Sister Frances Carr died recently. I never met her but did have one exchange with her. She was one of the last of the Shakers. I first saw Sister Frances in a documentary on the Shakers. At one point, images of her cooking are interfaced with a nearby auction of highly valued Shaker furniture. Oprah Winfrey ends up winning one bid. Sister Frances then reflects on the auctions, noting that it is often said that it rains on auctions days. She observes with a catch in her throat “Some say it is the old Shakers crying.” Their furniture, beautiful in its simplicity, was never meant to bring in riches.
After seeing that video, I grew to admire the Shakers. Their spirituality was simple and straight forward and is reflected with sayings such as “Hands to work. Hearts to God.” and the more well-known “Tis a gift to be simple. Tis a gift to be free.” I think that is one aspect of the Shakers that draws me. Their approach to life is based on hard work, simplicity, and welcome. To this day, visitors who wish to come to Sabbathday Lake where Sister Frances lived and who wish to join in the work or simply reflect are all welcome.
I also feel drawn to their commitment to pacifism and to their commitment to meaningful roles and leadership for women, lessons that other more mainline religions would do well to note.
There were at one time as many as 6000 Shakers in the U.S. due in part to the Shakers welcoming of orphaned children. As Child Welfare laws changed, so did this source for membership. In addition, the Shakers commit to a celibate life. As such, there are only a handful of Shakers left.
Legend has it that composer Aaron Copeland was driving in upper New York state and overheard a hymn coming from a Shakers’ church. Copeland adapted that hymn and it became a centerpiece of his great Appalachian Springtime. The hymn is known as “Simple Gifts”. The hymn and its many adaptations live on as part of the Shaker legacy.
No, I am not a Shaker. I lack the self-discipline. I also think too much. But the Shakers have a treasured place in my spiritual tapestry, in part because they remind me always that perhaps my relationship with God need not be so complicated and so troublesome and that freedom can indeed be found in simplicity.
Reflection: Do you see a need for simplicity in your own spiritual journey?
Here then is a version “Simple Gifts” that I love for its simplicity.
Simplicity is something that I will most likely never master. Still, I see its value. The more the mind is cluttered with materialism, the less room there is to appreciate the true riches of life. When I lost most of my accumulated wealth, I realized that my jewels had been precious but not as precious as the Sapphire blue eyes of my cats. I realized that my satin had been sumptuous but not as much as their silky fur. It saddened me at the same time because these four legged treasures are discarded in favor of the other kind. The simpler I am the more animal love I receive. If you doubt that they are treasures, ask how often they would betray or deceive you.
If you were to visit one of the Shaker villages; whether it be the active village at Sabbathday Lake, Maine or one of the museums, you would be unable to miss the simplicity. I visit the Canterbury Village in New Hampshire each year and hear the voices of those who came before me. I can’t help but feel, hear, and see them all around. Sometimes putting ourselves in certain places and situations can bring us to an inner simplicity. We have been to the Pleasant Hill, KY; Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield, MA; and Enfield, NH each brings a special feeling.
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