Tag Archives: religion

Last glimpse of the Shakers

On Sunday I visited the last active Shaker colony in Sabbathday Lake, Maine. After 271 years, the sect has two remaining members. I figured this was close to my last chance.


I first heard about the Shakers when I was about 13, on a radio program about their music. You’ve heard “Simple Gifts” in one form or another, but they have a rich body of thousands of songs. They range from slow meditations on humility:

I will not be like the stubborn oak
But I will be like the willow tree
I’ll bow and bend unto God’s will
And I will seek his mercy still.

to upbeat depictions to their namesake “shaking” worship through ecstatic dance and song:

Who will drink the wine of power
Dropping down like a shower?
Oh, oh, I will have it!
I will bow and bend to get it
I’ll be reeling, turning, twisting
Shake out all the starch and stiff’ning!

I wrote to the last colony of Shakers, and one Sister Frances wrote back to me. She sent me postcards of their sheep, and a copy of her memoir Growing Up Shaker. After I lost my religion, she was one of the few moral authorities I trusted. In high school I asked her how to handle the fact that a lot of the nice things I did for my friends and classmates were more intended to signal that I was a good person than out of deep desire to serve them. She said to keep doing good things, and the true desire would grow.

It was her death last year that made me realize it was time to go see the last colony.


The Shakers were a branch of the Quakers who split off and moved to America in 1774. They were known for their vigorous worship style and celibacy. The leader, Ann Lee, had been married against her will and had seen all four of her children die as infants. Lee reasoned that if “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30), why not start living like angels here on earth?

A lot of the early stuff, especially their treatment of “Mother Ann” as the second coming of Christ, was culty and weird. They were just one of the radical political and religious movements that sprang up in England around the same time (the Levelers, the Diggers, the Quakers, the Ranters — catchy, right?) plus the various American utopian movements. For a while, every radical in New England seemed to be writing a manifesto and founding a communal farm. Between financial mismanagement, fires, scandals, impractical farming arrangements, and inability to pass leadership on to a second generation, the track record of communes is not really encouraging.

But history bore this one out. Ann Lee’s successors developed an organizational structure that would last the next two centuries (“villages” divided into “families” of 30-100 people, each led by a team of two male and two female Shakers). The ecstatic shaking and whirling became a marching dance, more suited to a society that had lasted long enough to include a geriatric population. In the 1780s they were meeting in the woods and living wherever they wouldn’t be beaten or jailed. By 1821 they had financial agreements for sharing property, a written covenant that members signed, organized division of labor, rules about how soon to leave your room after waking up, and standards for architecture down to what color the meeting house should be painted.


When I was 15, my family visited the Pleasant Hill Shaker colony (now a museum) in Kentucky. It’s a particularly beautiful set of buildings, and as we walked around the grounds my father was clearly worried that my enthusiasm for the Shakers would cause me to convert. He didn’t mention this worry overtly, but told me that when he’d interned at a methadone clinic, one of the clients told him that the best things in life were sex and heroin. “I haven’t tried heroin and don’t recommend that you try it, but I do think you should try sex when you’re older,” Dad advised me. (….thanks, Dad?)

This conversation didn’t exactly strike at the crux of my decision — it wasn’t the idea of celibacy that bothered me, but childlessness, the snows of Maine, and isolationism. In any case, I never seriously considered it.

I’ve always found the public’s emphasis on the Shakers’ celibacy rather than their communitarianism a bit odd. If anything, at least during the 19th century it seems like they may have been less sex-obsessed than typical Americans. Obviously there was some selection effect in who chose to join, and I’m sure there was some rule-breaking. A few years ago, the numbers fell from four to three when one convert left after 26 years to marry a reporter who’d come to interview members of the colony.

Pleasant Hill colony. There is another identical staircase on the other side of the hall so men and women each have their own.


