Monday Morning Greetings 2023 #21 – ‘Tis a Gift to be Simple, ‘Tis a Gift to be Free

May 22nd, 2023

Did you ever arrive in a new place and discover it was completely different from the image you had in your mind before you arrived? When I first stopped at the Hancock Shaker Village, I was expecting a building or two housing a museum. I found a sprawling fourteen-hundred-acre village replete with twenty buildings that were externally and internally pristinely preserved just as when the Shakers thrived there years before.[1] The Shakers are famous for their efficient and functional crafts, mostly furniture and equally fine crafted and constructed buildings. I was humbled by the simplicity and functionality of what the Shakers created, surprisingly as much as I was moved by the grandeur of the Vatican when I visited Rome thirty years before. Both, in their own way, are awe-inspiring edifices of devotion. I loved the Shaker motto: Hands to work, heart to God. My main inspiration for today’s post was the power of simple life, but first a little something about the Shakers.


The Shakers were a Christian, communal, charismatic society of strict celibates born in the late seventeen hundreds that accepted both men and women. To this day they stand as the most successful and long-standing utopian community in United States history. They were famous for their simple life and craftsmanship, their gender equality, and especially their ecstatic singing[2] and dancing during worship. While there, a guide gave us a short lecture and a chance to ask questions. I was intrigued by their celibate lifestyle, especially as both men and women were living in the same community, so I naturally asked the guide if they had any history of scandal in that regard. Her answer was interesting:


“People who studied the Shaker history in Hancock over their many years of existence could not find any records of children being born at that time to anyone connected with the Shakers and no report of scandal has ever been reported in the news, so the consensus was that there weren’t scandals of note, if any. It may have something to do with the fact that women had equal footing in their community and a lot of the scandals in religious institutions occur when authority is placed in the hands of a single male spiritual leader with unilateral power. They also had a very strong work ethic that kept everyone in the community engaged.”


Her answer gave me food for thought.


It is not that the men and women weren’t allowed to converse. They just could not talk alone with each other; but they did share testimony to Christ in small mixed groups. In the paintings of their religious services, you could also see the groups of men and women enthusiastically singing and dancing in proximity but separated by gender. Although their official name was the United Society of Believers in the Second Coming of Christ, it was by their wild dancing after becoming overwhelmed in ecstasy that they got the name “Shakers” by those visiting from the outside. Obviously, the name stuck.


I was also intrigued by the proactive way in which they resolved internal conflicts:


“There was a team of two men and two women who would travel to the various Shaker communities. A special room was set aside where people could come to air their grievances or for those in conflict to settle their disputes.”


I only had time to see a few of their impressive buildings, replete with all the artifacts of their life just as they were when the Shakers lived there, but in my short stay the environment had a powerful effect on me. When things are made with devotion, they represent the spirit of those who create it, and you can feel it. In finely made things, there is also a beauty to their rightness that points to a cosmic order and therefore God. I felt humbled.


By nature, I am an alien, not an earthman.[3] You know how there are people who are just so in touch with the land and all that comes with it, such as the animals. That’s what I call earthmen. I am by contrast a city guy who rarely leaves his room and gets bored by country walks. Yes, I am an alien. But, despite my nature, I deeply admire those who live simply and with integrity, especially when the things they use are substantially created by them. Walking around here, I could sense and envision the transforming power of living in such a community. I also felt exposed by my lack of simplicity, at least to the level I think I should be. I am just too wired and conditioned by the ugra-uber-technological society.[4] Sure, I am a preacher and can make so many excuses in the name of yukta-vairāgya,[5] but there is an ideal here that Śrīla Prabhupāda stressed for everyone—simple living and high thinking—and I have fallen too far from the mark. Yes, ‘tis a gift to be simple. It is the message of the Shakers and Śrīla Prabhupāda too.


‘Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free

‘Tis a gift to come down where we ought to be

And when we find ourselves in the place just right

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight

When true simplicity is gained

To bow and bend we shan’t be ashamed

To turn, turn will be our delight

Turning, turning we come round right


– Shaker dance song: Elder Joseph Bracket, Alfred, Maine, 1848[6]



[1] As the Shakers were a strictly celibate community, they did not birth a next generation and eventually died out, except for two Shakers who still inhabit the Sabbathday Shaker community. https://www.maineshakers.com

[2] The Shakers have a canon of 10,000 original songs that they could choose from for their worship, most very simple expressions of devotion and humility, often repeated again and again like mantras.

[3] I got these designations many years ago from my god-brother and friend, Varsana Swami, who is renowned for his service in New Vrindavan for taking care of the land and communing with nature and the animals there. He observed that certain devotees were not comfortable with rural life, and he called them aliens. Those who are naturally enlivened to be in the countryside and work with the land and animals, he called earthmen. I should mention that this was many years ago, at a time where the male pronouns were used when you wanted to indicate people in general. Earthmen in today’s English would be earth people, referring to people in general.

[4] Ugra literally means ugly or horrible, and Śrīla Prabhupāda especially used the word as an adjective for material civilization.

[5] Yukta-vairāgya means balanced detachment—that a Vaiṣṇava only gives up what he cannot use in God’s service. The concept and term are often abused to justify keeping and using more opulent things that one would normally renounce as a devotee.

[6] Judy Collins singing this Shaker song in the original melody composed Elder Joseph Bracket. The song starts at 49 seconds https://youtu.be/kWTDgc96bg8?t=49


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