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Reverence: The Shaker Way

By The Rev Ms Denise D. Tracy

Presented by Omni Virtual University

Reverence is the inner feeling of an outward expression that allows each of us to be connected to ourselves, each other, the natural world, and even to the Universe.[1]

On one of my family's many trips to Western Massachusetts, we visited a museum in Stockbridge called the Hancock Shaker Village. After picking up my Uncle, Father Hector Bolduc, we parked our car and walked around this beautiful pastoral scene. Upon entering the building, I began to pick up pieces of the story:

Mother Ann Lee, Founding leader of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, i.e., the Shakers, was one of eight immigrants who came to America in 1774 . She believed that she was the second-coming of Christ, the sister of Jesus. This small band decided that together they would create a new society based on equality of the sexes, cooperation. and mutually-shared interests. They were ,essentially, the first community in America. They were Pacifists[2] which, during the Revolutionary War, exposed them to persecution because of the fear that they were British sympathizers.They accepted converts who agreed to surrender whatever they had and join this new faith. In a number of years, they had 8,000 members in 19 communities stretching from Ohio to Maine. Every member contributed to the creation of this "new world".

That long-ago summer day, I experienced a kind of holiness that I have never forgotten.The whole place was created with a sense of inner beauty that touched my inner spirit. When I walked into the worship space of the Shaker community, the Shaker Meeting House with its hardwood floors and simple white walls, I had a spiritual experience. In one moment I felt- at once- as small as a grain of sand and, yet, as vast as the world. I sat down and realized that, in this place, people had sung and danced their faith- that it was as holy and as reverent as my own. I imagined that I heard the echoes of their music and movement. I was changed by what I both learned and what I felt. I had known that there were different religions but I had not realized how faith informed and changed how people lived. These people created a world where women were equal and everyone shared in the creation of community. Radical? Maybe. Just? Certainly.

In the Hancock community, near Pittsfield, Massachusetts, there is a round barn that is three-stories high. Each story can be entered by earthen ramps so that carts can move both hay and feed with much less human effort than in and out of a traditional barn. The construction of the building, the design- the form itself- is holy. The barn is so beautiful that it is now used as a concert space in the summer months. For the Shakers, every act and aspect of living was reverent. They lived the word ``reverence'' 24/7.

The Shakers treated each moment of each day as an opportunity to make God imminent. They said, “Give your hands to work and your hearts to God.” All labor was considered an expression of the Divine: whether baking bread, crafting chairs from wood, sweeping floors, or milking cows. Thich Nhat Hanh, "Vietnamese Thein Buddhist Monk and founder of the Plum Village Tradition", said these same things. But, for my 12 year-old self, this was a radical new idea.

In an era when factories destroyed lives and, starting at the age of 6, children were working 12-hour days for $1 a week, the Shakers took in orphans and families and guaranteed that children would go to school. To have a better life, parents’ who had lost their spouses, came with their children and joined. In fact, whole families converted. When the children came of age, they were given the choice of remaining in the community or provided a financial start in the outside world.

Each Shaker was required to spend time each day doing the work of the community: mowing, planting, cleaning, doing laundry, cooking, etc. They also had several other blocks of time for creating, or writing or drawing. Whatever the task, it was considered God’s work. The Shakers did not believe in patents so, their many inventions were considered gifts to the world. This is a partial list of inventions attributed to the Shakers[3]:

the flat broom;

the circular saw,

the clothespin;

paper packets for seeds;

the swivel desk chair;

the metal ink pen;

condensed milk (which they used in their infirmary for the sick and dying). [4]

Sleek, elegant Danish furniture is a modern adaptation of Shaker design. Shaker seeds were the most sought -after for many years. My grandfather told me that he and many local farmers bought Shaker seeds from the Canterbury Shaker community every spring because they were the best. We had been planting Shaker seeds every spring.

While I was in theological school, I studied Shaker culture. I visited the 6 remaining living Shaker sisters at their community in Canterbury, New Hampshire. These women were in their 80’s and 90’s. We spoke about their faith. “Our furniture, our food are all expressions of our faith", said one of the sisters. I have kept my interest in the Shakers alive. I have visited almost every one of the Shaker communities. In my first home, I built Shaker chairs and tables from kits. I have searched for the very intense spirituality of the Shakers - Divinity in all. When Bill and I married, his wedding present to me was an original Shaker Rocking chair. That is my most treasured possession.

In my ministries, I have tried to bring a consistent type of search for a community that has the integrity of religion or holiness in all. When people share a vision and work towards it -side by side as though the process is holy, -it is a type of reverent expression that makes this world a paradise on earth. I have experienced this in other places but I first learned this sixty (60) years ago from a Summer visit to the Shaker community.

What do we worship? What do we allow our hearts and minds to change us and carry us into new fields of exploration? Do you have places of resistance? Doors that are closed, forever? Doors that are just ajar?

We all are on a sacred path. Our lives are holy journeys. I am sure each of us has an inner movie we could make from the holy moments that have pointed the way for us on our own sacred path. If ever I am feeling dis-spirited, all I need to do is remember my many trips to Shaker Villages or pick up a Shaker box and I can find my way back to my own. May your path toward reverence become clearer.

Shalom, Salam, Amen and Blessed Be.

Blog Notes

[1] This is an "Operational definition", i.e, as defined by the author

[2] Pacifist- a person who believes that war and violence are unjustifiable.

[3] Sprigg, Diane, By Shaker Hands.

[4] Gail Borden,of the Borden Milk Dairy Farm, gave money to the Shakers his entire life because he used their recipe for condensed milk as a staple in his business.

Recommended Viewing:

Recommended Readings:

"Simple Gifts: Lessons in Living from a Shakur" by Diane Sprigg.

Mother Ann Lee: "Morning Star of the Shakers" by Nardi Reeder Champion and June Sprigg.

"By Shaker Hands" by Diane Sprigg.

"Gifts of Power: The Writings of Rebecca Jackson, Black Visionary, Shaker Eldress" by Jean McMahon Humez.

"Fruits of the Shaker Tree of Life: Memoirs of Fifty Years of collecting and Research" by Edward Deming Andrews and Faith Andrews.

"Work and Worship: The Economic Order of the Shakers" by Edward Deming Andrews and Faith Andrews.

"The Shaker Experience in America: A History of the United Society of Believers" by Stephen Stein.

"Shakerism Unmasked: Or The History of the Shakers" by William J. Haslett

Thich Nhat Hanh:

"Living Buddha, Living Christ"

"Present Moment, Wonderful Moment: Mindfulness Moments for Daily Living"

"No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering"

"The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to Meditation"

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