I visited Canterbury Shaker Village in New Hampshire this week. I’ve been to three or so Shaker museums but this one had a distinctly different feel to it. It felt less like a museum and more like a village that was once thriving and is now gone—like a ghost town. Walking through the buildings, two things struck me. One, I no longer had the longing I had previously always felt in a Shaker village—the sort of longing that made me wish I could have lived there in its heyday. And two, I thought about the Shaker credo: “Hands to work, hearts to God” in a different way.
Looking at the rooms furnished with Shaker tables, chairs, baskets and those famous built in cupboards—revered designs that have spawned industries and collections—I finally really understood that it wasn’t—for the Shakers—about the stuff or the efficiency or the order; it was about their faith. Of course I knew that their spirituality was the underpinning of their communities, since I had read it over and over, back when I studied all things Shaker; but at Canterbury, with it’s unglamorous (and I mean that as a compliment) aspect something came to roost that hadn’t been there before. I saw the process behind the object and the belief behind the process.
This is what I understood: While the Shakers lived physically apart from the world in their self-sustaining communities, they didn’t deny the outside world; they interacted with it when it served their purposes–they knew they were a part of the bigger world and so a part of the larger whole. Apart and a part: both separate and part of the whole. The archetypal truth of being.
I am a basket maker and weaver loosely trained in “Shaker” basket making and weaving and this background helped me understand that craft is a manifestation of this belief in and acceptance of apart and a part. The final product may be apart from you; but in the doing of it you have become a part of the larger whole. The doing and the time spent are the worship and the offering, the connection to the whole. That’s why, for the Shakers, whatever they did had to be as perfect as possible, because each moment of time was a moment given to God—whatever you believe God to be.
A moment given to God—love that.