Technology is bringing about a paradigm shift. What used to bind us no longer works. When older theories and rituals become irrelevant, we seek new sources to give meaning to life and find connections with others.
Paradigm shifts happen when new evidence refutes our assumptions. For centuries people thought the earth was flat. Before the Origin of Species, nature was seen as fixed—no new species appeared, none became extinct. Darwin changed our understanding of evolution. Species gradually change over time. Yes, some people still believe we literally evolved from Adam and Eve, but their numbers are dwindling. Paradigm shifts can take centuries to complete.
Everything changes. Always. Forever. Religion is not exempt from shifting sands. In the Western World, fewer people, a trend led by the young, are attending church. Thousands of churches have closed, and the US adult population identifying themselves as having no religious affiliation stands at 26% and growing.
But leaving the church doesn’t mean people are less spiritual. It’s just that when the old ways become irrelevant to our lives, like high heels at 70, you swap them for Timberland slip-ons. Harvard Divinity School’s Casper Ter Kuile writes, “In this time of rapid religious and relational change, a new landscape of meaning-making and community is emerging—and traditional structures of spirituality are struggling to keep up with what our lives look like.”
Tim grew up in the Catholic faith. He’s no longer a practicing Catholic, but still finds comfort in houses of worship. “I just like it,” is his detailed explanation. Trips into cities means visiting cathedrals. Tim’s ritual is always the same. He stops at the entrance letting his eyes move up to the apse as if looking to the heavens. Meandering up and down the side aisles, he takes time to view the stained-glass windows, their patterns—veins of leaves and colors of nature. Sometimes he sits in a pew in perfect grace, as he does standing by mountain streams or looking out over the ocean. Time spent in church and nature brings him peace. Attending church weddings or funerals, the hymns seem to transcend his soul to a quiet place. Today I wonder if this is why he ends each day with the same ritual, listening to music with a glass of red wine.
Turning our back on the church doesn’t mean that our spiritual longings dissolve. While I don’t share Tim’s experience in houses of worship, religion provides rituals that bring meaning to everyday lives. Reciting the Lord’s Prayer as a child brought me much comfort.
The paradigm shift we are experiencing is a move from organized religion to secular communities to fill the gap of our needs. Today’s fragmented environment, where we pay more attention to our phone than feeding our core, leaves us parched for spiritual substance. But I see more hope than hopelessness. We are finding ways to make life worthwhile individually, and we are creating meaningful communities with others.
My youngest daughter (a Millennial) and family live in a modest house in Denver. I’ve sometimes suggested they get a house with a bigger yard for the kids and a laundry room with a window. They can afford it. After cleaning my spectacles, my distorted view came into focus. She and her husband have developed close and meaningful friendships up and down the street. They have spent years creating secular rituals, moments that make life worth living: Clam Bake in summer, outdoors movies projected on garage doors bring kids together, checking on the street’s elderly, organizing breakfasts for the homeless, men’s fishing trips, girls’ night out, and weekends camping in nature for family time. Windows in a laundry room and backyards large enough to host football games cannot replace what they have built. Letting go of my opinion on how my children should spend their lives, I discovered they have found ways to fulfill their spiritual needs despite my interferences.
More studies for a happy life are not necessary. We just need a purpose for getting out of bed and friends who are available in good times and bad. If our sole purpose was to raise kids or pursue a career, at retirement we create something new to bring us joy.
Experiencing a purpose in life can include creative endeavors or reading stories to elementary classes. Carol is grateful she lives close enough to her single daughter so she can help with the grandkids. Cassie is teaching her granddaughters to quilt. Ruth created a yoga room, time for herself. Our purpose, the one thing you love, can be playing tennis or adjusting your camera lens for a perfect shot of a comet. It’s those moments when we take a tech break and engage fully in the moment in front of us. This moment is our soul sustenance. Walking daily beneath deep blue skies or Nimbus Clouds, I remind myself that this simple action is feeding me. There is nothing better behind door two or three.
What can be very challenging is to fill our spiritual need for meaningful social relationships. How can we be more human together? While many younger people are building communities of meaning in secular spaces, in essence, taking on the functions traditional religion served, how do we go about later in life? Can we unbundle traditions and remix them for a new recipe?
What attracted me to a senior community was the opportunity for open doors to new connections. (Of course we don’t need to move, we can find ways to deepen the relationships we have right where we are.) As expected, there was an ample supply of people to befriend. But what took time was to find women who sought to deepen the quality of the relationships. Too often, time together never penetrated beyond a leaf thin surface. According to Kuile, a Harvard Theology graduate, cultivating connections is best accomplished through sports and the ancient practice of breaking bread together. “There is no better way to build community than to eat together. For millennia, humans have shared food. First, they did so out of biological necessity by sharing the spoils of gathering and hunting, and later as an expression of kinship.” In my seventies, the time of organizing a softball team is behind me, but eating is here and ahead.
Most religions, perhaps all, have rituals centered around eating and drinking. There is the Japanese tea ceremony inspired by Buddhist tradition. Muslims and Ramadan. The Eucharist, the wafer and a sip of wine is a reenactment of a sacred meal we share.
Six years and counting, my new Florida community feels more and more like a home, a sacred space. Contributing to this feeling is a group of 12 women who meet every month to share a meal. It has bound me in spirit to them and this new space. When we sit for a meal, we take one another’s hand and say a simple blessing or words of gratitude. At first, I felt uncomfortable with this ritual: too religious, too cult-like, too weird. In time, this unease vanished with a new understanding. By holding hands, we confirm that we are here not only for a meal and camaraderie, but also a deeper connection with one another. This short ritual deepens our interconnectivity.
Seeking deeper meaning in life and authentic relationships are about accepting the gifts of many traditions and seeing life, borrowing from Zen Buddhism, “with a beginner’s mind.” We drop the “expert’s mind” and learn like a kindergartner learns her letters. We practice in faith that if we continue feeding our soul through meaningful moments and connected relationships, we bond with self and others. It is what life is all about. Nothing more. Nothing less.
The Power of Ritual: Turning Everyday Activities Into Soulful Practices by Casper Ter Kuile