Practices for the Soul : Finding Meaning in our strange new World ?
The Power of Ritual : Turning Everyday Activities Into Soulful Practices Casper Ter Kuile William Collins 2020
I am indebted to my friend Jane Shaw for pointing me in the direction of this rather stimulating and wonderful book. It came out of a conversation about what learning might look ( and feel ) like at Sarum College as we move through these pandemic weeks. In particular, as a learning community, we need to explore the place of theology might be especially amidst the change ( and decline) in adherence and commitment to religious communities. During the present period of gathering statistics through the UK Census ( https://census.gov.uk/ ) it is likely that those associating themselves with a religion will decline. In America over 3,500 churches close their doors every year. An increased number of people describe themselves as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular” has grown. Linda Woodhead suggests that the data indicates that “nones” are now a growing number. ( Professor Woodhead will explore some of this landscape in the 2021 Cadbury Lectures at Birmingham University ‘Values are the New Religion’. )
So – put bluntly – what is the future of religion? How are to account for this decline? What does it mean for a younger generation who will shape the intellectual, cultural and political landscapes of how we live? What is the new religion? Has religion had its day in its present form ? What does it mean to be spiritual ? What makes for human flourishing? Woodhead suggests that a younger generation articulate their values and convictions with clarity and conviction. In other words how are we to understand and articulate what really matters? These questions lie in the background of this short, clear and ambitious book that invites the reader into change to nurture the good in life.
There may be some aspects of how religious organisations engage with meaning and the fabric of our daily lives that leaves us untouched as irrelevant or meaningless. When the story of this pandemic is narrated we might find it surprising that there has not been more attention to the spiritual and religious dimensions of our lives in the face of the fear of contagion and the dismantling of our way of living. Into this space these five chapters are transformative in their plea to ask us to consider how we might want to live and build community with compassion and wisdom.
The heart of these chapters is the belief that we are all deeply, profoundly and intrinsically spiritual. It is a fundamental part of who we are. We are restless and sometimes troubled souls in need of both meaning and community. We all have a spiritual pulse as fundamental to our personhood as the blood the keeps us alive. It infuses every aspect of our being. Spirit infuses everything. The spiritual encompasses every dimension of our lives.
So what does this mean in practice ? How might we enliven meaning, reflection, integration, balance and joy in our lives? Ter Kuile sets out to free people to draw on the redemptive power of ritual without necessarily being tied to belief in God, a religion or a religious community. He draws on a wide range of sources as he offers his reader four aspects of connection that generative ritual can provide.
Four connections are explored and some rituals are offered to go with them.
The first is connection is – Connecting with Self. The reader is invited into the possibly of trusting offerings from the popular culture as “a path to greater awareness.” There is an adaption the popular spiritual practice of lectio divina into four questions t
— What’s literally happening in the narrative? Where are we in the story?
— What allegorical images, stories, songs, or metaphors show up for you?
— What experiences have you had in your own life that come to mind?
— What action are you being called to make?
I especially appreciate the plea for balance in a world dominated by activity, functionalism and capitalism. Keeping the Sabbath as a ritual gives us a framework and the space to connect with our deeper selves. He describes his own experiences with a tech sabbath, a sabbath for solo time, and a sabbath for play and creativity.
The second connection is – Connecting with Others. How might we engage more intentionally with others, through shared meals, fitness communities, by ‘breaking through’ the vulnerability barrier, building solidarity through suffering and laughter and decentering yourself. There is an acknowledgment of the need for courage as we engage with both the wonderful and terrible. The text acknowledges the potential challenges of this level of change for us.
The third connection is – Connecting with Nature. Do feel at home in the world ? What might that look like? The practices of pilgrimage, celebrating the seasons, and reimagining a liturgical calendar are opened up. The text suggests that these practices can be embedded into our lives wherever we are and whatever our circumstances.
The fourth connection is Connecting with Transcendence. Ter Kuile discusses reframes traditional prayer practices of adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and supplication as a way of embracing the divine.
There is a quality of the text. This reader feels the writers journey and passion. It has a freshness and humanity and groundedness that draws his reader in. It is a text to contemplate and use. We are invited into a creativity – of asking fundamental questions about who we are and what makes us flourish. Reading, walking, eating, resting, reflecting demand our attention and care.
There are further questions to be explored here. If this invitation were so ‘straightforward’ why does some ‘institutional’ religion fail to listen, to empower, to offer the tradition afresh to new generations? Is is a matter of structure or language or inflexibility ? What might need to change ? While there is some skill in the unbundling of many meaningful rituals from their traditional sources who might be the cost of this for spiritual communities? The challenges of institutional religion persist but this work represents a brilliant reimagining of our recovery of the sacred in and through the concrete predicaments of our lives.
It deserves to be widely read and put to use.