Casper ter Kuile:
gently, wisely, enthusiastically, unfailingly
Casper is a creator of spiritual infrastructure for the future, something he builds to contain love, belonging, beauty, solidarity, joy… and lots of singing. He sees our disconnection from our spirituality as one of the great challenges of the 21st Century, and has found over and over again that the people who he wants to be like are often people of deep faith, people willing to bet the whole board on a set of values that do not centre status, money, power and fame. He has recently co-founded The Nearness to help people connect more deeply with themselves, the world around them and people who they love.
Made by Jo Barratt. Conceived by Jo Barratt and Gemma Mortensen, with Iris Andrews and Lily Piachaud and Hadeel Elshak.
Music is made for New Constellations by Art School Girlfriend.
You know, the phrase that’s most often repeated in the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament is “be not afraid”. I can’t tell you why, but I do think that’s interesting.
To the hills, I will lift mine eyes and I am not not afraid.
To the hills. I will lift mine eyes and I am not afraid.
I think of songs as such a powerful resource. To have a song for any feeling is a great gift indeed, cuz sometimes it’s easier to say out loud something that’s hard to say or difficult to notice in music rather than just in words. I find myself being able to sing things that I wouldn’t necessarily believe if I just said them.
So I’m sitting at my dining table slash desk slash kitchen table holding a ceramic cup. It’s bowl shaped really, but it’s like a small bowl, so a cup size that my grandmother made. It is a sort of mustardy golden brown, and it’s smooth on the inside. Very thin, beautifully kind of ribbed on the outside and if I turn it upside down, I can see. Her initials, LTK, and the year 1985. So this is just a year older than I am, uh, which that’s kind of cool. I didn’t know that.
So my name’s Casper ter Kuile, I am the grandson of Lilly ter Kuile. I’m recording this in Brooklyn, New York on a Friday afternoon.
She was an artist, first and foremost. This was one of her her mediums, her media, but I always remembered drinking tea in her home, my grandfather’s home when I was small out of these cups. And they were different sizes and slightly different colours cuz they were all hand thrown. I think as you say. There was a delicacy to them and a refinement, which was very true of my grandmother too she was, uh, very particular about how she, um, wanted things done and there was a certain way and a high standard of excellence to make things, to make art.
My work is really, Um, it’s about building new containers for belonging and love and solidarity and goodness, and trying to figure out what the spiritual infrastructure of the future might be and how we shift culture and enrich our spiritual lives and ritual lives and bring meaning and joy and music into the world.
There was a wall of drawings of her grandchildren, the drawings her grandchildren had made. My particular cousin Hendrick always had, you know, five drawings on there and I was lucky if I got two. He was very talented as a young artist, I less so, but it always meant a lot once you made it to the wall.
I think it’s so human to be afraid. I think fear is an expression of care that we, that we care about what we have or what we’ve been used to, that there’s good to be worried about losing. No doubt there’s also worries about losing power or status. Fear is so normal, and I’ve learned that courage is not the absence of fear, but the decision to move through it and feel it anyway and I think this language of liberation that is now more and more prominent in part, is a liberation from fear, of freedom to be fully who we are without the worry or the danger that we’re so often surrounded by.
