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.
Bless the Lord, O My Soul: A Meditation on Psalm 103
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
And all that is within me, bless his holy Name.
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
And forget not all his benefits.
He forgives all your sins
And heals all your infirmities;
He redeems your life from the grave
And crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness;
He satisfies you with good things,
And your youth is renewed like an eagle’s.
The LORD executes righteousness
And judgment for all who are oppressed.
He made his ways known to Moses
And his works to the children of Israel.
The LORD is full of compassion and mercy,
Slow to anger and of great kindness.
Whenever I hear the opening words of Psalm 103 I think of my grandmother, who loved me unconditionally. I have reflected often in recent years on those individuals whose influence helped make me who I am, and she is certainly at the top of the list. My grandfather died unexpectedly when my grandmother was 27 and within weeks of giving birth to her second child, Elizabeth. They had been sweethearts since childhood. Left a widow in a frontier town in Indian Territory, far from her family in Texas, my grandmother emerged from darkest grief a year later spiritually rescued and renewed, determined to lead others to the love of Jesus. An inspired teacher, she did so by teaching Bible classes for over fifty years. Bereft by tragedy at such an early age, her life could have been hobbled by fear. Instead, Psalm 103 inspired her to live. It became her mantra. Its message can inspire us to live more fully, as well.
Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Living is a continuing series of sermons, workshops, and teachings from the Brothers that seeks to distill the collective wisdom of the past and offer practical timeless messages to live by in today’s world.
For me it all started with a red light when I was nine years old. That summer I was spending two months with my aunt Grace at her home on the Texas Gulf coast. One day I was playing outside with Sharon, my cousin who was my age, and Judy from next door, when the two of them started arguing about whose church was best, resuming the religious wars of 500 years ago. Sharon was a Presbyterian and Judy a Roman Catholic. Both sides slung abuse, but in the midst of it, Judy, realizing I had never seen a Catholic church and ever the missionary, offered to take me to Saint Mary’s some afternoon.
Now, during our Lenten observance we have come to the beginning of Holy Week, a time of remembrance dedicated to the final days of the life of Jesus, from the exhilaration of the cheering crowds who welcomed him into Jerusalem and then through his betrayal and arrest, his suffering at the hands of an angry mob, his awful crucifixion, death, burial and glorious resurrection from the dead on Easter morning. This is the last week of Lent and whether we have been able and diligent in maintaining our discipline or not, this week, like so much of our relationship with God, offers us another chance to return to it, and to immerse ourselves in the spiritual mystery of this holy season. For it is the supreme mystery of our Christian faith we are about to witness this week. Make no mistake about it. The events of Holy Week and Easter are not merely annual reenactments of the tragic events of the life of an important historical personage. This is spiritual mystery on its deepest and most cosmic scale. Its sacred drama encompasses the depths of sin, human degradation and death, and then carries us forward to Jesus’ triumph over death and resurrection to new life. These are mysteries we, too, struggle with daily all our lives and which remain beyond our comprehension.
Jeremiah 31: 7-14; Psalm 84: 1-8; Ephesians 1: 3-6, 15-19a; Matthew 2: 13-15, 19-23
I have been reading Tracy Kidder’s Strength in What Remains, the story of a young Burundian Tutsi who fled for his life to the United States after great suffering and months of running and hiding during the genocidal holocaust that swept through Burundi and neighboring Rwanda fifteen years ago. Throughout the long months of massacre in which he lost members of his family, friends and neighbors, Deo Gratias, for that is his name, lived in the forest a hunted man, constantly on the run, starving and sick, until a friend and former classmate at medical school (and, ironically, a Hutu, the ethnic group responsible for the slaughter), saved his life by helping him get a visa and a plane ticket to the United States. Deo arrived in America virtually penniless, and without a job or the ability to speak English. He barely survived. Then a series of miraculous encounters involving a former nun, a lawyer, a childless couple and Dr. Paul Farmer turned his life around and enabled him to get a degree from Columbia, finish medical school, and embark on a project to build a free clinic in a remote area of Burundi that would not only minister to the sick but also bring peace and reconciliation to the warring ethnic factions of that region. Experiencing years of such abject tragedy could easily have embittered him, but instead it had the opposite effect. This is an amazing story of one man’s determination to work wonders against all odds, and how his personal dedication and sense of mission have inspired others and liberated them from fear and violence.
I came to this story of the Holy Family’s flight into exile in Egypt with the modern story of Deo’s escape to the United States fresh in my mind and remembered the many millions who have had to undergo similar traumatic moves to flee evil and death.
