Not far from the asphalt and iron-clad buildings of downtown Cincinnati, in a westerly direction, there is a Shaker village. A few houses 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 private homes and public museums.
And there is a 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 tradition. 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, unmarked 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 that “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.” Should I be kneeling?
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 were held in common. With great power [they] gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them . . . [the proceeds of what was sold] . . . to each as any had need.
Quiet, sober, and solitary, the Shakers were good neighbors. No door-to-door evangelizing or bonfire revivals. They went to town each Saturday 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 their ice-skating neighbors. 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 one foot planted firmly in heaven and the other foot planted in their fields and workshops, praying and laboring diligently until the one caught up with the other.
I should be kneeling.
Ron Beathard is a retired writer/editor, attends Trinity Episcopal Church in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, and is an Oblate of St. Meinrad Monastery.