Our world is anything but simple. We find ourselves living in the most overscheduled, overworked, overfed, and overwhelmed time in human history. In search of more simplicity, I reserved a weekend with my family at Shaker Village in Pleasant Hill. New quarantine restrictions shut that trip down, so I did some research to try and recreate the Shaker Experience on Quisenberry Lane.
The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing formed in 1747 in England. Ann Lee was raised in Manchester, an industrial hell in which constant pregnancy was a prime source of emotional – and financial – suffering. After four painful and complicated pregnancies, all of her children died young from sickness. She started to believe that sex was the root of all suffering and abstinence might be the only path for women to lead free, fulfilled lives.
In 1774, Christ appeared to Ann Lee in a vision, compelling her to flee the religious persecution of her homeland and form a commune across the Atlantic. Her group of followers became known as Shakers for their ecstatic dancing, a rhapsodic trembling that sublimated sex and brought them closer to knowing God. In 1805, a group of those Shakers came to central Kentucky and established a village they named Pleasant Hill. The Shakers lived their days simply according to a specific order in work and prayer. They turned ever toward harmony and ever away from conflict and warfare (in fact, during the Civil War, the Shakers and the Amish were the first groups to receive official exemption from military service based on religious beliefs). The Shaker community was pacifist, celibate, and egalitarian, espousing equality of both sexes and all races. This was almost 75-years before the slaves were emancipated and women were allowed to vote!
They would recruit followers and occasionally adopt children that needed a home. But without procreation, their ranks dwindled and, one by one, Shaker villages across the United States were closed (Kentucky Shakers no longer exist). While their views on sex were misguided from a longevity standpoint, their legacy remains. Their basic teachings have much wisdom to offer us today.
None preaches better than the ant, and it says nothing.
There’s a reason we’re designed with two ears but only a single mouth. If we would listen more than we talk, we would all be wiser and more connected to divine flow. Shakers separated from the noisy, secular world for the purpose of perfecting their souls in silence. Shaker buildings are sparsely decorated, the rooms large. This open space is intended to wrap the supplicant in silence so that we may hear God more clearly.
Do your work as if you had a thousand years to live, and as if you were to die tomorrow.
Work well done is a form of worship. The Shakers believed the glory of God was evident in everyone and everything, so they treated the earth with devoted love and an eye toward leaving it better than they found it. They treated their lands, gardens, and farm animals with tender love, knowing that later generations would require them.
Don’t make something unless it is both made necessary and useful; but if it is both necessary and useful, make it beautiful.
The Shakers made furniture with the same love and care as they gardened, resulting in stunning objects of symmetrical beauty. As the Catholic Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote, “The peculiar grace of a shaker chair is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it.” When one believes every action is a sacred effort, the ordinary becomes imbued with extraordinary. The result is always true and beautiful.
You must not lose one moment of time for you have none to spare.
The Shakers revered present-moment thinking, for they knew they could only feel God in the now. The more present we are, the more we can receive religious mystery.
Hands to Work, Heart to God
If the Shakers have a singular guiding principle, it’s this: Work hard and be kind to each other, for everyone is simply a different face of God. That is all that matters. If the world is to be redeemed, it shall be accomplished through dedicated labor in the service of others. We were disappointed to cancel our trip, but if it keeps others safe, then it’s all for the best. We ordered fried chicken from Blue Isle Restaurant, took a hike on our land in the sunshine, and sat around our fire pit with guitars and hot chocolate as the stars popped out. It wasn’t Pleasant Hill, but it was Shaker spirit.