Casper ter Kuile on finding resilience in rituals

Casper ter Kuile, Harvard fellow and cohost of the "Harry Potter and the Sacred Text" podcast, releases a new book about the power of rituals on June 22 from Harper One.
Casper ter Kuile, Harvard fellow and cohost of the "Harry Potter and the Sacred Text" podcast, releases a new book about the power of rituals on June 22 from Harper One.RJ Lewis

With most of us still living in a state of COVID-19-driven uncertainty, many of our routines have been disrupted. But hanging onto our rituals is one way to survive this time, writes Casper ter Kuile, author of “The Power of Ritual: Turning Everyday Activities Into Soulful Practices,” out Tuesday from HarperOne. Ter Kuile’s book explores how we can find meaning and well-being in our daily rituals (sitting down for dinner with family, morning yoga) and in adopting new ones.

The book focuses on rituals found in four types of connection — with yourself, your community, the natural world, and the transcendent. For each, he outlines the history, research, and anecdotal evidence that argues for the benefits of consciously maintaining our rituals. The Ministry Innovation Fellow at Harvard Divinity School cohosts “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text” — a weekly Cambridge-born podcast that dissects J.K. Rowling’s novels through sacred reading. Fans of the project will recognize ter Kuile’s approachable charisma and wit throughout the guide.


I feel like a lot of people are taking stock of themselves during this period. Do you think that extends to reevaluating our rituals, too?

We’re looking at what’s essential and what matters. It’s a reframing of how we feel grateful for what we have, but also asking ourselves: Is this how we want to live? The original Greek meaning of the word “apocalypse” is an uncovering or revealing of what’s already true. We’re looking at what’s already here, but with new eyes. I think this book feels timely because people are looking for a new way to live, and rituals are a big part of that.

"The Power of Ritual" by Casper ter Kuile, out from HarperOne on June 22.
"The Power of Ritual" by Casper ter Kuile, out from HarperOne on June 22.Handout

One category of ritual you explore is prayer and how it can be found in “collective union” — like at a music festival or a sports arena or protest. Are you looking at the Black Lives Matter protests as a form of prayer?


I think what’s happening right now is deeply spiritual. I think it’s an expression of people’s spiritual values and saying, “This is at the core of who I am and what I stand for.” Protesting is another way of expressing it. It’s like Cornel West said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

Then there’s the kinesthetic part of it — if you’re marching together, you see yourself as a larger body of people and part of a bigger whole.

Prayer is a ritual that’s strongly associated with religion, but you say there are ways we can access the practice without it being so. Can you explain?

Often the presumptive meaning of prayer is that it’s this magical jukebox in the sky, but that’s not what it’s about. At least that’s not how I think about it. It’s the truth of our experience when we’ve arrived in an open headspace and heart space and say how we feel. Prayer is about listening to what our hearts know to be true and the deep loves and longings that live within everyone. Transcendence is [a form of] prayer.

Community is a big theme in the book. You say when we experience important moments alone, it can lead to “privatizing our interpretation.” Right now, most people are missing moments that are traditionally recognized through community. Can they still find meaning?

This experience of COVID has given us a real loss — people not being able to say “goodbye” to a loved one or attend a wedding. It’s tragic. I don’t want to paint a glossy picture when it just sucks.


One thing I draw strength from is a wall in my living room where I have pictures of my grandparents and other people who inspire me, so I can put my experience in the context of history. I remind myself that my grandparents on my mothers’ side were involved in the resistance for World War II and that was a six-year war. And here I am in 89 days of lockdown. When we de-center our immediate needs and experiences, we realize we’re part of something bigger.

One of your own rituals you describe is taking a tech sabbath every week. Are you still doing it through COVID?

Yes, Friday sundown to Saturday sundown since 2014. I’m a very future-oriented person so I find it hard not to have something to look forward to. I’m grateful for “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and my tech sabbath. We talk about tech breaks as a moment of rest so that we can go back to work refreshed, but that’s not the point of sabbath. The work done during the week is preparation for times of rest during the weekend, not the other way around. It’s a reward that helps me get through the days that are really tough. If anything, I’m being more rigorous about it.

Two major ritual leaders, who are mentioned in the book (J.K. Rowling and former CrossFit CEO Greg Glassman) are in the spotlight for statements that left many of their followers feeling betrayed. Can fans move forward?


With Harry Potter, there are fans and readers who are invested and feel deeply betrayed by J.K. Rowling. But they still can make a delineation between the author, the publisher, the movies, and anything else that makes her money versus the story itself. Whether it’s workouts or the books of Harry Potter, there’s a difference in the communities that have been created. Especially in fandom. It’s so strong and so far from the author’s control that I think people will adjust, even if they need to take a little break for right now. The story belongs to us, the readers, now.

Rachel Raczka can be reached at rachel.raczka@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @rachelraczka.