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The Arbor of Life

The Society of Shakers believed in the direct inspiration of the Spirit.  This is one belief  that the Shakers shared with the Society of Friends (aka Quakers).  Another theological similarity between Shakers and Quakers is an emphasis on “The Lamb’s War,” the internal mystical struggle of a believer in his/her journey towards greater righteousness and spiritual perfection.

Instead of interpreting the violent symbols and complexities of The Book of Revelation as outward and historical events which will occur in the future, these two groups have interpreted Revelation as a deeply spiritual and mystical book, which attempts to illustrate the struggles of an inward transformation; the “crucifixion” of the old natural self.

This belief in the inward apocalyptic upheaval is inspired by an allegorical interpretation of the war-like descriptions of the “end of days” found in Revelation.  The direct presence of Christ, envisioned as a warrior,  is bringing hope of triumph to the believer struggling to defeat inward sin and unhealthy inclinations.  The old life is being conquered; a new life is emerging and will be triumphant.  “The end of days,”  the end of the believer’s sinful world as  s/he knows it, is in the process of transformation and her/his new world is immanent.   The struggle is not easy; it is often painful if not anguishing.  St. Paul certainly knew how hard it was to conquer oneself: “We know that the law is spiritual;  but  am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.  “I do not understand what I do; for what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans: 7:14ff).  Ah!  This is the universal experience of humankind! 

The Book of Revelation is interpreted in the Shaker and Quaker traditions as a book of hope; hope in the continual conversion of believers and, by extension, the world.  One of the central and radical beliefs of the Shakers was that one could actually live sinlessly in a spiritual Zion in this life by the maintenance of a pure and sinless inner life that is continually experiencing renewal.  Indeed, this is how the Shakers understood their utopian communities. Their villages were Zion’s, localized appearances of heaven on earth, where the saints on earth lived separate from the world.  A believer, like St. John of Patmos would “behold, a door opened in heaven, and the first voice that I heard, a voice as of a trumpet speaking with me, one saying, Come up hither, and I will show thee the things which must come to pass hereafter” (Rev. 4:1).  The believer is called to walk through the door, a spiritual gateway, into a heavenly existence even though still living on earth. Come up hither (out of your lower human nature into your higher spiritual nature) into the healing influence of the Light of Christ and live the transforming life.  Be an instrument of God living the communal life with other believers and be collectively instruments of witness to the world, be Light in the Darkness.  Shaker villages were to be cities that are on hills, which cannot be hidden (see, Matthew 5:14) enlightening the world.

The Shaker spirit drawing above, is one of my favorites.  A copy of it hangs over my computer desk in my library.   The drawing illustrates the following passage in Revelation:

22:1And he showed me a river of water of life, bright as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb, 22:2in the midst of the street thereof. And on this side of the river and on that was the tree of life, bearing twelve manner of fruits, yielding its fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. 22:3And there shall be no curse any more: and the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be therein: and his servants shall serve him; 22:4and they shall see his face; and his name shall be on their foreheads. 22:5And there shall be night no more; and they need no light of lamp, neither light of sun; for the Lord God shall give them light: and they shall reign for ever and ever. 22:6And he said unto me, These words are faithful and true: and the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent his angels to show unto his servants the things which must shortly come to pass (Rev. 22:1-6).

The gift drawing represents the change the believer is experiencing in the  heavenly Light.  The Tree of Life, first encountered in the Book of Genesis at creation, has been transformed from a tree, once a tree of forbidden fruit, into a healing arbor with fruit and leaves that restore spiritual wholeness.  The arbor of life spans the river of life, which is no longer a crystalline barrier (a sea of crystal) between earth and heaven, but is now flowing freely for the healing of all the nations.  Under the shade of the arbor reside the direct presences of God and the Lamb.      Below the arbor we see a vision of the eternal Eucharistic table, which the followers of Christ are invited to sit in intimate unity with Father and Son in fulfillment of the passage below (Rev. 3:20-21):

Behold, I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.   21 He that overcometh, I will give to him to sit down with me in my throne, as I also overcame, and sat down with my Father in his throne.

(Also see, Matt. 25:31-46, the separation of the sheep and the goats).

I don’t believe that it is possible to live the kind of utopic life of complete innocence and sinlessness striven for by the members of the Society of Shakers, also known as the Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing.”  However, I do believe that we are called to do our best to be “perfect” as our heavenly parent is perfect by feeding the hungry, by giving drink to the thirsty,  by welcoming the stranger, by clothing the naked, by caring for the sick, and by visiting those in prison.   Like my Methodist minister friend. who told me the story of the precious God-given vase broken every day in his care, fragile human beings fail to fully live the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, and Christ’s simple and practical instructions found in Matthew 25-31-46, which we should embody daily. The Shakers were right.  If we could possibly lovingly obey the will of God perfectly, we would be restored to Eden again, heaven on earth.  It seems to me that we, however, live at once with promise and hope but also with the brokenness of our nature.

Some theologies would interpreter this in a negative thing, but to me God is compassionate and is modeling the kind of compassion that s/he wants us to live. And, I have always been suspicious that our terribly flawed human definitions of “perfect” are different from God’s understanding of “perfect” love (Matthew 5:43-48).

Every time I look up from my desk at the Shaker spirit picture I know in my heart that I am graciously invited every day to sit down at the eternal Eucharistic table, which it portrays, but I fail to persevere in my intention to do good and, at the very least, to do no harm.  Thank God, that I have a companion, a brother, who understands human nature intimately and loves us none-the-less.  He is armed with the spiritual armor of his triumphal life.  He walks the way of tribulation with me as I open the seals of self-knowledge and struggle to have the courage to welcome transformation in the spiritual Light.

Happy Easter


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