The People We're Supposed to Be – Br. Eldridge Pendleton
Q: When did you first experience a call from God?
I grew up in Texas, in a small town dominated by the southern Baptist church (whether you were Baptist or not you were Baptist in that town). In church one Sunday, when I was twelve years old, some missionaries were giving a talk about their work in the Philippines. At the end of the talk, the woman who had been speaking said, “You know, God calls people to special service. He may be calling someone here today to give their life to work for the church.” And when she said that I just started shaking my head, thinking, “Well, not me. It’s not going to happen to me.” And you know that famous poster of Uncle Sam pointing: “Uncle Sam Needs You”? Well, I felt right then like God was behind me with his finger pointing at me. I could almost feel that finger. I said, “Oh, this can’t happen to me. This is not what I want.” So I went on arguing with God, saying, “I just refuse. I will not do anything like that.”
Q: How did you eventually accept that call?
In college I discovered the Episcopal Church. I lived in a dorm with all Roman Catholics and, although I went to Mass with them every Sunday, I just didn’t feel like I fit. As we were coming out of Mass one day, I looked across the street and saw people outside another church in a procession, all dressed up in vestments, with incense and everything. I decided to check that one out. So the next Sunday I left for Mass with my friends but just walked across the street. As soon as I came to the Episcopal Church I knew I had found home. It was everything that I had always looked for: the mysticism and beauty of the liturgy. I found the chaplain at my university and pretty soon I was confirmed and became an Episcopalian.
In the meantime, I had a really good friend, a young woman, who was from was Framingham, Massachusetts. She invited me, “Why don’t you come up here for the summer, get any kind of job you can get – in a factory or waiting in a restaurant or something like that – and during your free time we’ll run around and play and just have the summer.” So I did, because I had always wanted to see New England. The Episcopal chaplain said to me, “Well, if you do go to Massachusetts, there are two churches in Boston I want you to see.” So one Sunday I visited the Church of the Advent. The next Sunday I visited St. John the Evangelist on Bowdoin Street. I had trouble finding it at first, and when I finally got there, I felt like I was racing up the long steps leading to it, and kind of falling into the church. Once inside, I looked around and noticed that everybody was there: There were rich people sitting next to people who looked like they had slept on the street; there were white people and black people – and this was in 1961, before civil rights; gay people and straight people; just a whole mix of everybody. Through the music and the clouds of incense, I thought, “Wow, this is the closest thing I’m going to get to the celestial banquet.”
During the course of that summer, I got to know the Cowley Fathers. Toward the end of the season, as I was getting ready to go back to school, one of them suggested that I make a retreat at the Monastery. I had never made a retreat in my life, yet because he suggested it, I felt that maybe I should try it, so I arranged it and went. I was the only one in the Guesthouse, and everything was so different than it is now. It was just the barest, most austere place you’ve ever seen. The walls had never been painted; they were just raw plaster. And it smelled like carbolic soap. It was not inviting. I just couldn’t imagine what these men did or what this life was all about. But, you know, when you’re twenty years old, it’s also very romantic, too, to be doing something like that. And they did eat well.
So I spent the weekend with them and, at the end of the weekend, I had this strong sense that God was calling me to be a monk. I couldn’t understand it, but it felt like SSJE was where I was supposed to be.
When I went back to school, I told the chaplain, who had become a really strong influence in my life. I didn’t tell anybody else, but I told him that I really felt as if I was called to this life. And he said, “Oh, you can’t do that.” And I thought he knew me well enough to know that I just didn’t have a vocation to it. What he meant was that at twenty years old I couldn’t make such a big decision. But I was young and listened to him. When you’re that young, you usually have several things you want to do with your life, so I decided that I wanted to be a university teacher instead. Eventually I went to graduate school and got a Ph.D. Once I went on to teach at Princeton and then a new experimental college in the midwest, I felt that I had become too smart for Christianity. I just dropped it and didn’t go to church at all. Yet whenever there was a real crisis in my life, I would find a church that was open and go there to pray.
Q: How did you eventually return to this question of a call to the religious life?
When I got a job as the director of a small museum in Maine – seven years of the most exciting, satisfying work I’ve ever had, really – I met some people who led me to this little, working-class Anglo-Catholic parish in Portsmouth. Again I felt like I had come home. I became active in this church. I even became senior warden, and when they were looking for a new rector, I was head of the search committee. Once we got the new rector, all my life just broke apart. I had become a workaholic – the museum was my life – and yet I felt that God was calling me to do something else. I was so upset, as upset as I had been when I was twelve years old, because I really couldn’t see myself as a parish priest anywhere and I couldn’t even figure out how I would pay for seminary. And yet I also knew I could not keep doing what I had been doing.
The new rector, who was just thirty years old, said, “I think you should go on retreat and just be quiet for a while, to see if you can get some answers. I know this place down in Boston…” So I arranged to go the Monastery again. I hadn’t been there since I was twenty years old.
Q: What was that second visit like?
Well, this time, the Brothers put Bob Greenfield in charge of me. He was an incredible person. He had a DPhil from Oxford, was so bright, and his idea of retreat was lots of naps and ice cream. It was just about what I needed at that point. I remember sitting out in the little Guesthouse garden the next morning – I hadn’t been there fifteen minutes – when all of a sudden I realized, “I know what I’m supposed to do. This is where I’m supposed to be. I knew it twenty years ago, and it’s still true.”
