On December 4, 2023, Mercersburg Academy welcomed Casper ter Kuile to campus as the annual Schaff Lecturer. Ter Kuile is the author of The Power of Ritual, and cofounder of the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast, a conversation dedicated to analyzing the Harry Potter series through a religious lens. School Minister the Reverend Dr. William Whitmore said, “The Schaff Lecture Series was established to support one or more pre-eminent speakers annually on topics related to fundamental human values” by a donation from Charles Schaff ‘41. The lecture's purpose is to “clarify what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’”
Ter Kuile focused his words on the importance of rituals and their ability to strengthen communities. Whitmore said, “We selected ter Kuile due to his focus on community and the importance of this when thinking about civic engagement.”
Indeed, ter Kuile’s speech may prove helpful, particularly to the Civic Engagement Task Force, whose purpose is to encourage students to become active citizens and community members. Thomas Zhu ‘26, a member of the Civic Engagement Student Advisory Board, said “[he] did a good job of showing what civic engagement looks like, especially when some students may still not know what civic engagement really is.”
Other students and faculty members were impressed by ter Kuile’s humor, confidence, and knowledge. Sean Qin ‘25 commented that ter Kuile “had a talent for taking the relatively plain topic of daily habits and turning them into special parts of our lives.” Tri Ngyuen ‘24 said, “He was never boring and still informative, which isn’t easy.”
Ter Kuile took a few questions at the end of the lecture and offered a follow-up opportunity on Tuesday morning. Students appreciated the ability to ask additional questions in a more personal environment.
In response to a question about his motives, ter Kuile said, “I wanted to find ways for many people to participate and help them connect very quickly. Rituals are an efficient way of making people feel like us.” Additionally, he recalled feeling marginalized as a gay student at a boys boarding school in England. “I want to make sure other people don't feel the same way.”
Referencing the “intense” academic atmosphere of Mercersburg, ter Kuile recommended rituals based on self-care and relaxation for students rather than difficult ones. “I make weekly rituals because daily ones are often hard to complete as motivation to do things is never constant. I like completing a Tech Sabbath for 12 hours from Friday night to Saturday morning.”