Quaker Theology #15
Seeking Paradise: The Spirit of the Shaker, Thomas Merton. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2003. 125pp. $24.00 (hardcover)
Reviewed by Robert Pierson
"The peculiar grace of a Shaker chair," wrote Thomas Merton, "is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it." (p.85) Seeking Paradise reflects the Trappist monkís enduring fascination with this "peculiar grace." The editor, Paul Pearson, calls it a celebration of Mertonís love of the Shakers, although it is equally an expression of Pearsonís affection for both Merton and the subject at hand.
The book is a collection of miniatures, a scrapbook of gathered writings from the 1960s that express Mertonís meditations on Shaker life and craftsmanship. The writings themselves are set out like artifacts, literary furnishings, as plain as Shaker chairs arranged in an open room, inviting us to sit awhile and experience their space.
Those looking for a comprehensive work may be disappointed. Paul Pierson takes up almost half of this short book with an introductory essay on Merton and the Shakers, then leaves the reader free to wander the remaining exhibits. These offerings include a magazine article Merton wrote about the Shaker village at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, an introduction Merton wrote for a friendís book on Shaker furniture, an edited transcript of a talk he gave to novices at his Trappist abbey, and a number of short letters.
Despite their "peculiar" theology, Merton saw the Shakers community as deeply similar and "born of the same Spirit" as his own Trappist community located just 50 miles further west in the hill country of Kentucky. Both the Shakers and the Trappists arrived in Kentucky the same year, and, according to Merton, "If Shakertown had survived it would probably have evolved much as we have evolved. The prim ladies in their bonnets would have been driving tractorsÖ" (p.14)
The Unified Society of Believers in Christís Second Appearing were more commonly called Shakers Ė short for "shaking Quakers." (It is fascinating to note that "shaking" is added derisively to a name that had once expressed a similar derision.) These shaking Quakers expressed revivalist spiritual fervor in their trembling, singing, dancing, and speaking in tongues during worship.
In 1774, Ann Lee, revered by Shakers as "Mother Ann," left England and emigrated to America with a small set of followers. Mother Ann taught the possibility of perfect holiness and came to be seen as the feminine embodiment of the divine. The movement attracted thousands of converts over the next century and established numerous settlements from the Northeast out to the frontier. However, high turnover, strict celibacy and a changing world brought decline. Only a few Shakers live their faith today and most of the settlements, like Pleasant Hill in Kentucky, are now museum pieces. Merton felt this viscerally as a loss for the land.
Thomas Merton first visited Pleasant Hill in 1959 and continued to visit until the year of his death, 1968, as the site was restored. Pearson sees Mertonís fascination driven by recognition of the Shakers as fellow monastics, as countercultural compatriots in a prophetic community and as sharers in "paradise consciousness." This paradise consciousness is an expression of original blessing, of "wholeness and order" that Quakers might translate as Gospel Order. Shaker behavior and their covenants of celibacy, confession, and community of goods echoed Mertonís sense of the monastic Rule of St. Benedict. Their pacifism, radical egalitarianism, practicality and simplicity appealed to him. But Mertonís deepest fascination was with the Shakerís grounded simplicity, their relation to place, and the way Shakers expressed work as worship.
Shakers understood manual labor as central to the life of faith, as summed up in the Shaker phrase: "put your hands to work and your hearts to God." Buildings and crafts expressed spiritual light, expressed the logos present in thing and place. A Shaker farm building fits its setting just as each table fits its room and each chair fits its use. Each was built as God would build it, knowing, as in the opening quote, that an angel might join in the harvest and sit down for a meal.
"Work was to be perfect," wrote Merton, "and a certain relative perfection was by all means within reach: the thing had to be precisely what it was supposed to be. It had, so to speak, to fulfill its own vocation." (p.79)
This practical sense of the kingdom in the present moment appealed deeply to Merton, who once wrote:
Cutting wood, clearing ground, cutting grass, cooking soup, drinking fruit juice, sweating, washing, making fire, smelling smoke, sweeping, etc. This is religion. The further one gets away from this, the more one sinks in the mud of words and gestures. The flies gather. (p.33)
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