Movers versus Shakers

There is no safe place on earth, and as we have become aware through developments in astronomy, the planet itself is exposed to celestial flotsam such as asteroids, and effluvia from decaying stars, including any in our near vicinity that may happen to go supernova.

Verily, I am reminded in my walks through the Greater Parkdale Area, that modern technical contraptions (such as these fiendish powered wheelchairs in which the elderly now buzz themselves about) are not only wasteful, intrusive, and noisome by design, but characteristically lethal.

Within my ivory tower, an insurance adjustor could surely spot any number of palpable threats, not restricted to spontaneous combustion; and with the annual Lakefront airshow approaching I am reminded that, at any moment, the pilot of a low-flying jet, executing a sharp turn over Humber Bay, might succumb to G-forces and take out the whole building. (Should this Idleblog disappear during the first weekend in September, gentle reader may assume the worst.)

Having spent some part of the summer attending funerals, and another part reading accounts of defunct, pre-Christian civilizations, I am put in poignant recollection of the span of human life. Notwithstanding, there are things that survive us — ruins, chiefly; but also the odd robust child. And so it is, that until our thoughts turn or are turned definitively upward, we hope to preserve a few valuables for the use and instruction of generations to come.


From an early age, I was curious about the Shakers: the extraordinary beauty of everything they made, in comparison to our contemporary vileness. This strange, nearly lunatic sect, believing the end of the world to be nigh, retired to attractive rural settings in Appalachia and beyond, to live apart from the concupiscent worldlings. They legislated celibacy for their members, and interpreted the range of domestic tasks as acts of constant prayer. (“Hands to work, hearts to God.”) They celebrated the Presence in otherworldly line-dancing, the sexes facing in chaste rows. Indeed, that is how they came by the name, “Shakers.”

They had, incidentally, like mediaeval Catholics (whom they resembled in other subtle ways), no particular objection to mechanical implements or labour-saving contrivances, provided that they did not pollute, made no unpleasant sound, and were not otherwise ostentatious or obnoxious. They generated electricity; did admirable plumbing; delighted in modest farm machines. Most of their inventions, however, reflect a Zen-like simplicity and concentration of mind: spring clothes-pins, for instance, and circular saw blades, and seed envelopes, and the flat-edged broom. They took out an impressive number of remunerative patents — for neither Jews nor Christians were ever required by their religion to behave as freierim (“suckers”). And while they never took a penny from guvmint, they faithfully paid their taxes, only asking to be excused from killing the guvmint’s enemies during the U.S. Civil War.

Children, when orphans like themselves, they gladly took in and schooled; trade they conducted with the world through their elders; but more than this they would not exchange. Tourists they turned away; but welcomed the sceptical, investigators, pilgrims. Their shockingly spare furniture, and buildings, were made to the highest achievable standards of hand-craftsmanship, each object designed “to last a thousand years.” Anything sub-standard was immediately broken up.

I think God used them — to show us that, even in America, and in the labour of everyday life, holiness is possible. Or shall we say, especially in America, and even in the denominational confusion that came out of the squalour of the Reformation.

Except the settlement at Sabbathday Lake in Maine (which, I have heard, is growing again), the Shakers have died out. But they did hang in for a couple of centuries, and their goods remain to taunt us in our world of wide-screens and candy wrappers.

This instinct to build, exactly, for permanence — even in the face of our bodily extinction, and the inevitable destruction of all human works — is what I shall recommend this morning. It is the best, or most practical way to slow our frenetic rat races, and put us back into fellowship with the men and women of all places and times.

Make everything better than it needs to be made; refuse to accept inferior merchandise; smash unworthy possessions; do everything in the sight of Eternity. Then leave the products of our labour to speak, when we ourselves have become silent; to speak not for us, but for Him who inspired.

As the architect of Seville told his patron: “We will build such and so great a Cathedral that those who look on it will think that we were mad.”

Unless they, too, catch the hint: to embrace what is good, to reject what is evil.