Home > Culture > Seeking Paradise: The Spirit of the Shakers

Seeking Paradise: The Spirit of the Shakers

Orbis, 2003

Reviewed by Aaron J. Ghiloni, Education Officer of the Moreton Rivers Presbytery.

A monk admires furniture. A mysticsnaps photographs. A workman responds to the call of God by building a chest of drawers.

Thomas Merton’s Seeking Paradise – a collection of photographs, conference talks, essays, and personal correspondence on topic of American Shakers– beautifully blurs the boundaries between craftsmanship and spirituality.

In this book, one of the twentieth-century’s most notable spiritual writers considers the goodness of barns, fruit crates, and dinner tables.

The spirit of the book is summed up in this memorable line: “The peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it.”

Mr Merton saw deep correspondences between his own Cistercian monastery and the life of these heterodox American mystics.

What united them was not only a shared sense of transcendence, closed communities, or a mutual emphasis on prayer, but a profound appreciation for work.

Honest work.

Simple work.

Spiritual work.

Indeed, a real gem of the collection is a transcript of a conference talk Mr Merton gave on the theme of the goodness of work.

He asserts that one should not first workand then go off and pray.

Rather, the Shakers teach us to find God in our work.

Good labour is like good prayer; indeed, it can be prayer.

The text itself, masterfully introduced and edited by Paul Pearson, has this honest, simple, prayerful feel, and hence, is of more than historical interest.

Like Mr Merton’s earlier Silence in Heaven, this book is filled with stunning black-and-white photographs taken by Mr Merton himself.

The photos, carefully laid-out amidst wide margins, themselves have a contemplative stillness about them.

As one reads and gazes, they may find that they too are seeking paradise.