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Spiritual Crossroads

One of the more unlikely and significant trips in Kentucky came when one of the greatest spiritual writers of the 20th century, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, visited the Shaker village in Pleasant Hill.

Merton was intrigued by what he saw, because he knew that two seemingly disparate religious groups arrived in uncharted Kentucky territory at about the same time—the Trappist monks and also a group that called themselves the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing—but to the world they were the Shakers.

In Bardstown, the Trappists founded the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, and in Pleasant Hill the Shakers established their community, now restored as Shaker Village. Merton in 1959 wrote in his journal, A Search for Solitude: Pursuing the Monk’s True Life, The Journals of Thomas Merton Vol. 3, “I cannot help seeing Shakertown in a very special light, that of my own vocation. There is a lot of Shakertown in Gethsemani. The two contemporary communities had much in common, were born of the same Spirit.”

Later in The Waters of Siloe, he included them in his history of the Trappist Order. This was part of Merton’s larger vision of introducing mainstream America to monasticism, which many claim saved Western civilization from extinction.

The spectacular accomplishments of Western monasticism pulled Europe through the Dark Ages after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century. As Rome lay in ruin, it was only through the preservation of its manuscripts, which the monks relentlessly copied in the scriptorium (the room where the monks wrote manuscripts) that held together the threads of European culture.

The fall of Rome quickly forced Europe to reassess its own identity. In many ways, the monks were the impetus behind this, although they never saw themselves as saving the continent. The purpose of the monastery was to work out one’s salvation through discipline and separation from the world, but the unraveling of Roman society set the world on an entirely different course. Totally unaware of the magnitude of their contributions, the monks simply concentrated on the job at hand—transforming swamps that covered Europe into fertile land, and clearing dense forests so that a nation like Germany could eventually emerge with immense possibilities for future development.

Work was not disavowed in the Rule of St. Benedict, the foundation of Western monasticism. Instead, the Rule stressed the importance of manual labor in the life of the monk, but always after prayer and contemplation. Thus, monasteries were primed to become more self-sufficient, evolving into “think tanks,” and fostering technological breakthroughs that increased productivity and time for personal reflection.

Recently, experts exploring Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire, England, found evidence that 12th-century Cistercians, brothers to the Trappists, were on the verge of initiating the large-scale production of cast iron, five centuries before the Industrial Revolution, and the availability of sophisticated machinery for the construction of bridges and other civil engineering feats.

The monasteries’ communication network made technology transfer easy: yearly meetings of Cistercian abbots shared these technological advances across Europe, even though many communities were thousands of miles apart. The monks acquired a well-deserved reputation as the continent’s technical advisors, putting their indelible mark on Western society.

In time, the Shakers too made their mark as technical advisors to the burgeoning American West as expert farmers and businessmen. But that was a long way from their humble beginnings at the start of England’s Industrial Revolution and its appalling working conditions, a result of large-scale mechanization.

Onlookers called them Shakers because their charismatic worship usually ended spectacularly when the entire congregation collapsed from physical exhaustion. In Kentucky, people as far away as 3 miles from the Shaker settlement heard their Sunday service because, in designing their buildings, the Shakers became expert in acoustic transmission, explains Shaker Village interpreter Georgeanna Riddell.

For the Shakers, celibacy was part of their path to salvation. By giving up the things of this world, including the temptations of the flesh, they believed they could live as Adam and Eve before their fall and negate Adam and Eve’s sin. Paraphrased from the Gospel of Luke, it is explained in the Shakers Compendium of doctrine that children of this world marry and are given in marriage; those who are not of this world neither marry nor are given in marriage. Therefore, the Shakers believed that they were called to live on earth as angels live in heaven—without marriage.

The Shakers acquired a reputation for confrontation and outspoken condemnation of established religion. They were so at odds with the Church of England and disrupted religious services so frequently that constables were called to restore the peace. In time a small band of committed participants formed around their prophetess, Mother Ann Lee, but as the Shakers faced increasing legal difficulties, in 1774 they were forced to flee England for upstate New York.

“I bore testimony against their sins,” Ann Lee purportedly declared about the English, “and told them of their wicked lives, which was the reason their hating me so.”

Charismatic and powerful, Ann Lee was said to be the female incarnation of the Christ Spirit, although her impoverished beginnings belied any hint of future greatness. Toiling under intolerable working conditions in 18th-century England’s textile mills, she was further victimized by an unhappy marriage that produced four children, all dead in infancy. Divine revelation led her ascent to leadership, surrounded by a tiny sect of fiercely committed disciples, including her spurned husband, scornful father, and a man of wealth who paid their passage to America.

Arriving on the eve of Revolution, Ann Lee was imprisoned, presumably as a suspected British spy, but later personally exonerated by New York’s first governor, George Clinton. In 1781, she began a preaching mission that converted thousands but later exploded into mob violence. She and her companions were horsewhipped and dragged through the streets, a trauma from which she never fully recovered. At age 48, she was dead.

