Just southwest of Lexington, Kentucky, in the lush green and rolling hills, is the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. From 1808 until the early 1920’s, a group of Shakers made a home for themselves at Pleasant Hill to practice their religion. On a 4,000-acre settlement, the Shakers built seventeen sturdy, functional buildings. They farmed and gardened; they built everything that was needed for the community. They were known for their ingenuity and creativity. And most of all, they lived a simple life. Modern visitors to Pleasant Hill can stay in beautifully, but sparely, appointed rooms furnished with Shaker furniture. In the evening after the day guests leave, those staying overnight have the entire property to themselves. It is a serene, contemplative place.
Shakers were Christians who believed that Jesus would return at any moment to judge the world, so they had better be ready for that to occur. In order to be prepared, they lived simply, with few personal possessions. They divided their attention between working and worshipping, both done with equal vigor. Taken together, all of the Shaker communities composed more than 12,000 songs for their worship, with one of the best-known being “Simple Gifts”.
The words of “Simple Gifts” are both instructions for the dance to be done during worship as well as how to life one’s life:
During these past few months when we have been mostly limited to our homes, there has been an increased interest in clearing clutter from our lives. No longer is Marie Kondo the sole proponent of getting rid of disorder. In addition to clearing out the no-longer needed possessions, there is an increased emphasis on a minimalist approach to life in which we simplify and stop relying on our belongings to bring us happiness.
Henry David Thoreau, in Waldon Pond, urged his readers to “simplify, simplify.” Thoreau turned to the work of a mathematician to amplify his point:
When the mathematician would solve a difficult problem, they first free the equation of all encumbrances, and reduce it to its simplest terms. So simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real. Probe the earth to see where your main roots run.
Where do our “main roots” run? They run to God, the source of our being.
The Shakers had very few personal items that they needed to get rid of in order to be simple and free. They knew that of more importance were those things that kept their hearts from being truly open to God. They were well acquainted with the religious concept of “turning”, which was particularly prevalent in the 1800’s. In English translations of the Bible, we read of the need to repent, which is often thought of as being sorry about something and asking for forgiveness. In Hebrew, however, the word for repentance is t’shuva, which means to “turn back” – turning away from evil and going back, returning to God. So, while “Simple Gifts” contains directions for how the dance is to be done, it more importantly gives us directions for our spiritual lives – “till by turning, turning we come round right.”
In these days of de-cluttering our homes, perhaps it’s also a good idea to de-clutter our hearts and minds and souls. Thoreau would have us focus on only those things that are necessary and real in order to get to our main roots. Our Jewish forbears urge us to turn back to our Creator, repent and get rid of all of those things, whether beliefs or possessions, that keep up from doing so. The Shakers, in both their spare lives and ecstatic dance, joyfully show us how to be simple and free.
Perhaps someday you will have the opportunity to visit the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill – better still, to stay there a few days and revel in the joyful simplicity of that place. But if not, wherever we are located, we can find the space and time to not only de-clutter our homes but more importantly to declutter our lives so that we can find delight in turning in order to “come round right.”
Let us pray...
Dear God, our Creator and Savior and Companion, help us to truly live lives that are simple and free. Help us to rid our lives of everything that is unnecessary and keeps us from You. We long to return to you and ask that you help us to make it so. Amen