The little book was discovered sitting in the second-hand bookshop amongst all of the other sundry items that refused to fit into the categories of Cooking, Biography, History, Travel, Humour, Art, and Fiction. The shelves in this section of the shop have no label - not even ‘Non-fiction.’ Here everything from philosophy and science, to theology and mathematics, along with other sundry singular subjects, was placed side by side in no particular order. It has always been a favourite place where little discoveries in the assembled chaos can be made, like this one:
Thomas Merton, Seeking Paradise, The Spirit of the Shakers, Orbis Books, New York, 2003.
It is a small publication with an innocuous pale grey green dust jacket with a darker grey green text, and a red ochre title on the spine: Seeking Paradise. The greenish colour reminds one of that being used on the new, anonymous cigarette packaging in Australia that replaces commercial brands and logos with a sickly olive green and an awful photo of a diseased lung or mouth, because research showed that this colour was the least attractive to consumers.
The book would have been described as ‘in fine condition’ if it had been listed in a catalogue. I had already flicked past the thin edge of its glossy cover on to other more eye-catching colours and titles. Because of these distractions and the difficulty of actually seeing what one is really looking at in the ad hoc arrangement of books, I usually go back over the shelves to check on what I might have missed - what I might not have seen. It was during this second perusal that the name caught my eye: Thomas Merton. The thought arose: this might be interesting. What is it about? Then the remainder of title appeared on the front of the book: The Spirit of the Shakers.
On opening this little book, I gained the impression that it was something of a coffee table publication. It was a general collection of Merton’s texts on the Shakers with other commentaries and some of his correspondence. It seemed forced - a very self-conscious effort to get a ‘Merton’ title out again. The book did have some fuzzy black and white photographic images of Pleasant Hill, a Shaker village in Kentucky. Umm, interesting; but was it merely a potboiler? I carried the book around while I looked at others, then put it back; then later picked it up again. I thought that at least it would be a nice reference for Shaker images - the photographs that Merton had taken himself. So I purchased it, took it home and put it aside to be read whenever.
Whenever came sooner than expected, what with the continuation of the heavy, flooding rain that the region, (southeast Queensland), has been receiving for many weeks (early 2013). Such days are always a good excuse to stay indoors and do ‘nothing.’ The book was a surprise. It was always Merton’s aim to publish something on the Shakers, but the ambition came to nothing. This publication gathered together his texts and letters on the subject and his photographs. It is a cryptic book, perhaps not one the Merton would have written - Merton died in Bangkok in 1968 - but it does contain the essence of his thinking. It is a beautiful little publication that needs more attention, not only in its reading, but also because of the potential impact it might hold today as an ideal, an inspiration: the spirit of the Shakers.
What are of interest in the appraisal of this text are the parallels with American modernism. The question has to be asked: what role did the Shakers play in the formulation of the theory of modernism. Notions like ‘every force evolves a form’ are very close to Sullivan’s ‘form follows function.’ Merton identifies the Shaker spirit as having truly American roots. So what is the role, if any, of the Shaker ‘spirit’ in the transformation of architectural thinking rising from Sullivan (Kindergarten Chats) and Frank Lloyd Wright? This needs to be revisited, reviewed. Was it just ‘something in the air’ of those times? Consider the idea of ‘honesty,’ ‘simplicity,’ ‘spiritual purity,’ of being ‘better adapted to the particular need for which it was required,’ and of how a building might ‘fit into its location.’
Beyond all of these concepts, there is the sense and value of work - that Zen quality of collecting wood and carrying water; and the importance of humility. This little book touches on such big subjects with such an ordinary authority and a real commitment that it is a surprise. It presents us with a challenge. We discard our past only too quickly as we rush into the promises of the ever new. Perhaps it is time to pause, to learn again from the past - from the roots of modernism? If we are ever to know more about where we are going, we need to know more about where we have come from.
Both ways of life, (that of the Shakers and the monastic life following the Rule of St. Benedict), stressed the virtue of humility. The chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict on humility is one of the longest and most structured chapters of his rule as he lays out the twelve steps of humility. Similarly, the Shakers were admonished about using superfluous decoration and encouraged to avoid things that were expensive and extravagant. The Shakers’ belief in humility is summed up succinctly in many of their songs, including their most famous one, “The Gift to Be Simple”:
When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight
‘Till by turning, turning we come round right.
Merton writes of the humility practiced by the Shakers saying:
The Shakers remain as witnesses to the fact that only humility keeps a man in communion with truth, and first of all with his own inner truth. This one must know without knowing it, as they did. For as soon as a man becomes aware of “his truth” he lets go of it and embraces the illusion.
In the Rule of St. Benedict the craftsmen of the monastery were instructed to practice their crafts “with all humility,” and if a monk gets a “swollen head because of his skill in his craft,” the Abbot was not to allow him to practice that craft again until “his pride has been humbled.” Similarly, a Shaker could be moved from a particular craft if there was evidence of “unseemly pride.”