The event at the Sabbathday Lake village this week, part of a Maine statewide “open farm day,” was essentially similar to any other day aimed at historical farm enthusiasts. There were people doing woodcarving, blacksmithing, and rug-hooking. There were tours of the barn, its huge dimness full of politely listening people. It felt strange to see the last vestiges of Ann Lee’s radical vision come down to antiquarianism.

It being Sunday, as far as I could tell, the two Shakers (Brother Arnold Hadd, age 58 and Sister June Carpenter, 77) were nowhere to be seen. I assume they were observing their day of rest inside their dwelling house.

I wonder what life is like for these two people, living in a colony that once housed 150. Shaker buildings were designed with symmetric doors and staircases so men and women wouldn’t touch each other, but also wouldn’t take precedence over the other — they could enter a room simultaneously instead of one group waiting for the other. I wonder if Arnold and June still walk each through their own doorway, if they still sit at separate women’s and men’s tables in the dining hall. They’re not married, but must share a kind of intimacy like that of any two people who expect to spend the rest of their lives together.

I hope they like each other.


Especially touching was the Boys’ Shop, where children’s dormitories and schoolbooks are preserved. Thousands of children were raised by the Shakers, either because their parents had joined the sect or, more commonly, because their parents couldn’t afford to raise them. In the time before welfare and the foster system, if times got too hard you knew your child would be fed and educated with the Shakers. They’d live there until age 21, when they would either depart (with skills in woodworking, herbalism, orchardry, and the other Shaker industries) or sign the covenant and become a full member of the community.

In one room, a recording played narrating the childhood of Sister Mildred Barker, who was the spiritual and executive leader of the colony from 1950 to her death in 1990. When her newly widowed mother left her with the Shakers at age 5, Mildred contemplated running away home but was won over by the community and particularly an elderly sister she was assigned to help. By the time her mother returned eight years later, Mildred refused to go with her.

After Mildred reached adulthood and signed the Shaker covenant, she became a collector of the Shaker traditional songs. In the boys’ dormitory, one was going through my mind:

Little children, says Holy Mother
Soothe and comfort one another.

I left the colony with a few of the chamomile flowers from their herb garden in my pocket, and drove back home to Jeff, and to this one and her sister.

We made chamomile tea, admiring the yellow-green color the flowers left in the water. Jeff and I put the kids to bed. My heart ached for Ann Lee and her four dead children, and for all the children who had slept in Shaker dormitories missing their families, and for Mildred Barker’s mother losing her daughter not once but twice. I was grateful for antibiotics, and for welfare, that now prevent families from being broken apart quite so often.

And also warmed that these thousands of people over 271 years found a way to fight scarcity and injustice. They looked at a deeply unfair and imperfect world and shaped their reality to be more like the heaven they envisioned.


The valley of the shadow

I recently saw the inside of cell 19 in the jail’s infirmary for the first time. Staff rarely enter cells, partly because it’s invasive to the inmates but mostly because it would be a good place for inmates to ambush staff. I’ve only ever been inside cells a few times, heavily supervised, to evaluate clients who were too ill to get out of bed.

Of all the cells in the jail, cell 19 is perhaps the scene of the most misery. It’s at the far end of the women’s quarters in the infirmary. Men generally come in through another facility before transitioning to our jail, but many of the women come straight from court or a brief police lockup. Which means the infirmary is where they wait out their detox from alcohol, pills, heroin, methadone and anything else they have in their system. Detoxing is not just horribly unpleasant, it’s dangerous – you can have seizures from suddenly quitting alcohol or some drugs. (Methadone is possibly the worst; I’ve known clients who refuse to take it just so they will never again have to detox from it.) So many of cell 19’s residents have been women sweating, vomiting, shaking, and weeping their way through their first days of incarceration.

