“Seeking Paradise: The Spirit of the Shaker”* Reviewed

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 monk’s enduring fascination with this “peculiar grace.” The editor, Paul Pearson, calls it a celebration of Merton’s love of the Shakers, although it is equally an expression of Pearson’s 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 Merton’s 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 friend’s 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 tractors…” (p.14)

The Unified Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing were more commonly called Shakers – 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 Merton’s 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 Merton’s sense of the monastic Rule of St. Benedict. Their pacifism, radical egalitarianism, practicality and simplicity appealed to him. But Merton’s deepest fascination was with the Shaker’s 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)

Merton was impressed by the Shakers’ sense of order and its physical expression in wood and stone. Its simplicity spoke of a fidelity in daily life and witnessed to a common faith. Essentially he admired Shaker orthopraxy over its orthodoxy. “Indeed,” he wrote, “one is tempted to say that it [Shaker craftsmanship] is a better, clearer, more comprehensible expression of their faith than their written theology was.” (p.76) But Merton worried that the extinction of the Shakers signified a deeper loss:

… is such a spirit, such work, possible to men whose lives are in full technological, sociological, and spiritual upheaval? Will such a spirit be possible in the future world that will emerge from the present technological revolution, that world whose outlines can barely be discerned? Is Shaker craftsmanship and its spirit necessarily bound up with a more primitive technology, or can it find a way to direct and inform machine production? (88-9)

Forty years later, these questions haunt us, particularly those of us, like myself, who live at the intersection of faith, science, and engineering. Is such work in the spirit possible in an age where a replica Shaker chair is drafted on a desktop on one continent, mass-produced in a factory on another, of materials imported from a third? Is spiritual craftsmanship limited to farm house furnishings and museum pieces, or can a cell phone, a microwaveable dish or a mass-transit system be the inspired embodiment of one’s faith?

Given the challenges facing us, the answers to these questions grow urgent. The furniture to meet our needs may have changed, but the need for answers that express the spirit in physical form have never been greater.

Quaker theology may hold several keys to an answer. First, like their Shaker cousins, Quakers rely on a sense of Gospel Order, of “paradise consciousness.” For Quakers, the kingdom is immanent upon earth and the faithful are active participants in that coming.

However, unlike the Shakers, modern Quakers do not withdraw from the world but engage it. Quakers’ work and faith interrelate, and Quakers seek to live the testimonies in the midst of a technological age. Being engaged in the world means that Quakers take servant leadership roles in many fields and institutions. Quakers are leaders in science and systems engineering, acknowledging that building the kingdom includes the work of many craftsmen, including physicists, chemists, and road engineers. By expressing the spiritual in practical lives, Quakers reintegrate the work of our hands… and computers… in the service of the spirit.

As we go about that work, it might serve us well to pause and contemplate the carved wood and handiwork that the Shakers left us for a sign – a physical expression of calm yet ecstatic faith in a kingdom already come and God’s work pursued on earth as it is in heaven.

Merton’s words in Seeking Paradise lead to fruitful reflection, but the words are only part of the pilgrimage captured in this book. The author also includes 40 photographs – 13 taken by the author, one portrait of Merton by James Laughlin, and the remaining 26 by Merton himself. Pearson’s photos add to the book, by providing more visual references to Shaker craft and architecture from multiple sites (all of Merton’s photographs are from Pleasant Hill, Kentucky), but the author’s photos are more formal and self-conscious than Merton’s. These photos are not segregated nor properly credited in the text; so one must refer to the end of the book to find attribution.

This is unfortunate because Merton’s photographs, interspersed amidst the text, allow the reader to enter and dwell in the Shaker spaces as Merton saw them. There is a sense of reflective simplicity that renders each snapshot a meditation on its subject. Merton’s photos have what in Buddhism might be called “suchness,” an acceptance of what is actually there that strips away our cleverness and bring us in touch with the holy and ordinary – for example:

  • a white-sided building in shadowed snow, framed by bare trees,
  • a doorway with two chairs hung to the left, one sitting to the right,
  • an empty fireplace echoing Merton’s photos of his own hermitage, or
  • a front hallway with door ajar and light shining over the bare flooring.

There is no artifice, no gloss in these photographs. The objects pictured are allowed to speak for themselves. The plainness tells much of how Merton saw holiness worn into the lines of each building, field, and chair by its maker, time and use.

To its credit, this is a simple book. A slim volume, in keeping with its subject matter, its style is spare and direct – a few simple topics hung in a row from wall pegs with minimal fuss. Those interested in the life of the Spirit would be well advised to sit awhile, rest, contemplate and then take up the work at hand.

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*Seeking Paradise: The Spirit of the Shaker, Thomas Merton. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2003. 125pp. $24.00 (hardcover)

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