Funeral Homily for Br. Eldridge Pendleton, SSJE (1940-2015)
Preached at the Monastery by the Superior, Br. Geoffrey Tristram, SSJE
We gather together today to give thanks to God for the life of our dear brother Eldridge. And what a rich life it has been, and a life which has touched and blessed each of us here today in a different way. We are here to give thanks for this man whose gentle kindness, wisdom and sheer grace have made our lives different, this man whose wonderful and sometimes wicked sense of humor and contagious laugh has delighted and cheered us on our way.
As I have been reflecting on these past 16 years since I have known Eldridge, and on the missions which we have been on together, I would say that, more than anyone else I know, his life has been a life of pilgrimage.
Ever since he was diagnosed with a congenital heart condition, and not expected to live beyond 20, he decided to live every day of this “wild and precious life,” however short, to the full! He delighted in being alive. He loved meeting people and people loved meeting him. He exuded a real joy. When, against all odds he reached the age of 50, he celebrated by swimming 25 laps in an Olympic-size swimming pool. And as he got older, and found, to his surprise that he was still alive, he saw every day as a gift from God – and he delighted in it. Like a pilgrim, waking each morning full of expectations for how God would reveal himself to him through the places he would visit and people he would meet. Each new day was a gift from a faithful God. One of Eldridge’s favorite hymns, which we will sing shortly, expresses it so well.
“Great is thy faithfulness.
Morning by morning new mercies I see.
Strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow
Great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.”
Pilgrimages are all about visiting places where God’s presence is experienced in a powerful way. For Eldridge, who was so deeply incarnational, places were sacred. And there are certain places which are hugely important in Eldridge’s personal sacred geography.
First of all, of course, his beloved Texas. Someone said, “I’d never met a monk in cowboy boots!” When I first came to visit the monastery from England, the very first service I attended in this chapel was First Evensong. Eldridge was the Officiant. I’ll always remember the first words I heard here, spoken with that rich, warm, Texan drawl, were “Light and peace in Jesus Christ our Lord.” Farmersville, Texas was a sacred place for him, and how good that some of his ashes will be going home to Texas to be buried beside six generations of his family.
Some years ago Eldridge took me to another sacred place. It was his beloved Virginia. He showed me with love and pride the hallowed grounds of Jefferson’s University of Virginia, where he received his doctorate, and the beautiful, delightful Monticello. He bought me a mug with the Virginia Creed “To be a Virginian either by birth, marriage, or adoption, is an introduction to any state in the Union, a passport to any country and a benediction from above.” Well, if anyone was adopted by Virginia, it was Eldridge!
And then New England. When Eldridge spent a college summer in Boston, he fell in love with New England, he fell in love with his newly discovered Episcopal Church, and he fell in love with this monastery. The sacred landscape of New England spoke to his historical passion and touched his soul. He loved the 18th century houses and churches and all the decorative arts. He delighted in directing Old York Gaol Museum in Maine which for him were “seven years of the most satisfying work I’ve ever had.” And in New England he became a monk. During a retreat here he realized, all of a sudden, “I know what I’m supposed to do. This is where I’m supposed to be.”
For during all the pilgrim years, from Texas to Virginia to New England, there was another interior pilgrimage taking place, his spiritual journey into the heart of God. Our Gospel reading for today from John’s Gospel chapter 14 is all about this pilgrimage.
“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”
The word for “dwelling places” in the Gospel, literally means a resting place, a wayside shelter, rather like those refuges you get in the White Mountains. Somewhere to shelter for the night during your hike. In the same way, John tells us that on our journey through life Jesus is always with us, goes ahead of us, and prepares a shelter for us along the road, where we can rest, and be comforted. And then finally, at the end of the road, there will be a place prepared for us, where we will be with him forever.
Eldridge knew these resting places so well. Those times when the Lord comforted, strengthened and encouraged him on the journey. He shared that strength and faith and courage with us. With his family, his sister Camille, his friends, his brothers and those of us who saw him for spiritual direction. Yesterday one of the Little Sisters of the Poor said about Eldridge, “he lived his life for God and everyone knew it.” That says it so well.
He drew strength and courage from Jesus, and in later years through a growing love and devotion for the Blessed Virgin Mary. Eldridge’s icon of Mary and her child is in the chapel, and bears witness to her role in his spiritual pilgrimage. A few years ago he made a life-changing pilgrimage to Lourdes, where Mary had appeared to Bernadette. The experience was enormously powerful and healing for Eldridge.
During these last years of course, his health declined quite dramatically, and he was looked after with such care by the Little Sisters of the Poor, and then at the Leonard Florence Center. Although it was a difficult time and dear Eldridge could be pretty stubborn at times (!) – we brothers and so many of you his friends would visit to cheer him up – and of course find that we too were cheered by his delight in life and that wonderful laugh. I’d like to pay tribute to Br. Jonathan who as Infirmarian cared for him faithfully over the years.
And so finally, we come to this sacred place – this monastery, and this beautiful chapel dedicated to St. John and the Blessed Virgin Mary. Apart from its spiritual power Eldridge loved the exquisite proportions which were part of the genius of Ralph Adams Cram. It tickled him that we had a 10th century Romanesque church – which was only a couple of years older than him!
This has been Eldridge’s sacred space for the last 30 years of his life. It is the place where Eldridge made his Initial Profession and his Life Profession as a monk. It is in this chapel that he was ordained a priest. It is within these holy walls Eldridge and we his brothers have prayed and worshipped day after day and adored the one who came to love us, redeem us, and raise us up at the last, to new and eternal life. And so it is so right that this holy space should be the setting for this final stage of Eldridge’s earthly pilgrimage.
Eldridge said to me, “I don’t want to die until I’ve finished my book on Fr. Grafton – and I want to make 75.”
Well, Eldridge, the book is complete, and it’s terrific! And you made 75 – but much more than this. During your long pilgrimage you changed people’s lives – you changed our lives. You brought kindness, wisdom, holiness, laughter and hope into the lives of countless men and women whom you met along the way. And now the Lord, in his great faithfulness has come and taken you to himself, that where he is you may be also.
So, Dear Eldridge, our brother, our friend, go forth with our love.
May the shining company of all the angels meet you.
May all the saints surround you and lift you up.
May the Blessed Virgin Mary graciously turn her eyes towards you.
May the face of Jesus Christ appear to you gentle and joyful.
May the Sacred Heart of Jesus receive your soul.
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