But cell 19 is primarily reserved as a mental health watch cell. Mental health watch is the jail equivalent of a psych hospital – it’s where we put people who seem on the verge of suicide or homicide. Unlike a hospital, it makes no pretense at being a place that will help you feel better.  The cell is empty of anything but a sink, toilet, metal bunk, and plexiglass window.  There may or may not be a mattress.  Its sole purpose is to keep you away from razors and sheets until the worst has passed, or until you get lucid enough to lie convincingly to us.

That day, when I went inside the cell to evaluate a woman crumpled on the bunk in some kind of catatonic episode, I noticed a lot of words scratched onto the doorframe. I had stood on the other side of that door hundreds of times talking to clients, but I had never seen their side of the door.

When you work with mental patients, you end up seeing a lot of things scrawled on walls. Some of it is vitriol against staff, some incomprehensible, some tragic. (The most pathetic I’ve seen was “HELP ME” written in a man’s own feces.)

So I wondered what such a long passage could be. What woman, in the throes of heroin detox or madness, spent such a long time etching these words into the paint?

While the officers were busy, I sidled up to the doorframe and read it:

The Lord is my shepherd
I shall not want
He makes me lie down in green pastures
He leads me beside quiet waters
He restores my soul
He guides me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I fear no evil for You are with me
Your rod and Your staff they comfort me
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies
You have anointed my head with oil
My cup overflows
Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever

The essentials

Months of looking at perfectly color-coordinated nurseries on the internet will do a number on any pregnant lady.  Jeff and I aren’t going totally overboard with preparing the space for the baby, but I was feeling a bit stressed.  (How are we going to fit a changing table in here?  Will that dresser fit into the space by the window?  Is this nightlight too bright?)

This morning I was in the midst of browsing for fabric for some new curtains and not finding anything I liked.  Then my family and I walked to the church up the street for the “Lessons and Carols” service, with readings from the Nativity story and carols in between.

The central passage is very simple.  Joseph must travel to his hometown for a Roman census, and his heavily pregnant fiancée must travel with him.

While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth.  And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped him in cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Even though I don’t believe in the divinity of this particular baby, the basics of the story struck me. When the time came, a woman gave birth, even though she wasn’t married, even though she was on a road trip, even though there was no place for her to stay, even in an unsanitary setting. Babies come when they come.

They come without ribbons, they come without tags, they come without packages, boxes or bags. They come when you’re not ready.  They come without Uppababy strollers, Diaper Genies, or Sophie La Giraffe teethers. And parents throughout the ages have been making do.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m really glad to be parenting in the modern world. I’m glad to have a washing machine, a public transit system, vaccines, and a lot of other things that will make parenting easier and safer. And I do want to pick out curtains I’ll like. But things will be okay even if I don’t.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk,
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air –
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

Christina Rossetti, 1872

I had forgotten this one

Before our family Seder I was reading through Exodus and came across an episode that’s truly bizarre even by Old Testament standards.

Moses has received his message from the burning bush and is traveling back to Egypt with his wife Zipporah.  But all of a sudden God decides kill the newly-appointed protagonist:

“On the way, at a place where they spent the night, the Lord met him and tried to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his feet with it, and said, “Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” So he let him alone.”

Was God mollified or just weirded out by Zipporah’s reaction?


Since marrying into a semi-Jewish family, this week is no longer just Holy Week but also Passover.  The two stories are intertwined in the events of the Last Supper, memorialized at Tenebrae services tonight.

In the middle of the Seder Jesus gets up, takes off most of his clothes, and starts washing his students’ feet. (I’m trying to think of a modern equivalent – maybe if an important professor stopped in mid-lecture, put on a janitor’s uniform, and began cleaning toilets.)

Some of the students accept this without protest, but Simon Peter says, “This is crazy, I’m not letting you wash my feet.” But Jesus insists.

When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place.“Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them.  “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am.  Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.


Quakers are ostensibly opposed to hierarchy, but being humans, they still manage to work it in. The seats in most meetings face inward to a circle or square rather than facing up to an altar or priest. But there’s a “facing bench”, which is where the older and more important Quakers traditionally sit.