By 1800 the Shakers, like other like-minded adventurers, headed west in covered wagons for the Kentucky frontier. The Shakers walked there. Three missionaries dispatched from the New Lebanon, New York, Shaker settlement walked 1,233 miles before they arrived at the Kentucky border. The Shakers survived, with about 3,500 believers at their height and 19 thriving communities scattered through the Northeast, Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana.

Like the Trappists who came to Kentucky about the same time, they struggled to establish their own identity, based on a celibate community of men and women laboring to transform earth into heaven. “Individualism arose from the collective identity of the community—a paradox for frontiersmen who saw individual rights as the very basis of a free society,” says Shaker Village historian Susan Hughes.

Work was their currency and in time they erected approximately 260 structures at Pleasant Hill, and were one of the first communities in the state to have running water. Fiercely independent, they repaid in full all debt for erecting the Kentucky site to the Shaker hierarchy.

They quickly garnered admiration for their expertise as agriculturists and entrepreneurs, coupled with their unremitting quest for new business ventures and profit. Frequently they controlled the very systems that distributed their goods to the outside world, giving them a further edge over their competitors.

Today they are acclaimed for their furniture, but they are also credited with making innovations and improvements to many labor-saving devices, which they often shared without patents.

The Pleasant Hill Shakers developed an improved spring device for a dump wagon. The Canterbury Shakers purchased a patent (for $1) for a horse-powered wash mill (washing machine), which they improved. The Shakers were among the first to market, on a large scale, packaged medicinal herbs.

They strove to make their work perfect because they said God dwelt in the details. It was an act of piety. Few Shaker craftsmen ever signed their work.

They practiced social, sexual, and economic equality 75 years before the emancipation of slaves and 150 years before women in America got the right to vote. In the South, two Kentucky communities in the early 1800s drew suspicion upon themselves by freeing slaves belonging to white Shakers and allowing them to live in their communities as freedmen. Legal battles resulting in catastrophic financial settlements with apostates and other claimants, and enormous losses from elders who victimized Shaker settlements by absconding with large amounts of cash, eventually bankrupted some Shaker communities and caused schism. Today only a handful of Shakers survive, and some of their once-thriving communities have become public museums.

Forty persecuted Catholics from Maryland arrived in Kentucky in the 1790s, settling about a mile from present-day Abbey of Gethsemani. “The idea was that a priest would be sent to minister to them if they were willing to stay together as a community,” explains Brother Paul Quenon at Gethsemani. They did, and the Bardstown Diocese, as it was then called, emerged, followed by church centers in Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Chicago, and Nashville. Gethsemani Abbey was part of the Bardstown Diocese.

From the beginning, life at Gethsemani was a regular pattern of work and prayer, mostly in French (the liturgical prayers were in Latin, and English was introduced to the liturgy in 1964 after Vatican II). Vocations began to swell the monastery’s ranks after World War II. Among those who came was Thomas Merton. He had an office at Gethsemani in Bardstown, and a small, daytime hermitage from which he wrote for 27 years, delving into the world’s religions, including the Shakers. One of the most influential writers of his time, Merton spoke about the Shakers in essays, correspondence, and lectures he gave at Gethsemani as the Abbey’s Novice Master.

Merton drew the world’s attention to the Shakers and to Gethsemani because he saw so many similarities between the two, especially their unequivocal affirmation of celibacy. Merton understood this as a life of deeper purpose because most traditional religions had devout but austere branches that embraced a celibate life. The Essenes, Christian monastics, and the Brahmins were often gravely misunderstood. Celibacy, just one part of a life of sacrifice and submission, both bewildered and offended the world, but for the religious practitioners, it was an opportunity for perfection.

“We bless marriage,” said the late Shaker Eldress Gertrude Soule in summing up the entire matter, “but we answer to a higher calling.”


Thomas Merton (January 31, 1915-December 10, 1968) was a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, and is considered one of the most popular Catholic writers. He was a poet, social activist, and student of comparative religion—often considered ahead of his time.

He arrived at the Abbey of Gethsemani on December 10, 1941, which shares the same date of his death from accidental electrocution in 1968 while on a conference in Asia. He is buried at The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Bardstown.

A prolific writer, Merton authored more than 70 books in addition to numerous essays and poems. Two of his most popular works include his best-selling autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), and No Man Is an Island (1955), with meditations and 16 essays on spiritual life that delve into what real life is about, including his classic treatise Love Can Be Kept Only by Being Given Away.

A Thomas Merton Reader, by Merton and edited by Thomas P. McDonnell, is an anthology of Merton’s many works. You can review it online at by typing “A Thomas Merton Reader” in the search box.

Another book on Merton, edited by Dr. Paul Pearson of The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarimine University, is Shakers, Seeking Paradise: The Spirit of the Shakers.

