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How To Spot Sacred Practices In Everyday Life


Our next guest has an important ritual - one that he considers sacred but one that many others might consider sacrilegious. It involves a movie, some ice cream and some alone time on the couch.


TOM HANKS: (As Joe Fox) You know, sometimes I wonder.

MEG RYAN: (As Kathleen Kelly) What?

HANKS: (As Joe Fox) Well, if I hadn't been Fox Books and you hadn't been The Shop Around The Corner, and you and I had just met, I would've asked for your number.

CHANG: That's right - "You've Got Mail," the adorable - maybe irritatingly adorable - rom-com from the 1990s starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. Well, Casper ter Kuile has written about this ritual of his and many others in his new book, "The Power Of Ritual: Turning Everyday Activities Into Soulful Practices." Casper ter Kuile joins us now.

Welcome. It is so great to have you here.

CASPER TER KUILE: Thanks so much, Ailsa.

CHANG: So can you just please explain why this moment when you're watching "You've Got Mail" - why is it a sacred moment to you? - because I think a lot of people might be confused right now.

TER KUILE: Oh, I totally understand.


TER KUILE: Usually, when we use a word like sacred, it's, you know, something very religious, something maybe in a grand building or a house of worship.

CHANG: Yeah.

TER KUILE: And one of the things I've always been really interested in are, what are the daily things that help make meaning of our life? And for me, "You've Got Mail" - you know, growing up as a queer kid in an all-boys boarding school in England, this was kind of one of my sacred refuges where I could escape into a different world and kind of imagine myself into a life that felt, you know, safe and wonderful and was full of connection.

CHANG: Well, you know, one central idea in your book is that we can find spiritual nourishment in totally just daily activities. And I want to start there because I want to understand - what does it mean to you to be spiritual? What does that word mean?

TER KUILE: Yeah. It's such a good question because so often, we think about spiritual as opposed to religious - right? - that religious is something that's institutional, and spiritual is something that's personal. For me, what that spirituality word really means is about a depth of presence and a depth of experience.

And you know, in my experience and in my research, we find those moments of depth and of deep connection in all sorts of places, not just in religious places. So it can happen in the supermarket checkout. It can happen in - you know, while taking a dog for a walk or reading a book or snuggling with your kids.

And what I'm really interested in is, how can we take those moments and add a little bit of ritual to them so that they become the kind of foundations of our spiritual lives? - because what we're seeing at the moment is a drastic realignment in religious identity or spiritual identity in the U.S. You know, 40% of millennials now describe themselves as nonreligious. But even within that group, people still pray. One in five still pray every day. Two out of three still believe in God or a higher power. So a lot of us are very spiritual, even though we're outside of traditional religious institutions.

CHANG: And I want to explore that - this idea that it's misguided to assume that spirituality must go with religion. I understand that you went to divinity school. What role did religion play in your life growing up before you turned to this broader idea of spirituality?

TER KUILE: Well, Ailsa, when I explained to my parents that, you know, at the time, as a gay atheist, I was going to divinity school, people were a little confused (laughter).

CHANG: I can imagine.

TER KUILE: But I was really at a loss. I was looking for answers that I couldn't find anywhere else. I'd grown up and become a young climate activist - so mobilizing young people around climate change issues. And what I kept hitting up against was this challenge that, you know, climate change and so many other issues in our society are not just going to be solved by changed policies or even, you know, different political parties or electoral successes. So much has to do about the paradigm of how we understand ourselves to be in relationship with each other and relationship with the natural world.

And so I wanted to learn what I could from these great traditions, so I ended up in divinity school. And rather than finding a very limited, kind of doctrinal approach to religion, what I discovered at Harvard Divinity School was a really wonderful exploration of how human beings have built community and made meaning and engaged texts and sang, you know, great songs together. And what I realized when I looked outside of the classroom was that the same things that we think of as religious were happening in secular places...

CHANG: Yeah.

TER KUILE: ...Whether it was fitness communities or fan groups - right? - that all of those places were doing very kind of religious things.

CHANG: Well, tell me about that. Yeah. Like, in divinity school, you saw this wide range of sacred rituals, but you started seeing how they can inform secular life. So tell me how you started integrating the sacred with the secular.

TER KUILE: Well, one of my favorite ways to do that was looking at fan communities who love a specific text. And I did this with my friend and now co-host of a podcast Vanessa Zoltan. And we took the "Harry Potter" books, and we said, listen; people are turning to these books when it's really a mirror to hold up against our own lives and to help us figure out, how do we want to live?

CHANG: What about gratitude journaling? I'm going to be honest with you. I have...

TER KUILE: (Laughter).

CHANG: ...Never had the patience to journal. Is there something wrong with me, or is it OK that I hate...


CHANG: ...Journaling? I hate it. Don't tell me to journal.

TER KUILE: This is one of the great things about all of these wonderful rituals and spiritual practices - is that they're never going to be for everyone. You know, you have to...

CHANG: Yeah.

TER KUILE: ...Find the right thing for you - what will help you connect with yourself, what will help you connect with other people, what will help connect you with nature and then something that will connect you with the transcendent. So for some people, it's going to be journaling. For some people, it's going to be hiking. For me, I love to sing. You know, it can be as small as putting on your moisturizer in the morning, as I do, and saying to yourself, you know, today is going to be filled with joy and suffering. And you know, every day is the same, right?

CHANG: Today is going to be a joyful day.

TER KUILE: Well - and full of suffering. You know, that's the thing. It's...

CHANG: And full of suffering, mind you.

TER KUILE: It's not all good news.


CHANG: Might as well declare it at the outset.


TER KUILE: Exactly. Exactly.

CHANG: Are you hopeful - I mean, you mentioned this time we're in the pandemic. Are you hopeful that maybe this pandemic has motivated a lot of us to think about living a more spiritually conscious life?

TER KUILE: I think it's really a moment where a lot of us are asking, well, how do I want to live? You know, what's really important to me? Who are the people in my life that I want to spend time with? And now, in the midst of this amazing moment of justice, finally, after so long - and of course, there's a long way to go on racial justice - this is a moment of reckoning. And we're being confronted by those big questions.

And it's a turn towards meaning. Whether it's in the workplace or in the family, we're all doing a little bit of a - maybe a life assessment. And so being a little bit intentional about, what are the ways I want to bring shape to my days, what are the things that I want to do every morning, every night, you know, before a meal, you know, going for a walk around the block at the end of the laptop workday - all of these things are there to help us live lives of intentionality and with the values that we want to live with. And so I'm - I am hopeful. I am hopeful. It's not easy, but I think we were in dire need of a moment of reckoning.

CHANG: Thank you so much for taking time to speak with us today. This was lovely.

TER KUILE: Thanks so much, Ailsa. I really appreciate it.


That's Casper ter Kuile talking about his new book, "The Power Of Ritual." To get a sense of how reading can be a spiritual act, you can listen to his podcast "Harry Potter And The Sacred Text." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.