My very first Sunday Meeting at the 1794 Meeting House at Chosen Land, the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Community in Maine where I interned as a printer in the late 90s, happened to be on Pentecost Sunday. It was a blustery day, the sort of day when laundry left on the line to dry takes on a life of its own, the shirts and dresses and jeans dancing with each other as they catch the breeze and fill and empty of air and sunlight.
The Shaker Meeting House at Chosen Land is modest but beautiful in its simplicity. I entered on the left side, for this is the door through which the men enter. The women enter on the right. The room you enter into is large and uninterrupted by posts or columns; the roof is supported by boxed beams that span across the room. The walls are white plaster and the wooden beams and original benches are painted blue. The blue takes your breath away. It is the original milk paint, dyed with Maine wild blueberries, from 1794. The floor is wide plank wood. To look at it and to step upon it is to think of all the Shaker brothers and sisters who walked and danced and twirled upon it throughout its history. All these years later I still think of that wood floor and think of doing rubbings of it for a book project someday. History has seeped into every corner and crevice of this building, and this is the building I’d stepped into that First Sunday of Pentecost in 1996.
If you’ve never been to a Shaker Meeting (and chances are good, I realize, that you haven’t), here’s what happens: Sister June reads a prayer to open Meeting, then Sister Frances announces which set song will be sung from the Shaker Hymnal. There are three Bible readings. And then Brother Arnold will say a few words about their founder, Mother Ann Lee, and remind everyone to “not feel strange or a stranger.” And this is an invitation for spontaneous songs and testimonies. The songs are any of thousands of Shaker songs handed down orally through the years. And the testimonies are from the heart, inspired by the atmosphere of the Meeting.
Pentecost never meant much to me but it did after that day. Father Bob Limpert, an Episcopal minister from New York, was there, and the Shakers let him give a more formal sermon. Father Bob was inspired by that blustery day to talk about the relationships between words like gust and ghost and of course it was Pentecost, the day the Church celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit… which, when I was a kid, was better known as the Holy Ghost. And here was this day of gusting wind ushering in holy ghosts of all kinds in this old building dripping with history: gust to ghost to spirit. And spirit brings us to inspiration.
And this always reminds me of one of my favorite professors from college, Myriam Swennen Ruthenberg, who, in an Italian Literature class, perhaps over Dante or Bocaccio or di Lampedusa, spoke one day of the connections between words, too. Her words that day were the Italian versions of respiration and inspiration and their common Latin root: spirare, breath. We breathe in and out in the act of respiration, but we also breathe in and out inspiration: we are inspired by what we take in, and what we exude or breathe out hopefully inspires others.
If you’ll follow along on my winding trail, these things all connect: the gust and ghost of Father Bob, the breathing in and out of Professoressa Ruthenberg. All are not so much of the earth as they are of the air (ghost/gust/spirit/breath/respiration/inspiration) and so they lack heaviness and instead are light and ethereal. Inspiration comes to us sometimes as fleeting as breath, a ghost seen just briefly from the corner of the eye.
Image: Taking a deep breath, crossing into the unknown. A 16th century engraving from the dust jacket of the book The Discoverers by Daniel J. Boorstin.