Tag Archive: Shakers


High-Acreage Curiosity


I’m getting ready to take Putney (my dog, for those who haven’t met him) to Camp Clough (AKA my parents) for the summer. I’m leaving soon for 20 days, part of which is a liturgy conference at Yale.

I’m expecting a house guest for two nights, immediately before departing. I haven’t had an overnight guest for months, and the guest room is the staging area for storing winter clothes and disposal of things I no longer need.

Behind my piano is a pile of music: ten volumes of piano rags and French romantic chansons from the Chicago Public Library, a tote bag of choral octavos from Ellen Fisher, a borrowed collection of Schubert piano duets.

Behind my couch is a basket of issues of Maine: the Magazine, Vermont Life, National Geographic, unread, awaiting reading.

My refrigerator is packed full, most of its contents a large collection of sauces, relishes and other accompaniments I’ve picked up in stores trading in local and artisan foods. They keep well, but get used in exceedingly small quantities. On the kitchen shelves is a similar collection of unopened toppings. There are five jars of different kinds of mustard from Raye’s <www.rayesmustard.com> in Eastport, ME . One is open.

Mustard jars

I live alone.

And then there are the books.

A friend of mine popped his head in my office last week, and said, “It looks like a dorm room.”

Scattered about therein are more books and scores.

I need to say right now that I am NOT a collector. In my twenties, I realized that the few collections I had collected for the sake of having collections brought me no joy. There was remorse for spending money on things that had no utility. I committed to no more collecting. No thimbles, no bone china plates of exotic places. Not that there’s anything wrong with it.

In tidying for my guest’s arrival and my departure, I see the problem, arising from my being a curious person. Working with a life coach <www.purposeatwork.com> a few years ago, I articulated a life purpose that is, briefly, to guide others to uncover their own curiosity to lead them to discovery and learning. My life purpose grows out of my own attitude. I find meaning and joy in vacuuming up experiences, then letting them shape my perspective and choices. I thrive on exceptional sensory experiences. Five jars of mustard could tell you that (actually, there are seven jars, but only five from Raye’s) with a translator.

The musical scores, the magazines, the Mason jars. These are containers for experiences. They gather around me, offering adventures. But they compete with each other for my time and energy, and my space. They conflict with my desire to simplify, to live more like the Shakers I visited a few summers ago.

I am immensely blessed to know that curiosity will never, ever let me be bored in this too-short life.

But it’s taking up a lotta space in my apartment!

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Sabbathday Lake Shakers Look toward the Future

29 October 2011

In addition to some clearing up some factual errors in my 22 September post, “Irene and the Shakers”, on 26 September, Br. Arnold wrote, “Also do not write us off just yet.  God has a strange sense of humor to confound the wise and learned.  Yesterday we had another Novice join us – a woman – and we are expecting a man to be here in October so we are confident in a future!”

I wish them good times of community building and discernment in the months ahead, and  share their hope for the future of their faith.

Irene and the Shakers

Sunday 28 August 2011

Like the ancient Egyptians, or the extraterrestrials who leave crop circles in remote cornfields, Shakers are generally known, if at all, only by their relics.  Most people’s only association with the Shakers is with their furniture or the hymn, “‘Tis a gift to be simple”.  I grew up and lived and worshiped in the Northeast, where the majority of Shakers also lived, and I have known of them for a long time.  Shaker village museums dot the landscape of eastern New York and New England, the smartly designed structures, elegant in their simplicity, enriching one of the country’s most scenic, historic regions.

I was in Santa Barbara, CA, however, far in geography and culture, when I first cultivated a Shaker curiosity.  I was seeking an offering for Vacation Bible School when I thought that Shaker dancing would be good, kinetic material for young children.  I mined a local library for ideas, and taught the kids about Shakerism and a Shaker hymn with movements.

I don’t know when I heard about the Shaker Community of Sabbathday Lake, but in August 2007, we visited the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village not long after reading a newspaper article that reported that this last active Shaker Community in the world had received a new member, a rare occurrence.  At the time, there were five Shakers in the Family.  Driving away that sunny afternoon after the tour, I said, “I want to come and worship with the Shakers some Sunday.”

When Hurricane Irene stranded us in Maine, extending our August vacation into the weekend, I suggested going to Sunday Meeting at the Shaker Village.

Christopher and I leaned into the wind and driving rain, and crossed Shaker Road to the historic Meeting House.  A notice pinned to the door directed worshipers back across the road to the Dwelling House Chapel because of the storm.  A Shaker Brother saw us through the window, and gestured toward the front door.  In a moment, he swung open the large wooden door, and invited us in, indicating a long line of Shaker coat pegs on the wall, and led us into the music room, where we joined the handful of people seated in Shaker chairs and rockers.  Women sat to the north, facing south, men on the south, facing north.   An older woman wearing a deep raspberry dress, distinct from the others’ clothes, sat front and center on the women’s side, her walker beside her.  A Shaker, I concluded.