Micah 5: 2-4; Psalm 80: 1-7; Hebrews 10: 5-10; Luke 1: 39-49
Consider the stars of this Sunday’s Gospel drama. One is an adolescent girl, probably no more than thirteen or fourteen, a member of a religious culture that taught her to look for the coming of the Messiah, the one who would liberate her people. But she never assumed she would be the instrument for his entry into the world, or that through her young body God would be formed in human flesh. Nor did she ever imagine that she would be invited to cooperate with God in this magnificent event, or to act without knowing the consequences of her cooperation. To do so meant breaking all the rules of the Jewish religious code, of bringing scandal on her family, and putting her life on the line because she lived in a society that stoned to death unwed mothers. Consider her cousin Elizabeth, a childless woman long past her childbearing years, an object of pity and scorn in her community where sons were one’s “eternal life.” And yet in old age and against biological possibility, God answered her prayer for a son and she gave birth to the last of the biblical prophets. Not just a son, that would have been marvelous in itself, but someone set apart by God to play a leading role in the salvation drama, to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord.
Titus 2: 7-8, 11-14;
Psalm 112: 1-9;
Matthew 24: 42-47
When Hugh was five years old his family gave him to the Carthusian monks of the Grande Chartreuse in the mountains of south eastern France to raise. That a noble family would give a son at a tender age to a monastery to educate was not unusual during the Middle Ages because monastic foundations were centers of learning. Even so, most parents might have hesitated sending a son for training to the strictest religious community in the Church. Those of you who have seen the movie Into Greater Silence or read Nancy Maguire’s account of 20th Carthusians in England, An Infinity of Little Hours will have some familiarity with this religious order. Into Greater Silence gave a glimpse of the daily life of the Carthusians at Grande Chartreuse, which has changed little since the order was founded by St. Bruno in the 11th century. Blanketed by deep snows during long winters, the silence of the season compliments the disciplined silence of the monks. One can only imagine the impact such an atmosphere of holiness and austerity would have on children brought up in it. We know that Hugh thrived there.
1 Kings 17: 8-16;
Hebrews 9: 24-28;
Mark 12: 38-44
One of the most brilliant and talented of the first generation of Father Benson’s spiritual sons, Arthur Hall, who later served as Episcopal Bishop of Vermont for 38 years, was also a gifted spiritual director. When Jack and Isabella Gardner moved their membership to the Church of the Advent on Bowdoin Street in 1873, Mrs. Gardner sought him out for counsel and Hall very shortly assumed the responsibility for her spiritual formation. At the time Hall was 25, attractive and a recent graduate of Christ Church, Oxford. Mrs. Gardner was mourning the death of her only child.
We Brothers are helping people write and introduce fresh prayers into the Prayers of the People by learning about the seven principal forms of prayer identified in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer: adoration, praise, thanksgiving, penitence, oblation, intercession, and petition.
We invite your prayers to the God of love in words and images on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram in the format #prayersof #adoration … You may want to start “I adore you …”
View the prayers of others: prayersofthepeople.org
To read more sermons about the seven forms of prayer: Teach Us to Pray
Br. Eldridge Pendleton offered this homily on the prayer of adoration at the Monastery as part four of the Teach Us to Pray series, October 27, 2009.
Exodus 3: 1-15; 1 John 4: 7-19; Matthew 13: 44-53
Remember! Remember that in this chapel we are on holy ground. It is as holy as the place on Mount Horeb where Moses saw the burning bush and encountered God, and for the same reason. In this chapel for over seventy years many thousands of men and women have had equally momentous encounters with God, encounters that have changed their lives in profound ways. Some have discovered God for the first time here. Others, suffering or at life’s crossroads have found comfort and the answers they needed to make major decisions. The walls of this holy place have been hallowed and impregnated by their prayers. Many who worship in this space over time tend to forget its numinous quality, but are reminded of it by the comments of those who enter it for the first time and find themselves enveloped by its holiness. They tell us of the sense of peace they find here. Some even mention their conviction that God is in this chapel. We are on holy ground and should treat it with reverence and awe.
Today we celebrate the feast of St. Michael and All Angels, one of the great solemnities of the Christian liturgical calendar, and in doing so we focus our attention on the role of angels in the development of Judeo-Christian history. But it is also an opportunity for us to consider angels and their importance in our own personal spirituality. Is there room for them in your Christian faith, and if so, what part do they play? You may understand their significance in the unfolding of the Christian story in its early beginnings, but do they mean much to you currently? After all, we are living in the 21st century CE. Aren’t they really similar to fairy tale characters—figures of fantasy? As such, are they the weak link in your Christian faith? Do they really exist? I must say I have had my doubts and still do. While it is a comforting thought to many, do we really have guardian angels, special celestial beings whose purpose is to watch over us and keep us from harm. I suspect something mysterious is at work when I enter a crowded parking lot and the best place opens for me or when I am spared a terrible accident averted in the nick of time. Could this be the work of an angel?