At Pendle Hill I always carefully avoided sitting on the facing bench. I told myself this was because I didn’t want to support a hierarchy. I had been taught that hierarchies are maintained by those in power, so if I was at the bottom I couldn’t be supporting it. But eventually I realized I was intentionally maintaining a low status not because anybody was forcing me, but because it allowed me a kind of superiority. I could think, “I know my place. I’m good at being humble. Those other people who sit on the facing bench without enough status are bad at being humble, and I can look down on them because they’re not adhering to their proper role.”

By deciding who could and could not take a high-status seat, I was maintaining the hierarchy. So I began sitting on the facing bench sometimes to show that young people could do it too.


When Simon Peter gets upset about his teacher taking a low-status role, he’s posturing as the good disciple, more dedicated to his teacher’s high status than the others. But Jesus comes back with (at least) two messages: first, his usual “I’m trying to turn the hierarchy on its head.” And also, “Stop struggling and let me do this for you. Let me serve you. I’m teaching you how to be good servants, but I’m also teaching you how to be served.”

It took me a while to realize that accepting things people offered me was more polite than saying no. I’m still too prickly sometimes, too proud, too unwilling to accept help or comfort. And that’s why I love this story. It reminds me: “Open yourself. Lay down your pride. Accept what is freely offered.”


Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. It will go largely unnoticed at the jail where I work – love, while it exists there, is not to be expressed.

Ash Wednesday, however, was observed in full force. A lot of the officers had ashy crosses smudged across their foreheads. Early in the morning I saw the Catholic chaplain, a small nun with a grey habit and an Irish accent, going cell to cell with a black thumb and a pot of ashes. “Ashes for Ash Wednesday?” she asked at each plexiglass window. “Do you want some ashes?”

By 10:30, my boss announced that we were all giving up something for Lent and we had to let her know what it was by 11:00 so she could type it up and post it. Everyone chose something, even those who weren’t especially Christian and including my Jewish coworker.  I chose to go running once a week instead of giving something up, which appeased both my boss and my Jewish coworker, who’s on a running kick.

After work, I went to a church service. Sixteen years after becoming an agnostic, I still observe the cycles of the liturgical year. It gives a pattern to the year; it feels right.

Ash Wednesday is the start of Lent, which feels a bit hopeful in Boston because it means spring is coming. But Lent is a season about vulnerability and ultimately about death.

Jeff’s mother and sister got some bad diagnoses last month. I think about the possibility of death every day. All of us in the family are feeling vulnerable lately.

As I sat in the still, beeswax-scented sanctuary, I felt grateful to have a space that was not about happiness or productivity or solutions. A place to sit with uncertainty and hurt.

And, as sometimes happens when you have time to sit and think, a piece clicked into place. Today I sat with a client who told me I had been pushing him too hard to be okay. He had come into jail terrified and sobbing, and for months afterward I had tried to give him hope and coping skills and all those things I want prisoners to have. And today he told me that he is confused and sad, and I need to back off with the certainty and the optimism and just let him feel confused and sad.

And I heard him, and thanked him for letting me know what he needed. And tonight, on this day that is for remembering we will return to ashes, I was able to sit and feel confused and sad.

The church I went to tonight is one I return to because because it strikes the right balance of ritual and modernism for me. In place of the old-school Confession of Sin, there’s a hymn written by someone who must have struggled with passive aggression as much as I do:

The words of hope I often failed to give,
The prayers of kindness buried by my pride,
The signs of care I argued out of sight;
These I lay down.

The narrowness of vision and of mind,
The need for other folk to serve my will,
And every word and silence meant to hurt,
These I lay down.

The service ended with the Isaiah passage that feels like the mission statement of social work:

God has anointed you
and is sending you
to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted . . .
to comfort all who mourn – to give them a garland instead of ashes,
gladness instead of sorrow . . .
You shall build up the ancient devastation,
repair the ruined cities,
and heal the despair of many generations.