Within many traditions one can identify the concept that work, manual labor, helps to purify the soul and bring it closer to God. Any chore in either the monastic or Shaker life could become an opportunity to serve both God and the community. Within the Buddhist tradition this is called “mindfulness”; in business circles managers would call it “focus”; for the Shakers it is summed up in their motto “put your hands to work and your hearts to God,” or again in another saying, “a man can show his religion as much in measuring onions as he can in saying hallelujah.”
Merton was a strong advocate of manual labor in the monastic life, but he best witnesses to the holiness of work in his descriptions of the regular round of chores in his life at the hermitage. His essay “Day of a Stranger” clearly describes the rhythm of his hermit life, the daily chores of the hermitage all embraced with mindfulness and given as much importance as his prayer and his work of writing. In a letter of this time Merton writes of his work:
Cutting wood, clearing ground, cutting grass, cooking soup, drinking fruit juice, sweating, washing, making fire, smelling smoke, sweeping, etc. This is religion. The further one gets away from this, the more one sinks in the mind of words and gestures. The flies gather.
Merton was emphasizing here, as St. Benedict does in his rule, the sacredness of work. St. Benedict compares the workman’s tools to the chalice and other tools of the altar, instructing the cellarer of the monastery that “the monastery utensils and all its belongings he is to regard as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar.” Similarly, for the Shakers, work equaled prayer and one could achieve a meditative state of worship in whatever task one was doing because all work was undertaken for God.
p. 36 –37
For example, he (Merton) writes in The Waters of Siloe:
Forest and field, sun and wind and sky, earth and water, all speak the same silent language, reminding the monk that he is here to develop like the things that grow all around him . . . even the site of a Cistercian monastery is, or ought to be, a lesson in contemplation.
He also writes:
When the monks had found their homes, they not only settled there, for better or for worse, but they sank their roots into the ground and fell in love with their woods. Indeed, this love of one’s monastery and its surrounding is something integral to the Cistercian life. It forms the object of a special vow: stability.
The Shakers, like the early Cistercians, appreciated the importance of place. They carefully chose sits for their communities, and often the place and their religious aspirations were reflected in the names they gave their communities – Pleasant Hill, New Lebanon, and Sabbathday Lake, for example.
The sense of place in both the Shakers and the Cistercians embraced the architecture of their buildings, an architecture characterized by its simplicity. . . . Merton touched on the qualities of Cistercian architecture in The Waters of Siloe:
Cistercian architecture is famous for its energy and simplicity and purity, for its originality and technical brilliance. It was the Cistercians who effected the transition from the massive, ponderous Norman style to the thirteenth-century Gothic, with its genius for poising masses of stone in mid-air, and making masonry fly and hover over the low earth with the self-assurance of an angel.
The typical Cistercian church, with its low elevation, its plain, bare walls, lighted by few windows and without stained glass, achieved its effect by the balance of masses and austere, powerful, round or pointed arches and mighty vaulting. These buildings filled anyone who entered them with peace and restfulness and disposed the soul for contemplation in an atmosphere of simplicity and poverty.
These descriptions could be applied equally well to a great deal of Shaker architecture. Merton’s words in those quotations remind me specifically of the great round stone barn at the Shaker Village of Hancock in Massachusetts. This barn, built in 1826, has the feel of a cathedral. While there visiting the village I was struck with wonder upon entering the barn, a sense of awe at the harmonious effect of light, scent, architecture and wood, experienced as a deep sense of peace.
Writing many years later about Shakers, after having visited Pleasant Hill, Merton commented on the “extraordinary, unforgettable beauty” of their buildings and furniture brought about, like the Cistercians, through their attempts to “build honest buildings and to make honest sturdy pieces of furniture.” Merton also refers to this in some of his unfinished notes describing examples of work sensitive to logoi, to the true Word spoken by God:
Shaker handicrafts, and furniture. Deeply impregnated by the communal mystique of the Shaker community. The simplicity and austerity demanded by their way of life enabled an unconscious spiritual purity to manifest itself in full clarity. Shaker handicrafts are then a real epiphany of logoi.
Charactized by spiritual light.
See also their buildings. Barns especially. Highly mystical quality: Capaciousness, dignity, solidity, permanence. Logos of a barn? “But my wheat, gather ye into my barn.”
Note: It is never a question of a “barn” in the abstract and in on definite place: the Shaker farm building always fits right into its location, manifests the logos of the place where it is built, grasps and expresses the hidden logos of the valley, or hillside, etc. which forms its site. Logos of the site. Important in Cistercian monasteries of twelfth century.
Merton picks up this same theme in relation to Shaker furniture in his introduction to Religion in Wood, writing that “neither the Shakers nor Blake would be disturbed at the thought that a work-a-day bench, cupboard, or table might also and at the same time be furniture in and for heaven.”
where ordinary objects could portray an extraordinary, unexpected beauty
In Shaker work there is a certain Edenic innocence as each item that the craftsman makes is a participation in God’s work of creation and the craftsman’s ideal was to make each object to best fulfil its vocation. This gave their work “an inimitable honesty,” as Merton famously says, “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 both their work and worship the Shakers attempted to be “attuned to the music intoned in each being by God the Creator and by the Lord Jesus.”
