The Being of Art

Over Memorial Day weekend, my wife and I visited the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, the largest restored Shaker community in America. For the uninitiated, Shakers are a Christian sect who broke from the Quaker tradition and became known for their vibrant dancing during worship. They are largely known for their utopian living arrangements and for their fine workmanship, namely furniture and specifically chairs.

Aside from the peaceful vibe of the community derived from their simple approach to life, what stood out to me most about the Shakers was their attention not simply to the art of being but also the being of art. The late monk and writer Thomas Merton, who happened to live not very far from the Shaker Village in Kentucky, wrote an insightful book about the community called Seeking Paradise: The Spirit of the Shakers.

With reference to the Shakers’ work ethic he wrote: “In no case was work to be done in a hurry or under pressure, or indeed under any form of spiritual compulsion. The competitive spirit was banned because of its occult relationship with lust and violence. Overworking was frowned upon…They strove in all things for truth, and made a point of simply being themselves.”

And Merton described the Shakers’ creative process this way: “You are concerned enough about this thing that you are making that this has got to be. Here is something that God is calling into being through you, and if you pay attention and you take care...there is going to be a new being in the world which has come into the world through your care and through your love of this being.”

He summarized the Shakers’ artistry also: “‘Labor until you bring your spirits to feel satisfied.’ What do they mean by that? Art. Any way of learning how to do the thing right is art. It doesn’t have to be a picture or a sculpture or something like that. Art is the right reason for making a thing. So whether it is cooking or whether it is making shoes or sewing a garment or something like that, it is art.” So create art until your heart is content.

To Be or Not To Be

In the immortal words of William Shakespeare, “To be, or not to be, that is the question.” I am a big believer in the power of living in the present and the only way to do that is to focus more on being than doing. Busyness has an insidious way of weaving itself into our lives to the point that we forget there is another, better way to live. Believe it or not, each of us has the power to either accept or reject the encroachment of busyness in our lives.

How? You may ask. By identifying the absolute essentials in our lives and structuring our time around them. If you are like most people, you’d say you value your faith, family and friends, but how you spend your time tells the tale. For example, is church attendance or other faith centric fellowship a given in your life? If not you may need to examine how vital faith is to you. We often give lip service to our beliefs but our lives don’t lie.

I mention faith as a foundation because I have found it indispensible to living a life centered on being versus doing. And it is important to point out that I am not talking about religious striving to become a better person. The type of faith I mean is one that rests in what God has done for us through Christ and ceases from senseless activity. Many people apparently believe that “busier is better” judging by their crammed calendars but racing against the clock is a fool’s errand.

Years ago I spoke at a church about the need for believers to “work smarter, not harder” and I will never forget the look on the pastors’ faces. It was as if I spoke a foreign language, one that they simply could not comprehend. It was a truth they failed to identify with. Time has proven the value of the statement in my life and they have suffered the consequences of not heeding it. As I’ve said before, God made us human beings, not human doings. His name is I AM and we are created in his image. To be, that is the answer.

The Art of Being

My wife and I attended a niece’s wedding this past weekend and, as is my practice, I carried my trusty Leica camera to chronicle the happy event. Yet something happened during the ceremony that reminded me of the sacredness of the service. Of course, life’s big events are the very epitome of photo-ops, but as I was clicking away it dawned on me that it was more important to witness the event than to photograph it. After all, I was not the official wedding photographer, just a proud uncle of the bride.

And today I stumbled upon another blog that captured the same sentiment as it relates to our use of technology: “One way that technology degrades us, in the words of philosopher Martin Heidegger, is ‘forgetfulness of being.’ With technology, we cut ourselves off from the moment, from physical presence, from reality itself. Rather than really experiencing something we distance ourselves by filtering the experience through a little device.” Uh oh.

The very ubiquity of portable gadgets seems to encourage their frequent use, no matter how inappropriate. And don’t even get me started on other people’s dumb use of smartphones in such places as movie theatres. As Albert Einstein observed: “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” I usually strive to keep technology in its proper place but even I occasionally need a reminder that practicing the art of being is the very picture of propriety.