Holy simplicity

Contemplating lives of service and worship in a Shaker cemetery
October 22, 2007

Not far from the asphalt and the iron-clad buildings of downtown Cincinnati, in a westerly direction, there is a Shaker village. A few houses still stand, and barns. Some are in original condition and are vacant and stoutly boarded. A few have been brought into the 21st century and are homes.

And there is the Shaker cemetery, an acre or two. A two-lane county road divides, sometimes noisily, the open fields. There are low hills in the distance.

I sit on the ground as my dog runs along the fence at the rear of the cemetery -- an iron fence bent and overwhelmed by age and sanctity and brambles. The cemetery is neat and clean in the Shaker spirit. It is nearly marker-less, and the remaining markers are illegible and probably moved from their chosen place.

A farmer once told me that, when plowing a field, he can both feel and hear differences when the plow crosses an old, forgotten grave. Perhaps, like the farmer's knowing plow, differences can be felt here sitting on the ground in a Shaker cemetery. Should I be kneeling?

Thomas Merton wrote of the Shakers: "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."

In Acts 4:32-36, St. Luke foresaw the Shakers: "Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power [they] gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them...[the proceeds of what was sold]...was distributed to each as any had need."

And St. Benedict wrote The Rule the Shakers followed unwittingly: "Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ"; "To devote oneself frequently to prayer"; "To prefer nothing to the love of Christ"; and "We descend [Jacob's ladder] by self-exaltation and ascend by humility."

The Shakers (The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing) had no written creed "to bind the faith and conscience of any," according to one of the elders. They did follow these precepts: confession of sin; renunciation of the world, the flesh and the devil; resurrection of the spirit, not the body; foot washing; salvation offered to all; the equality of men and women; and the fruits of work in the heart and in the Church being manifest in the love, peace and unity as shown by the faithful believers.

Quiet, sober and solitary, the Shakers were good neighbors. No door-to-door evangelizing or bonfire revivals. They went to town to sell their wares and buy what they could not grow or fashion themselves. And left.

The Shakers sold their seed in plain, brown wrappers, refusing bright, Burpee, hard-sell packaging, and went out of business. Their ponds on winter frozen fields were open to the ice-skating community -- but never on Sunday.

They worked to worship, not to put an SUV in the garage. "Put your hands to work and your hearts to God," they said. A good job -- planting potatoes, excising a tumor, selling insurance -- is a good prayer. Tools -- plow, pencil computer -- are tools of the altar.

And keep it simple. It's a gift.

The Shakers lived with one foot planted firmly in heaven and the other foot planted firmly in their fields and workshops, laboring diligently until the one caught up with the other.

I should be kneeling.

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