In part, the community drew me. I really wanted to live with other men, because I felt like I could be more who I am working with other people than the kind of life I had lived up to that point. Prayer also drew me, of course, but when I entered the Society, my prayer life was maybe Grade Level 1, so I really learned an awful lot about prayer and spirituality here in the Society. And since I have always felt drawn to listen to people, spiritual direction has been a really satisfying work that I’ve learned since being here.
It’s not as if my life here has been without crisis. But I’ve just always had this overwhelming feeling that this is where God wants me to be and to live out my life. Even though I haven’t understood it at times, I’ve trusted God enough to know that I should try it and see where it leads. I don’t think everyone who joins this Society has the strong sense of call I did. But I have such a sense that God singled me out for this life.
Q: How was the transition to life in the Society?
I entered SSJE at age forty-four, and it was hard making the transition to this life, in part because we did all the physical work – the cooking, cleaning, everything. I lost lots of weight and really looked terrible at my clothing as a novice.
I had a different picture of God when I entered than I gained during my time in the Society. I had this image – not exactly of an old man up in the sky – but certainly of someone who had a plan for each person. Some people were to live long lives, and some people were to live short lives. I thought mine was going to be short. Years before, when I was working on my Ph.D. at the University of Virginia, we were required to have a complete physical every year at the medical school there. As I was going through mine they recognized that something major was wrong with my heart. They asked me if they could do an experimental test on me to see what it was. They did a cardiac catheterization, and I was on the operating table for eight hours. At the end of that, all these cardiologists came in and stood around my bed and said, “We have good news and we have bad news. The good news is we know what it is: congenital heart disease.” It was heart disease that had begun at birth. The bad news was that I might live as much as ten more years. I was thirty years old at that point. And they told me all these horrible things that would happen before I actually died, blindness was one of them, and it was just really, really awful. I felt like I was living with a black cloud over my head.
When I shared this with the Brothers at the Monastery, before joining, I remember Tom Shaw saying, “We want you here. If it means that we carry your suitcases, we carry your suitcases.”
When I was having my retreat before being clothed as a novice, I had just come out of the hospital. I had had a heart infection, and I was really worried that I might not even live long enough to be clothed as a novice. And I really wanted that. But I realized that I couldn’t pray for myself. I could pray for others, but not for myself.
The novice guardian, James Madden, said, “Well, you know, this is happening at a good time because we have staying with us a priest from New York who has healing power. He works with people that the doctors have just given up on. Why don’t you go and talk to him?”
So I did. And the priest said, “Give me your earliest memory; just the first thing that flashes into your mind.” I remembered being four years old, playing in a field high in ragweed. One little girl next to me was resting, with her hoe head in the air, when the train came by. She went running to see the train and let her hoe go. It came down and hit me on the head, and there was a lot of blood. I could remember being taken to my grandmother’s house and really being looked after: my mother coming in, her cool hands on my head. But I wasn’t mentioning my father, and the priest wanted to know why. I started giving him grown-up reasons why my father was not there. But he said, “No, tell me as your four-year-old self.” And it came down to feeling that my father really didn’t love me. The healer said, “Well, did you ever tell him about that?” I said, “No, he died when I was twenty-five, and I can’t tell him now.” And he said, “Yes, you can.” So he had me imagine my father sitting across from me and made me tell him that I had thought he didn’t love me. He told me to listen to my father talking to me. And I heard my father telling me that he did love me.
In the process of all that, the distant figure of God the Father became loving arms that were holding me. I felt like I could ask God for anything that I needed.
I continued to work with this healer for an extended period of time and well, to make this a lot shorter than it was, when I went for my annual check-up that year the doctor said, “Well, there’s no change.” And it was true the next year, and the next, and the next, and the next. The deterioration of my heart and my lungs had just stopped. By the time I was fifty I was in such good shape that I celebrated by swimming twenty-five complete laps in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. I was so proud of myself.
Q: What’s been the most gratifying thing about accepting and living this call?
I feel like I’ve had an incredible life, and a big part of it is being in the Society, living and working with so many great people from the States, England, and Africa.
There was never another community that I thought maybe was the one instead. I never had any second thoughts. Of course, there were times when things were really difficult at SSJE. But right now we’re at the best point in our recent history, I think. It just seems like everything is working the way it should: We have a really good Superior who is challenging, and people want to be here; they love each other and can speak to each other’s faces rather than behind their backs. And while the community is small, it has always been small. Yet out of that smallness we have a pretty big bang in the world, I think.
I wake up here in this nursing home in Somerville, Massachusetts every day with such a sense of joy in my heart that, if I could, I would get down on my hands and knees and kiss the floor. The people here are so wonderful to me. I feel like I’ve had a charmed life. And it’s not over. I’m here for a reason, too, not just to be cared for because my physical body is breaking down, but I’m here for a reason. God has placed me here for a reason.
I really feel like I was aiming at SSJE from a very early age even though I didn’t know anything about it. And I don’t think I’m done yet either. I think I’m still growing and changing, and people along the way are helping me to become who I’m supposed to be. That’s what happens when we accept the life we’re called to: We become the people that we’re supposed to be.
I was in seminary with Eldridge at Duke Divinity School. He may not remember me, but when I served at University Baptist, I asked him to speak to my college students about his faith journey and about becoming a monk, so I was familiar with some of this story in the article. I am now a United Methodist minister in Fayetteville, NC working at a Presbyterian church. I’d love to be able to go on a retreat up there and say hello to him again.