Let’s think about water. Water, steam ice. Three massively different properties with the same chemical structure. Well, that’s not quite accurate as it, but you know where I’m going. I’m not a scientist, guys, but it’s about the context changing. That’s what’s interesting to me. I have been such different people in such different contexts. I lived in Berlin for a year as an Erasmus student in my third year of undergraduate studies and I remember feeling this power and potential to just be different from who I was, not just at home, but with my colleagues and friends in student life in England. And I wore red skinny jeans and I got an asymmetrical haircut and I didn’t go to classes for a year. And I went to a hip hop, uh, queer dance troop, and I joined an acapella choir and sang a solo and got stopped by the police and didn’t really have any friends. I’m such a social person, but I think I had precisely three people that I talked to for an entire year. I just remember revelling in that sense of transformation that I was, I don’t know, not dangerous, but different. And I didn’t wanna stay that way forever. So perhaps it wasn’t a full transformation, but it felt like an entire new part of me kind of came online to use a sad, mechanistic metaphor. My sense of who I was expanded, like there was more to me than I thought there had been, and I think that’s what I love about travel, first of all, it’s the most obvious way in which we get to change the context, but also about meeting new people by forming new relationships, we discover more about who we could be and perhaps who we already are. Certainly that was true when I went to divinity school and just coming in as kind of a gay atheist who was interested in learning about religion, but not necessarily from it to becoming really quite a religion obsessed person now, and I don’t wanna say deeply spiritual, but certainly someone who is constantly engaged with these questions of, of meaning, and of connection and of theology. You know, what is God? How do we know? Why does it matter?. That was so much because of the people I was exposed to. These teachers who did not laugh me out of the room when I said absolutely absurd things. That’s probably more than I want to share on here, but I said some crazy shit. They listened and guided me gently, wisely, enthusiastically, unfailing. It absolutely shaped who I am, what I do, what I care about, how I want to live. And here’s the thing as I’ve watched some of them retire, I’ve suddenly inherited this mantle of responsibility of feeling like, oh God, that’s mine to do now for other people. I asked one of them how did you, how did you find energy? Every time a student would come sit down in your office and, you know, spill their guts and their spiritual struggles, and you just had a long day in teaching and you know, all the things that you had to do, and then suddenly you’re, you’re dealing with this, and she said, oh I never had to try It would just come to me. That sense of capacity and energy and willingness to listen and I’m afraid I don’t have that capacity. And so I’m hoping just to trust that, like a professor click that might come to me too.
I spent three months with a project choir called Northern Harmony over a decade ago now, travelling around Europe, singing folk music. We started out in Corsica and then travelled our way up through France, Germany, Switzerland, and through the UK and It changed how I thought about the status quo and ways of living, because at first I was immensely grateful for the home stays, right? We would stay with people in their own houses, you know, in their spare bedroom or on a sofa, often in their bed as they made space for us, and we weren’t an insignificant number, maybe 18 or something, 20 people. At first I was a little sheepish and very, very grateful to, to their hospitality. And hospitality was not strange to me where I grew up in a home where there was a bed and breakfast and we had three borders living upstairs, and there were always guests going in and out, paid and unpaid. Nonetheless, I was very grateful to all of our hosts. And then I think it was in Hildesheim in Germany, and I was staying in a room that was either covered in leopard print or a hostess wore a lot of leopard, I can’t quite remember, but there was leopard involved and I suddenly realised that they were grateful that we’d come and that actually, not to invalidate the generosity of hosting, but that it was an exchange. It was an equal exchange because we had brought song and music and that we had changed the town by coming to it and singing. That really shifted I guess, how I felt or what I felt I could ask for, or what I felt I could expect if I was bringing something into the world or a new project or a song that, of course, it’s okay if someone hosts you or feeds you or you know that, that there is an equal exchange there.I think that was emboldening for me to realise that was possible.
More and more people, less traditionally religious, uh, certainly in the West and my field really focuses on the United States. And yet so many people are hungry for connection, meaning, purpose, even transcendence and have very rich and imaginative spiritualities, but don’t necessarily have relationships in which to bind them or communities which ground them. And so a lot of people feel very disconnected in their spiritual life and therefore I really do think that’s part of the challenge of kind of 21st century. Capitalist modernity, is that what counters the dominance of the market frame of what we perceive to be valuable?
I absolutely think we need to preserve a way of storying our existence that reminds us of what’s most important. And we need rituals and time set aside and relationships that help bring us back to what is essential. You know, what do we remember on our deathbed? What are the things that we regret? What are the loves that sustain us? These are the things that we need to pay time and attention and money to. Because that’s where really what matters and I think that’s one of the gifts of religious tradition is that they. You know, those traditions offer us practices and principles and people that help us do that. But what we need to let go of, I think, often is the distribution system, is the organising methods, is the institutional bylaws and often the institutional kind of doctrine or dogma that gets in the way of that spirit living. Obviously as a gay man, I have plenty to say about a lot of religious institutions, but I have found over and over again that the people who I most want to grow up to be like are often people of deep, deep faith because they’re willing to bet the whole board on a different set of values that do not center status, money, power, fame, but instead center service, generosity, courage, beauty, hope amidst hopelessness. It’s just when you are near them you can feel it. There’s just something different. How they make decisions. What, what is important and what isn’t. What to pay attention to. God I can just, be wielded at how they do it, and often. Messy and unsuccessful from the outside.. You know, they don’t have the markers of traditional success, but the closer you get, the more you see, you know, the way they pay attention to a bug crawling across the table, or the dedication to a craft or the gentleness with which they accompany someone who’s suffering, the stand they take when others don’t. I find it truly miraculous.
