third step, we ask what the text means for us personally. As we reflect on the text, does it spark any emotional reactions, or trigger any memories, thoughts or ideas?
- The fourth step of lectio divina is to identify what the text calls us to do. Does it inspire us, or prod us into taking some action, or changing our behavior in some way?
OK, so what kinds of texts should we choose for sacred reading? Traditionally lectio divina and similar practices were applied to the Bible, the Qur’an, the Bhagavad Gita, or other religious texts. But ter Kuile says we can make any text sacred, and that what makes it sacred is not official designation by religious leaders, but by us simply choosing a text and treating it as sacred. He’s chosen to make J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books sacred. In fact, he’s created a podcast called Harry Potter and the Sacred Text that’s worth a listen to get a better understanding of this type of reading. It’s actually quite fun to hear Harry Potter analyzed this way. You could choose Jane Eyre as a sacred text, or The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, or The Little Prince, or the lyrics to a favorite song, or any other text you like.
Although ter Kuile uses sacred reading as a ritual to help us build connection with ourselves, it seems like it could help us build connections with others too. I could easily see using these approaches at book clubs, for example.
For connecting with nature, one ritual ter Kuile recommends is celebrating the seasons. I think I’m already close to having a ritual of my own in this area. To mark the arrival of spring, I like to stroll around the main quad at the University of Washington in Seattle. The quad is lined with beautiful old cherry trees that blossom spectacularly in late March or early April. I’d previously thought of this as just a personal tradition, but I do go there with intention and attention. Due to the COVID pandemic, I haven’t been able to do this for the past couple of years so repetition has suffered a bit. Maybe I should start thinking of this as a ritual. One that I’m eager to resume.
The last type of connection, connecting with transcendence, is where the book got a little murky for me. That’s probably because the idea of transcendence is itself a little murky. I think it means “something larger than ourselves.” Bat what? For religious believers, that larger thing is usually a God or gods. Sometimes you get that feeling of connecting to something larger than yourself with a group of people, by being part of a team at work, for example, or singing in a choir, or playing on a sports team. Some people might feel like the flow state, where you’re so absorbed in an activity that you lose track of time, is transcendent. I agree transcendence is important to finding meaning in our lives. I don’t know how to talk about it coherently.
I think ter Kuile’s clearest point in this chapter is that connecting with transcendence is about decentering yourself. Somehow. In whatever ways work for you.
In the final chapter ter Kuile suggests bringing all these rituals together into something called a “rule of life”, which is actually a statement of the values we hold and the rituals we will use to help us maintain our commitment to those values.
I found The Power of Ritual to be an inspiring guide to creating secular rituals that can help us build connection and meaning. I loved the idea that we can transform everyday activities into rituals with just a little added intention, attention and repetition. And also that we can decide for ourselves what to call sacred.
To be clear, ter Kuile isn’t attempting to create a whole new religion here. That’s a good thing in my view. His purpose is to help us define our own rituals to suit our own needs.
ter Kuile writes with easy-going warmth and humility. Despite being a student of divinity, he’s not advocating any particular religion. His main values appear to be a broad tolerance and acceptance of each person’s individual differences and needs. I think that should give The Power of Ritual a very wide audience.
My one complaint about the book is that it has no index and no bibliography. This is a pet peeve of mine. An index helps you go back into the text when you want to locate something specific. Any decent word processor can build one in an instant. And no one produces a work of nonfiction entirely on their own so including a bibliography should be seen as a ritual itself: an act of gratitude to the giants upon whose shoulders we stand. Here endeth my rant.
Thanks to Silver Button Books for recommending this one.
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I think this is a good book to end the year on. Reading and blogging might not exactly be rituals for me, but they certainly are habits that bring connection. Being part of a community of fellow readers and bloggers has been a real bright spot in 2021.
Thanks for reading and connecting.
Best wishes to you and your families for a safe and healthy 2022.
The Power of Ritual echoes some ideas I’ve read in other books in recent years.
US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s book Together does a great job exploring how we all need connection and community, and how the lack of it can actually cause serious mental and physical illness. My review is here.
In Religion for Atheists, Alain de Botton writes that religion is too useful to be left entirely to the religious. He suggests we “steal” (rather than compost) the best ideas and practices from religion and repurpose them for secular society. My review is here.
Lastly, the idea that we can decide for ourselves what is sacred resonated for me with Stuart Kauffman’s 2008 book Reinventing the Sacred which I reviewed here. Kauffman suggests that the force of ceaseless creativity within the universe and within ourselves should be revered as sacred.