“I went to the Shakers to look for God, who lately had been absent from my harried, distracted days.”
– Suzanne Skees
God Among the Shakers: Search for Stillness & Faith at Sabbathday Lake describes Skees’ extended visit with the Sabbathday Lake Shaker community. At the time she visited, there were 8 Shakers living there, though only 3 remain today.
Skees, who holds a Master’s degree in world religions from Harvard Divinity School, intersperses anecdotes about her life at home and at Sabbathday Lake with historical information about the Shakers.
“Their hour of prayer is the worldly woman’s bubble bath, the worldly man’s nine holes.”
– Suzanne Skees
One of the things that struck Skees about the Shakers was that, in contrast to the distracted and sleeping people she often saw in church, the Shakers seemed to be at prayer because they wanted to be.
The Shakers actually come eagerly to prayer. This I rarely have seen in my non-Shaker days on earth. Through the entire visit to Sabbathday Lake, I wondered how they could be so precisely punctual at daily prayers and meetings. Do they fear chastisement? Do they discipline themselves as harshly as Ann Lee would have done? Or perhaps they simply want to show respect for the community schedule and for God. But I also noticed a certain joy in the dropping of everything to rush together in prayer.
Shakers work hard to live their beliefs 24/7, not just during their plentiful prayer services. They believe even chores are a form of worship. As Skees says, “any chore becomes a chance to serve God and community.”
Brother Wayne contrasts Shaker attempts to live out their love for God all the time to his childhood religious experiences. At a young age, he’d noticed that many people went to church but didn’t live their lives in accordance with the beliefs they professed on Sundays.
“What I found at Sabbathday Lake was a group of flesh-and-blood human beings, who suffer from winter flus and family squabbles and disobedient dogs, much like any other American family.”
– Suzanne Skees
Before her visit to Sabbathday Lake, Skees had thought the Shakers might be dour lonely people who had cast all worldliness aside. Instead, she found people living with extraordinary joy and regularly communicating with the outside world.
Visitors (some tourists, some with deeper connections) stream into the Village, especially in summer. Shakers often visit town for shopping, pizza and hair cuts as well as volunteering at a soup kitchen and nursing home.
Skees found that the differences between “us” and the Shakers aren’t as great as we might believe. Although the sect has some tenets (like celibacy and communal living) we may not want to embrace in our own lives, Skees shows that Shakers are ordinary people.
“I think that we can’t be unhappy people if we have that gift of salvation, if we have the gift of the gospel. God wants us to be happy.”
– Sister Frances, quoted in God among the Shakers
Instead of being solemn, as Skees expected, living lives of work and prayer, the Sabbathday Lake Shakers are lighthearted and happy. Brother Arnold explains:
There’s a kind of feeling of excitement that you get sometimes when you’re least expecting it. Just walking around. Just doing the normal every days. And then suddenly it’s the realization of the presence of God, and that’s it. I mean, it’s a joy that I can’t express.
“So what I wish to work on, in myself, is to come above the need to hook onto things, to come clean of attachment all together. And that will be freedom.”
– Brother Alistair, quoted in God Among the Shakers
While Skees explains how the Shaker faith has changed over the last couple of hundred years, it’s clear that the focus on simplicity remains. In the Epilogue, Skees says, “Something about Shakerism . . . beckons toward simplicity, even in a world like mine.”
I may never be a Shaker, but I think my journey to Sabbathday Lake may help me become a better me. If I let it. Simplifying my life, absurd as that seems in my materialistic existence, can happen in small steps along the way. Not austerity, not martyrdom, but happy, conscious choices for a less complicated life.
God among the Shakers
I enjoyed reading this book and recommend you check to see if it’s in your library’s holdings.
This is not a history book, though it has historical content. Nor is it a book about modern Shakers, though that’s part of the story too, both through interviews and Skees’ observations.
The book is probably best characterized as a story of Skees’ experiences. History and tales of the Sabbathday Lake Shakers are intertwined with her own thoughts, beliefs and questions.
Finally, I leave you with this brief video clip of Brother Arnold only tangentially related to the book – just because I like piglets.