One of the gifts I think of studying history as I did as a a young person, was realising how quick every age is to think of itself as unique and particularly important and unprecedented. And of course, those things might all be true. We are living in a world that’s at a turning point. We are living in a world with, you know, impending multiple, specifically environmental crises, that really are new for our human species. And yet at the same time, I find myself very, if not suspicious, then at least tired of the language we only have five years to A, B, and C. I mean, I, I did that as a young climate activist. There was a video we made as a youth climate delegation to the UN Climate Talks in 2008 in Poland, which started “24 hours That’s how long Gordon Brown has to save our future”. And living with that mentality of like, if these leaders, these diplomats and then then elected leaders don’t make certain decisions and commitments in the next 24 hours my life is fucked broke me. I had the absolute classic activist burnout where what I felt able to change was so minuscule compared to what needed to change that it… I felt crushed. I felt absolutely not up to the task, overwhelmed, responsible for, you know, the deaths of millions of people. And it’s absurd. I mean, it’s full of love and caring and self importance, but it’s also absurd. And so I think something for me about this question of, well, what’s gonna happen in the future is letting go a little bit of the I don’t wanna say the pressure but the, worry, because living that way was ultimately unproductive and I do live with the expectation that we, and I think it’s scientifically grounded that environmentally we are absolutely going to encounter significant disruption, death, pain, horror. And so the question, although, you know, mitigation of, fossil fuel emissions is of course absolutely still paramount an adaptation focus for me in terms of culture became central. How will we love one another who rather than whos am I? Who’s am I, what are the relationships that hold us? What are, the values that bring us into solidarity? Love, courage, and how do we experience joy and beauty in the midst of it all?What makes life still worth living? Um, you know, we are used to, oh, I am used to, I should say, a certain pace and ease, and quality of life that you know already, that the indicators are going south, right? In terms of each generation’s likely quality of life, and yet how, how do we find joy in the midst of it? How do you lead a group of 20 people to sing together? What are the ways in which life can be delightful and joyful? So am I optimistic, pessimistic, both
I found pessimism unhelpful to live with. Realism plus optimism, maybe that’s the the recipe I’m looking for.
On my 30th birthday, I got to spend a weekend with a group of nuns, and I thought they’d be five or six nice old ladies who might give away their buildings. I was wrong. They were whip smart, extremely funny, deeply, spiritually mature and wise and they didn’t give me their buildings. But I did gain wonderful friends, and I found myself so nurtured. Ooh, makes me feel a little teary. I found myself so nurtured through those friendships. These are women in their seventies and one of them now in her eighties who essentially kind of ran the umbrella group for most American nuns. So, you know, senior leaders in that, in that organisational context or in that field of work and life. And I would not dare to do half the things I do without them saying, come on, go for it, this is good, why not have a go? Because I mean, spoiler alert, I don’t know what I’m doing. I mean, I do, but I don’t, and I’m sure most of us feel that way. And so. These older, like deeply, just deeply good. Not perfect, wonderfully flawed, but good people who have lived well and honourably and amidst enormous change. For them to look you in the eye and say what you are doing is worthy and it matters. That’s investment. You know, you can get funding, you can get capacity building grants, but to really feel that transferal of honour and integrity, it’s the most sustaining gift I think I receive in my work. I hope I can pass that on one day. But there’s a confidence, just a deep sense of it’s gonna be all right that that gives me, and it’s life saving. God, I’m just gonna cry so much as they die. Sounds very grim, but I just can’t imagine that person when and the people who’ve been that for you are gone. And you just kind of have to listen to the voices from beyond or from your own memory and try and embody it for those who come next.I find that quite daunting and beautiful at the same time actually. So if I have tips and practices, I mean Sure. Meditate. Yes. Garden, yes. and pray and do all the things, but for me, it’s really about relationships. Who are the people who help me feel fully alive, that show me what it means to be good, um, and know how to laugh. That’s the thing that sets them apart. Some of them are quite serious people, but in a deeply joyful way. I hope I can embody that.