Sunday, May 17, 2009

Chapter 7 -- The Shakers

Chapter 7

The Shakers

The unmarried woman careth for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit, but she that is married careth for the things of the world, how she may please her husband. -- 1 Corinthians 7:34.

Jeremy spent the night with Minnie’s family. She had so thoroughly gone over the details of their morrow trip to Pleasant Hills that it was a certainty. They were going to depart on the five hour drive at seven am for a noon arrival. In the back of his mind he wanted to venture it alone, but neither minded the prospect of Minnie’s company. He slept soundly, and when he awoke in the morning his first thought was, come what will. Then he looked at the clock and saw that it was already eight. Minnie was waiting for him to lift his head, and right there at his side when he did.

“I got distracted by a minor emergency, and decided to let you sleep in,” she explained. “Coffee’s on and we leave in half an hour. While they were taking coffee the phone rang. Minnie was distressed by the conversation, hung up and said: “I’ve got to get over to my sister’s house. Her husband has to take her car, and she needs to get to work and her kids to school. I’ll be back in one hour and that will put us there at one thirty. Have something to eat and a wash if you like.”

She hurried out and was gone. The house was empty. He ate some toast, washed his face, then walked into the trees and the mile through them to the Friends meeting hall. The door was open, so he let himself in sat down and prayed a while. Then he read three chapters in Isaiah before penning a brief thank you note. It was about eleven when he stepped onto the main road and hung out his thumb. The first vehicle by was a refrigerated delivery truck. It pulled up, and the driver beckoned him over. His destination was an hour beyond Pleasant Hill, so after open road, a late lunch together, and more open road, he dropped Jeremy at the edge of the Shaker village a little past four.

Jeremy thanked him and waved goodbye then surveyed his surroundings. There were several large shuttered buildings, and a narrow sidewalk running right under his feet. An elderly woman wearing a colonial dress and bonnet was sweeping nearby. The sidewalk was spotless, and she didn’t appear to be catching so much as a speck in her broom. He approached her and tentatively asked: “Are you a Shaker?”

“I am,” she answered. “What do you know about them?”

“Nothing,” he replied.

“Is that why you’re here?” she inquired.

“It is.”

“Then I can explain them to you. I’m Eldress Margaret, and you are?”

“Jeremy. “

“A pleasure. The Shakers are The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming. It is a Christian order based on the teachings of Ann Lee, an extraordinary woman in whom Christ did visibly make his second appearance. She was born in Manchester, England in the middle of the eighteenth century. She had eight pregnancies; four miscarried and none of the other four lived past six. The trauma of it all turned her to God. She decided that to live a life for the kingdom, to prepare to marry the Lamb of God, one could not be married to the flesh. She abandoned her husband and lived out a vow of celibacy.” A second elderly woman similarly dressed came out of the nearby building.

“Hello Eldress Margaret,” she said.

“Good afternoon, Eldress Lilian. I was just telling our new friend Jeremy about Ann Lee.”

“Indeed?” she said as a question.

“Indeed,” Jeremy answered.

Eldress Lilian took up the reins of the narrative. “God is the Father Mother—the Christ spirit which manifested itself in the man, Jesus of Nazareth, and as a woman in Ann Lee. She revealed to us how to await the parousia, which is a Greek word meaning coming, or arrival. The Second Coming of Christ will not be a monumental occasion with trumpets, a great fanfare and everyone rejoicing. It’s a very quiet coming that occurs within each individual, when we invite Christ into our hearts and allow him to change our lives; when we change from our old lives into something new. For what is resurrection but new life coming out of something dead, like our former selves?”

“I see,” Jeremy acknowledged, nodding his head. “Very interesting.”

“And so we Shakers separate ourselves from the world,” Eldress Margaret continued. “We live like the early church, a communal existence. We give all we have and take only what we need. We share all property and labor, all working for each and each working for all. None of us are rich nor poor—each uses according to need, and enjoys according to capacity. We believe in equality of sexes, since Christ did say that in heaven we are no longer men and women, but as angels. We strive for purity, peace, justice and love and we live praying and confessing sin.”

“If everyone is celibate, how do you maintain a congregation over the course of years, with no families to populate it?” Jeremy bluntly asked.

“We rely in part on adult conversions,” Eldress Lilian answered, “but many Shakers take in orphans and homeless children, and our doors are open to any and every child who comes our way. Many of them grow up and stay in the faith.”

“And Shakers are self-sufficient and very industrious,” Eldress Margaret interjected. “We produce and sell seeds, herbs, medicines, and our famous handmade oval boxes and slat backed chairs—everything prayerfully prepared and packaged.”

“That is correct,” Eldress Lilian concurred.

“So what is Shaker worship like?” Jeremy prodded.

“Sunday morning with Shakers is like being in the presence of angels,” Eldress Lilian dreamily declared. “When I was a little girl my dear friend and mentor Eldress Mildred was dying. She saw two angels awaiting her. She called me to her side and told me about them and said she could barely tell them from me. I swore I saw them too, and Mildred herself was an angel in my eyes. With one of her final breaths she made me promise to become a Shaker. I didn’t fully understand what it meant, but I made the promise, I kept it, and I feel like I’ve been surrounded by angels my whole life. It’s just wonderful. In younger years we’d sing Shaker songs and dance fervently, but we’re old women now, beyond that stage of life.”

“I’ve heard that about Shakers,” Jeremy said. “It’s a shame I can’t experience a little.”

“Well actually, you can,” Eldress Margaret said, then called over her shoulder: “Eldress Enid, a gentleman here would like to hear you sing a hymn. Perhaps number nineteen?”

Eldress Enid appeared in a moment, exuberant and ready. She wasn’t quite as old as Margaret and Lilian, but she was still old, and propped the antique dress upon her frail frame, and the bonnet upon grey hairs. She started clapping her hands vigorously, and singing: “How bright the Shaker glory shines, a star upon the high…” Jeremy’s eyes widened as she fell on her back in the grass and started writhing. “A Shaker I am and so I shake when on my back I lie…see God in the sky…and joyful tears cry… a Shaker till I die….”

Jeremy was caught off guard, and taken aback. Suddenly the air filled with the beeping of a watch alarm. Eldress Margaret rolled up her sleeve, revealing a wristwatch, and said: “Four thirty. Our shift is over. We hope the show was informative.”

Eldress Enid struggled to her feet, while Lilian and Margaret took off their bonnets and loosened their dresses.

Jeremy was flabbergasted. “You’re just actors?” he asked.

“’Fraid so,” Enid said. “There are no Shakers left. Let’s go ladies.”

“I’ve got to feed my husband before he gets too cranky,” Lilian remarked.

“I’m starting to sweat in this dress,” Margaret added.

“We open again at ten tomorrow if you’d like more of the Shaker experience,” Enid concluded.

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