Wednesday, July 29, 2009

God Among the Shakers

I mentioned the book, God Among The Shakers, by Suzanne Skees, in an entry a couple months ago and have since been hesitant to write about it. I was afeared people would want an actual book report, which would mean me thoroughly reviewing it and covering the most important points, not just the ones that struck me. As soon as I recognized that ridiculous notion (because.....which imaginary people would want that? and plus, this is my blog. I ain't getting paid, yo.), I jumped in. I finally returned the book to the library this week so figured I should write a little ditty about it.

This book is a good read if you like knowing about random little religious groups, especially ones furthered by women with major sexual hangups (to where they wind up banning sex altogether) but who nevertheless like a good shaking (and luckily discover they can do that as a worship dance/activity). Pacifists. Communal livers. Equal opportunists. Hard workers. Pray-ers.

That description would probably get an eye-rolling by the Shakers themselves, and since they do have internet access, I pray they don't come across this and feel saddened. But then, how much time would they have to google "what everybody else thinks about us Shakers?" So, I'll leave it as written, because that's the impression I got after reading the book. Their history is quite provocative.

Ann Lee, a.k.a. Mother Ann, while not the inventor of the faith, is who moved it forward by leaps and bounds (literally, across the Atlantic) when she lead a small group from England to the United States in 1774. For one thing, she was sick and tired of patriarchy, specifically when it came to our views of God. She believed we do a great dis-service to God and ourselves by only recognizing his masculine side. Shakers thus refer to God as our Father-Mother, and this is a foundational cornerstone of their faith. Men and women are equals in the community. In fact, the original band held that Ann Lee was essentially Jesus' other half, or the female embodiment of God where Jesus was the male one. Modern Shakers don't make that much of a distinction between Lee and the rest of humanity. They see her as far less uniquely divine than they once did. In Skees' words, "Today's Shakers appear moderate next to the fervid whirling and stern rules of yesterday's believers." However, the three C's that were vital in the beginning - celibacy, confession, and community - appear to still be such important cornerstones that to abandon any of them would call to question whether the Shaker faith was still the Shaker faith.

God Among The Shakers alternates between telling the Shaker history and Skees' own experiences living in the last Shaker community, in New Gloucester, Maine, for about three weeks. She works daily alongside the members at Sabbathday Lake, feeding baby lambs or sweeping floors, learning their stories of joining the group. There are only 8 of them at that point. Their website is and if you click on "About," it gives a good run down of their history highlights and basic theological tenets. Unlike some separatist groups, the Shakers do not shy away from technology. Evidently they invented the electric washing machine!

Early in the book, Skees is preparing her own little family (husband and two oldest children) for her temporary time away from them to live among the Shakers as part of her own spiritual quest. She says this, and it has stuck with me.

"Eventually I hoped that my children would find mothering far beyond myself:
in the pat of an understanding teacher, the extra good-bye kiss in the morning
from daddy, the giggly shoulder ride on a strong and careful uncle, the offer of
a consoling toy from a young friend. I hoped my sons would find nurturing from
many sources, and that ultimately they would learn to find it within."

For a while there, I thought it was so silly that the main idea I returned to from this book had less to do with the Shakers and more to do with me as a new mother relating to the author's experience of preparing her children for life without her. But really, this has everything to do with Shaker foundations. I wonder whether fewer people would have hang-ups seeing God as nurturing and loving if they didn't so closely equate Him with their own earthly fathers. What if we could really understand God as our Mother too, and a Mother who wants her children to live well, at that?

Unity is a major theme in Shakerdom. Whatever is done in the community is done for the benefit of all. If someone can't participate, they don't do it. Skees wonders why Shaker worship isn't as shaky as it used to be. It is much more subdued, meditative. The worshippers are neither prone to bodily shakes and whirlings as they once were nor to communication with spirits and paranormal visions. The answer, she found, was unity. Those practices aren't currently done because they would cause divisions and discomfort among the members.

Outsiders today join the Shakers for meals or short visits and maintain abiding friendships with the Shakers. From this book's account, they are a very welcoming bunch. And, you know, whenever I sat down to read about them, I felt calmer. People who have chosen a full time monastic or semi-monastic lifestyle and who are very intentional about simplicity and feeding the spirit man despite a mainstream culture that screams out for individuality, upward mobility, busy-ness, and material progress know that not everybody is going to join them. But they feel that their presence and steadfastness shed a little light, give a little hope. And I certainly reaped the benefits of their labors, albeit from the opposite side of the nation and via a non-Shaker's report. Imagine spending some real time at Sabbathday Lake! Wow. Zoralee could really use some work on stillness and meditation. And okay, I could too.


Rachel Clear said...

I loved this... it does make me want to read the book.

That part about mothering made me tear up a little, I'm not sure why.

Nikki said...

I like this post, Lori. What an interesting way to make the faith journey - it seems like some of their beliefs and reasonings would be maybe not too different from my own.
And I find the simple monastic lifestyle compelling,also. If only there was a group around here that we could connect with and learn from.

Jason said...

Smart post honey, although I know it wasn't your intent to be smart.

I am sure that by living in such a community one would be sure of their life purpose at the end; even if that life was bit boring. Boring and unsexed.

tamie said...

Also I enjoyed your book report. And I understand what you mean about feeling calmer, just by sitting down to read the book. I have that sense about certain books, and also about a movie called "Into Great Silence" which is an all-silent documentary about a monastic community in France that has taken vows of complete silence.