The Being of Art

Over Memorial Day weekend, my wife and I visited the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, the largest restored Shaker community in America. For the uninitiated, Shakers are a Christian sect who broke from the Quaker tradition and became known for their vibrant dancing during worship. They are largely known for their utopian living arrangements and for their fine workmanship, namely furniture and specifically chairs.

Aside from the peaceful vibe of the community derived from their simple approach to life, what stood out to me most about the Shakers was their attention not simply to the art of being but also the being of art. The late monk and writer Thomas Merton, who happened to live not very far from the Shaker Village in Kentucky, wrote an insightful book about the community called Seeking Paradise: The Spirit of the Shakers.

With reference to the Shakers’ work ethic he wrote: “In no case was work to be done in a hurry or under pressure, or indeed under any form of spiritual compulsion. The competitive spirit was banned because of its occult relationship with lust and violence. Overworking was frowned upon…They strove in all things for truth, and made a point of simply being themselves.”

And Merton described the Shakers’ creative process this way: “You are concerned enough about this thing that you are making that this has got to be. Here is something that God is calling into being through you, and if you pay attention and you take care...there is going to be a new being in the world which has come into the world through your care and through your love of this being.”

He summarized the Shakers’ artistry also: “‘Labor until you bring your spirits to feel satisfied.’ What do they mean by that? Art. Any way of learning how to do the thing right is art. It doesn’t have to be a picture or a sculpture or something like that. Art is the right reason for making a thing. So whether it is cooking or whether it is making shoes or sewing a garment or something like that, it is art.” So create art until your heart is content.