Shabbat: prep pays off!
Moving beyond the Big Three

An afternoon in the City of Peace

As previously reported, we spent Saturday afternoon at Hancock Shaker Village. It's about twenty minutes from our house, and embarrassingly enough I had never taken the time to go there before. It's a really beautiful place: the lands are beautiful, the gardens are beautiful, the structures are beautiful. Their signature building is an enormous round stone haybarn, which is, yeah, pretty spectacular (it reminded me of the rebuilt Globe Theatre), but the other buildings are pretty amazing, too.

I was glad to have read Suzanne Skees' God Among the Shakers: A Search for Stillness and Faith at Sabbathday Lake before I went. Because there's a lot that's fascinating to me about the Shaker enterprise, and having a pre-existing fascination made walking through the Hancock Shaker grounds especially meaningful.

Skees developed her own fascination with the Shakers: the surprisingly gender-bendy theology of Mother Ann Lee (believed by her followers to be the second coming of Jesus), their growth and more poignantly their decline, and how the last remaining community of Shakers manages to continue to live according to their principles of simplicity, community, celibacy, and what Skees calls "indomitable spirituality." She spent a season living with them in Maine in order to write her book.

I had some issues with Skees' book -- primarily that she seemed either unwilling or unable to compare the Shakers with other religious communities. I'd love to see a comparison between the Shakers and Plum Village, or the Shakers and Benedictines, or the Shakers and the Communities of New Skete. I'll buy that the Shakers are remarkable, even unique...but there are aspects of their utopian communal vision, in which work is sanctified and human interactions become opportunities for engaging with God, which I'd argue exist elsewhere, too.

That aside, though, Skees does a lovely job of bringing the Sabbathday Lake community to life: their goals and their theology, the challenges of their vows and the day-to-day rhythms of cooking, gardening, and praying. And the images she evoked rang in my ears as we walked around Hancock.

The Shakers were millenialists; they believed the second coming of Jesus was manifest in Mother Ann. Obviously I can't follow them there, nor can I imagine accepting the strictures of giving up personal property and of lifelong celibacy (Judaism doesn't teach asceticism; we're firmly in favor of sanctifying life, not abstaining from it). I can't imagine giving up my attachments to my family in order to become part of the family of Shakers.

But I respect their (radical in its time) understanding that God is incarnate in people of all genders, and their motto of "hands to work, hearts to God" pleases me so much I'm contemplating how I might inscribe it in my office.

Obviously their intentional simplicity resonates for many people today; our lives are so complex that it's easy to yearn for a simpler set of priorities. On the one hand, I laugh a little at the phenomenon of people spending exorbitant amounts of money on Shaker furniture and Shaker trimmings, as though seasoning our homes with the Shaker aesthetic actually changes anything about the way we interact with the world. On the proverbial other hand, I understand the impulse...and it's undeniable that the Shakers' sanctification of work, and willingness to move slowly in order to do things right, led to some stunningly beautiful objects. And sometimes surrounding ourselves with meaningful (physical) things can help remind us of meaningful (nonphysical) things.

As I think about the Shakers, or about other intentional religious communities, I find myself thinking about Elat Chayyim. Every time I return from a retreat there, I experience an inevitable culture shock. On retreat, I spend early mornings in silence except for chant and prayer. I take classes with teachers who inspire me, I unbend my body in yoga classes, I slow down and move mindfully through the world, I focus my attention on God and on opening my life to holiness. And then I get in the car to drive home, and suddenly I have to think in terms of traffic and highway speed. And when I get home, a queue of voicemail and email messages awaits; my work awaits, in its many forms; the world makes demands on me. My online world makes demands on me. My social world makes demands on me. And though I chose my life, and I love it, it's a little overwhelming sometimes...especially after taking time away.

I find I like the rhythm of life and retreat, activity and restfulness, busy modern mundane chaos and quiet timeless holiness. (Indeed, that's the whole idea behind separating work-weeks with Shabbat.) But there's always a small part of me that wonders what I would be like if I made choices like the Shakers did, and do. And that's the part of me that loves reading about the Shaker experiment, or reading Kathleen Norris' The Cloister Walk, or Mary Rose O'Reilly's The Barn at the End of the World. I don't want to relinquish my modern life; it's too important to me, in too many ways. But I do want to enrich my life with a sense of connection with holy time, and though I doubt I could ever choose permanent retreat, I love being an armchair traveler among those who do.

Maybe that's why walking through the Shakers' former City of Peace yesterday was energizing for me. Any excuse to think about interesting religious communities obviously makes me happy, and I love being able to connect with New England history so close to home, but beyond that I can't help feeling that their enterprise was beautiful and that its slow but inevitable vanishing impoverishes us.