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill
3501 Lexington Road, Harrodsburg, KY 40330
(800) 734-5611

Tour Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill anytime of the year, except December 24 and December 25, when the historical site is closed to the public. Don’t forget to check out their 3,000-acre back yard with 40 miles of trails running through original Shaker countryside. There are 14 buildings to tour—all furnished in original Shaker furniture and artifacts. Interspersed during each day’s events are musical performances in the Shaker tradition and craft demonstrations as the Shakers would have done it. From April to October, the Dixie Belle riverboat offers visitors hour-long scenic cruises along the Kentucky River Palisades.

Visitor hours are April 1-October 31, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.;
November 1-March 31, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

Admission April 1-October 31, $15 adults, $5 for ages 6-12, under 6 free. During winter hours, November 1-March 31, $7 adults, $3 for ages 6-12, under 6 free. Some tours, talks, and
exhibition buildings are closed during the winter months.

South Union Shaker Village
850 Shaker Museum Road
Auburn, KY 42206
(800) 811-8379 or (270) 542-4167

Located in southern Kentucky, this community was established by the Shakers in 1807 and closed in 1922. Perhaps the most interesting piece of history at the Shaker Museum at South Union is the Civil War period, 1861-1864. The Shaker journals tell us how hard it was for them during this time of life. Even though they did not fight, their losses were great, estimated at $100,000 in goods-fences, property, wagons, horses, and food. During that time, they served approximately 50,000 meals to both Confederate and Union soldiers.

South Union Shaker Village is a nonprofit, educational institution that preserves and maintains the site of the Shaker Society that once existed at South Union. They provide ongoing educational and cultural programs.

Several of the original buildings have been restored and now house a fine collection of Shaker folklife and material culture, a unique gift shop, and overnight lodgings.

In the village, you will see beautiful artifacts such as homespun blankets, coverlets, kerosene lamps, ironstone, butter churns, oval boxes, and Shaker furniture-all original to the South Union Shakers, painstakingly reacquired in the years since 1922, when everything was sold off. South Union houses the largest collection of Southern Shaker furniture-and all original to this community.

Visitor hours are Tuesday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (winter hours December-February, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.); Sundays 1-5 p.m. (Closed Sundays December-February.) Admission $8 adults, $4 children ages 6-12, 5 and under free; group tour pricing also available.

Abbey of Gethsemani
3642 Monks Road, Trappist, KY 40051
(502) 549-3117

The Abbey of Gethsemani, near Bardstown, is the monastery of Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton. Begin your visit at the Welcome Center, located next to the parking area, and plan to attend services held in the chapel. Thomas Merton’s hermitage still exists, but it is only used by the Trappist community for private retreats and is not open for public tours. For those seeking a longer stay at the Abbey, one can take part in weekend and weeklong retreats. You will be warmly welcomed as hospitality is essential to monastic life.

The Abbey of Gethsemani Welcome Center (film, archives, shop) is open Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., with the exception of public holidays and holy days. No advance arrangements are needed to attend church services (times provided online) or to walk the grounds. The west side of the property, about 1,200 acres on the side of the road opposite the church, is open to the public for extended walks and hikes on trails through the knobs.

Gethsemani Farms

(800) 549-1619 customer service
(800) 549-0912 to order

Located on-site near the Abbey, Gethsemani Farms makes Christmas and shopping easy through the monastery with mail order-go online for the monks’ fruitcake, rated “number one” by The Wall Street Journal, and their prize-winning cheese, produced in the age-old Trappist tradition. Also available-fudge, coffee, and CDs of Gregorian chants, sung by Trappists since the Middle Ages.

St. Meinrad Archabbey
200 Hill Drive, St. Meinrad, Indiana 47577
(812) 357-6611

Located a couple of hours away in southern Indiana, the Benedictine monastery St. Meinrad Archabbey was founded in the 1850s by Swiss monks. The Benedictines precede the Trappists by about seven centuries, tracing their origin to St. Benedict (480-547 A.D.), the founder of Western monasticism. It was the Benedictines who preserved the manuscripts that kept Western civilization alive during Europe’s Dark Ages, and it was they who Christianized the entire European continent and beyond. St. Benedict’s Rule for monastic life, introduced about 530 A.D., quickly gained support because it was both practical and dynamic. In practice, the monk’s task is to seek his own personal salvation within the context of the larger monastic community and through specific encounters with the world. Hospitality is one avenue and the Benedictines have a long tradition of welcoming travelers and pilgrims to their hospices, or hostels, often located in remote areas of Europe.

Visitors are welcomed at St. Meinrad’s for regularly scheduled retreats, to tour the beautiful grounds, or to join the monks in prayer in the Archabbey Church.

The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University
2001 Newburg Road, Louisville, KY 40205
(502) 272-8187

Located on the campus of Bellarmine University in Louisville, The Thomas Merton Center is the official repository of more than 50,000 Merton-related materials, including his writings, photographs, and drawings. Visitors to the Center are encouraged to join the International Thomas Merton Society, with chapters located throughout the world.

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