I sat in a rocking chair at the far end of the front row, and the Brother sat to my left.  Three other men, including Christopher, sat behind us.   When another Sister arrived with an oxygen tank, the Brother nipped across the room to help her get situated.  She initially chose a rocker, but pondered, “I don’t know how I’ll get out of this chair” in a sharp Maine accent.  The Brother responded, “That’s why I set you up in this chair,” indicating a straight-backed chair opposite my seat.  When she was resettled, worship began.  We were eleven.  I had never worshiped from a rocking chair before.

The room was a plain white, stenciled near the ceiling.  All around the room hung black-and-white photos of men and women from decades past, presumably past members of the Community.  A pump organ sat square in the middle of the long, east wall, its foot pedals still, reeds silent.  I was surprised; I thought that Shaker hymn-singing was always unison, always unaccompanied.  On each long wall were two doorways, a pair from the hallway to the west, and a pair going on into the large darkened room to the east, sparsely furnished with similarly simple, refined Shaker pieces.  Women and men enter through separate entrances, and sit on opposite sides of common rooms.

Only three Shakers remain after two recent departures, including that of the woman whose arrival had recently attracted outside attention.  The three keep the 229-year-old community alive with the assistance of a paid staff and volunteers.  There is a museum, offering tours of some of the buildings, but Sabbathday Lake is unique in the world – a living, breathing, working and praying Shaker community.

The three Shakers led the worship cooperatively.  Sister June read the opening psalm, and we sang a hymn from the Shaker Hymnal.  Brother Arnold read from the New Testament, and we sang another hymn.  Sister Frances read from the Gospel, then we sang again.  Brother Arnold welcomed everyone present to share something as the Spirit moved us.

Sister Frances was the first to stand and speak, her oxygen tubes tangled in her cerulean blue Shaker dress.  She reflected on her 74th Shaker birthday, the anniversary of her entering the Community as a six-year-old in difficult financial circumstances.  For forty-five minutes, everyone in the room shared something inspired by the scriptures, or related some experience with the Community.  After each testimonial, a Shaker chose a hymn echoing each person’s sentiments, and we sang from memory, or some of us a fraction of a second behind, trying to mimic those in the know.

Rain lashed the windows, and the ancient tree limbs whipped under the dusky sky as I told how, as we had set out that morning, I feared that braving Hurricane Irene might have been a fool’s errand, but in the end my spirit was refreshed by the intimate gathering and the sharing taking place.  Though we had already sung it, Sister Frances suggested repeating “‘Tis a gift to be simple”, the one Shaker hymn familiar to us from the World.  She pointed to a photograph of an old Brother on the wall to my right, and told how he wrote that hymn out of a deep grief when some promising young men left the Community secretly in the night.

Our eleven voices echoed in the adjacent room as we sang hymn after hymn – more than a dozen. Brother declared the work of Meeting concluded, and we greeted each other, and were invited to the dining room below for fellowship over coffee and doughnuts.  Seated around a long, wooden table, we chatted for an hour.  We witnessed some of Sister Frances’s feistiness, Sister June’s sweet humor, and Brother Arnold’s no-nonsense quick-wittedness and warmth.  A mention of Ken Burns’s documentary about the Shakers brought a chilly response from Sister Frances.  She asked if either of us cooked, and when I replied yes, she sent Brother Arnold to fetch two books she had written, one a memoir of her childhood in the Community and the other a Shaker cookbook, both of which she inscribed in shaky script.  Such generosity shown to two young strangers.

We helped clear the table, carrying dishes into the simply beautiful and functional kitchen, and made our farewells. As we prepared to leave, Brother Arnold grabbed me for a warm embrace, then Christopher, too.  We promised to return, and donning our rain gear, pressed against the wind back out into the storm.

The future of this remnant of a long-waning society seems clear.  Sisters June and Sister Frances are strong in Spirit, but aged.  Brother Arnold is in vibrant middle age, but soon could be the Sole Surviving Shaker, hopefully not to be reduced by the media to a curiosity.  They have supporters and companions, but like any monastic community, followers need a believing, practicing core around which to gather.  The Shakers, unlike other religious orders, lack congregations from which to draw members.  Their sworn celibacy is an obstacle, as it always has been.  In earlier times, children would be given over to the Shakers when orphaned, or by families unable to care for them, but society no longer embraces such solutions.

We may witness the death of Shakerism in our lifetime.  This loss would be largely unfelt, a silent slipping away of an obscure species, but it shouldn’t be.  Shakers’ theology is surprisingly progressive.  They recognize in God a dual nature, addressing the Divine as “Father-Mother”.  Shaker hymns speak joyfully of fellowship with God and the Community.  Although segregated by sex, Shakers profess gender equality, a radical concept when introduced over 200 years ago.  Mother Ann Lee, spiritual leader of the community in the late 18th century, understood that Christ’s second coming is in His Church.  As such, the Shakers might be considered a millennialist community, believing they are already living in the next age, foreseen by Christ and foretold throughout the New Testament.  Obviously, this is not widely shared among Christians, who warn adherents of a still-looming judgment.  That the Shakers live in the Second Church seems to result in less fear and more joy.  The Shakers still have much to teach us.  We should rue their end.

We left the Community deeply moved by our visit.  We don’t know how we will be changed, but we hope to share worship and fellowship with them again soon.  Hurricane Irene gave us a great gift that wild Sunday morning.