There is at times in Merton an almost Luddite attitude to technology and technological progress. Although the Shakers were great inventors and were happy to embrace the latest technology, their motives for doing so remained pure, and this must have been attractive for Merton. Merton write of their work’s inimitable honesty which one “cannot find in the slick new model of the latest car, tailored to some unearthly reptilian fowl and flashing with pointless gadgetry, marketed to replace other models designed for obsolescence, and to be replaced itself without delay.” He asks whether it is still possible in our own time for the Shaker spirit to exist when our “lives are in full technological, sociological, and spiritual upheaval” - can Shaker craftsmanship and its spirit “find a way to direct and inform machine production?” These are questions as valid today as they were when Merton posed them.
For Merton, the Shakers “exemplified the simplicity, the practicality, the earnestness, and the hope that have been associated with the United States,” and they acted out their conviction with a full awareness of the world around them, aware that the serpent had already entered into the paradise of the New World, that
already the irresponsible waste of mine and forest, of water and land, the destruction of bison and elk, were there to show that Paradise was not indefinitely self-sustaining.
the Shaker “gift of simplicity” was a “true American charism.”
(NOTE: charism - In Christian theology, a charism (in Greek: χαρίσμα; plural: charismata) in general denotes any good gift that flows from God's love to man. The word can also mean any of the spiritual graces and qualifications granted to every Christian to perform his or her task in the Church. In the narrowest sense, it is a theological term for the extraordinary graces given to individual Christians for the good of others. Wikipedia)
p.60 - 62
The most eloquent witness to the Shaker spirit is the fruit of their labor. Anyone who knows anything about furniture realizes that today a mere stool, a coat hangar, a simple box made by the Shakers, is likely to be worth a good sum: and this is not because an artificial market for such things has been created, but because of their consummate perfection, their extraordinary unselfconscious beauty and simplicity. There is, in the work of the Shakers, a beauty that is unrivalled because of its genuine spiritual purity - a quality for which there is no adequate explanation, but which can be accounted for in part by the doctrine of the Shakers themselves and their monastic view of manual work as an essential part of Christian life.
(NOTE: one of the greatest of ironies is that the British artist, Damien Hurst, one of most cynical practitioners of his profession, collects Shaker furniture. It seems clear that he has learned nothing from its qualities when, for example, he gleefully promotes his spin art that has been done by, well, anyone, Mandy, Will or otherwise, all to be sold for ‘millions,’ like his diamond skull, which actually did reach the multi-million figure asked for it. Here he, Hurst, the artist, was a member of the group that paid these millions of dollars for this piece that was crafted by others. The strategy seemed to be that Hurst wanted to make sure that the sale of the skull achieved the massive sum that he asked for it. Hurst appears to be interested in manipulating the market of art with his work. His interest in Shaker furniture is a puzzle. Perhaps he knows its future market value? Sadly it seems that nothing of its spirit and idealism has rubbed of into his attitude or his work.)
Like the earliest monastic documents, they spoke of the “work of God” which they were called upon to do: the work of building God’s “Millennial Church.”
Sometimes the simple Shaker maxims remind one of William Blake. This one, for instance: “Order is the creation of beauty. It is heaven’s first law, and the protection of souls.” Or especially this other: “Every force evolves a form.”
Work was to be perfect, and a certain relative perfection was by all means within reach: the thing made had to be precisely what it was supposed to be. It has, so to speak, to fulfil its own vocation. The Shaker cabinetmaker enabled wood to respond to the “call” to become a chest, a table, a chair, a desk. “All things ought to be made according to their order and use,” said Joseph Meacham. The work of the craftsman’s hands had to be an embodiment of ‘form.’ The form had to be an expression of spiritual force.
(Consider Louis Kahn: “What a things wants to be.”)
. . .
Nothing was done by rote or by slavish imitation. The workman also had a vocation: he dad to respond to the call of God pointing out to him the opportunity to make a new chest of drawers like the ones that has been made before, only better. Not necessarily better in an ideal and absolute sense, but better adapted to the particular need for which it was required. Thus the craftsman began each new chair as if it were the first chair ever to be made in the world!
One can imagine, then, the Edenic innocence which the special glory and mystery of Shaker work. Here we admire, not the Titanic creativity of the self-conscious genius, aware of a possible mission to disturb and to awaken the world (and perhaps infuriated by his promethean calling). Shakers were not supposed to sign their work, or flaunt trade marks. Their only advertisement was thew work itself, and the honesty with which the product was set before the buyer.
(Compare Wight’s refusal to put a name on the Johnson Wax Building.)
“spirit,” “form,” and “actualization” are all one and the same.
p.85Shakers believed their furniture was designed by angels - and Blake believed his ideas for poems and engraving came from heavenly spirits.