Thomas Merton, who died in 1968, was one of the great spiritual writers of the twentieth century. In this special collection of essays, talks, and letters, we get a glimpse of his fascination and high regard for the unusual Shaker religion with its emphasis upon work as a form of worship, rejection of violence, respect for equal rights, reverence for beauty and simplicity, and joy in dance. The book contains Merton's own photographs of a Shaker Village. In the introduction, editor Paul M. Pearson outlines some of the other things that attracted this Trappist monk to the Shakers their countercultural emphasis and their "paradise consciousness" of the kingdom of God in their daily lives.
The Shakers came to America under the leadership of Ann Lee, a Quaker who was expelled by the Friends when she designated herself as the feminine principle of the Deity. In the communities she established, men and women lived separately in celibacy and supported themselves by farming and various crafts. Merton writes: "To me the Shakers are of very great significance, besides being something of a mystery, by their wonderful integration of the spiritual and the physical in their work. There is no question in my mind that one of the finest and most genuine religious expressions of the nineteenth century is in the silent eloquence of Shaker craftsmanship." Two of their mottos point to this idea of the divine nature of work: "Put your hands to work and your hearts to God" and "A man can show his religion as much in measuring onions as he can in singing hallelujah." Men expressed their prayers in the quality products of seeds, furniture, brooms, and boxes. Women's work was also "valorized" and seen as God's work in keeping community alive and well.
As a monk Merton had an exalted view of manual labor. He once wrote: "Cutting wood, clearing ground, cutting grass, cooking soup, drinking fruit juice, sweating, washing, making fire, smelling smoke, sweeping, etc. This is religion. The further one gets away from this, the more one sinks in the mud of words and gestures. The flies gather." The Shakers brought the virtues of love, patience, and humility to all their work, and that is why Merton could write "the peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that it has been made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it."
The work of the Shakers was not for profit but for use and as an expression of integrity of life and thought. Merton rejoiced in the idea of working for God, one of the many Shaker ideas and ideals that he embraced wholeheartedly.