Glancing out the window of his monastic cell in Cambridge, Brother Eldridge Pendleton could sense the divine in something as simple as sycamore trees lining the Charles River. “They are majestic whether in leaf or bare. Their massive trunks and branches reaching to the sky never fail to lift my spirits,” he wrote in a meditation posted in 2007 on the Society of St. John the Evangelist website, adding: “These are trees I want to hug and listen for their heartbeat.”
A few words spoken by the Rev. Pendleton, his Texas childhood seasoning every accent, could inspire anyone he encountered. Though he was a scholar who taught at Princeton University and other colleges before becoming a monk, he drew much of his wisdom and insight from living with an illness. While studying for a PhD in history, he was diagnosed at 30 with heart disease and told he might die in a decade. Instead, he lived 45 more years.
“He never knew how long he was going to live, so that rather changed his life,” said Brother Geoffrey Tristram, the Society’s superior. “He had a sort of delight in life because every day he wasn’t expecting to still be alive, so every day was a gift from God. That delight in life communicated to others. People loved to be with Eldridge.”
Last Wednesday, the Rev. Pendleton died in Leonard Florence Center for Living in Chelsea. He was 75, and when his health had declined so much his monastic brothers couldn’t take care of his needs, he lived in the Jeanne Jugan Residence in Somerville, run by the Little Sisters of the Poor.
In an interview with Cowley magazine, posted on the Society’s website in 2013, he said he woke up in the nursing home each 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.”
“I feel like I’ve had a charmed life,” he added, and though his health was deteriorating, “I’m here for a reason. God has placed me here for a reason.”
The path that took him to the Memorial Drive monastery and the Society of St. John the Evangelist monastic order, which he joined in 1984, began in Farmersville, Texas, a place once known as the onion capital of North Texas. The Southern Baptist Church dominated Farmersville, a community of about 2,000 when he was growing up, and “whether you were Baptist or not, you were Baptist in that town,” he recalled in the interview with Cowley magazine, the Society’s newsletter.
He first attended an Episcopal Church while studying for a bachelor’s degree at North Texas State College. “I knew I had found home,” he said. “It was everything that I had always looked for: the mysticism and beauty of the liturgy.”
The attraction was confirmed when he spent a college summer in Boston and went to a service at St. John the Evangelist on Bowdoin Street. “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,” he told Cowley magazine. “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.’ ”
He felt called to become a monk, but the chaplain back at college in Texas advised against that route. Choosing academia, he went to the University of Virginia, graduating with a doctorate in history, and taught at Princeton, along with what is now Augustana University in Sioux Falls, S.D., and at Sangamon State University, which became the University of Illinois Springfield. The Rev. Pendleton also helped run the Old York Gaol Museum in Maine before joining the Society of St. John the Evangelist.
The museum brought “seven years of the most exciting, satisfying work I’ve ever had, really,” he said in the Cowley interview, but he felt called elsewhere. During a retreat at the Cambridge monastery, “all of a sudden I realized, ‘I know what I’m supposed to do. This is where I’m supposed to be.’ ”
Rev. Pendleton, who received a master’s of divinity from Duke Divinity School and was ordained an Episcopal priest, was for a time the senior brother at the Society’s St. John’s House in Durham, N.C.
In an essay posted online, one of his Duke classmates, the Rev. Gregory S. Neal of Texas, wrote: “Never at home in the spotlight, Eldridge nevertheless was one of the most inspiring preachers in my seminary class. His words, drifting quietly across the chapel, could fill one with the calm assurance of the presence of the Holy Spirit. When Eldridge Pendleton preached, even the most erudite professor would stop daydreaming and listen. Somehow, we knew that in Eldridge’s un-presupposing tones and Texas twang could be heard the voice of God.”
Rev. Pendleton “was a real Texan. His Texan accent was part of his identity and was part of his warmth,” Tristram said, and so was his sense of humor. “People loved to hear Eldridge laugh. Somehow it made everything seem OK.”
Despite failing health, Rev. Pendleton was able to complete and publish last year “Press On, the Kingdom,” a biography he wrote about Charles Chapman Grafton, a founder of the Society of St. John the Evangelist.
“He was very studious, very meticulous, very careful,” said Jamie Coats, director of Friends of SSJE, an organization that supports the brothers. “He was really interested in the original voice in history, in whatever circumstance: Who made the history? What was the actual context of them at that time, rather than how the story had evolved afterward.”
Rev. Pendleton leaves a sister, Camille of Texas. A funeral will be held at 2 p.m. Friday at the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge.
Perhaps because his life traced a path from a Southern Baptist bastion in Texas to an Episcopal monastery in Cambridge, his “faith seemed all inclusive,” said the Rev. Gary D. Jones, a longtime friend and rector at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Richmond. “He seemed to think God was reaching out to people of all faiths, all the time, in all sorts of ways.”
Rev. Pendleton was just as expansive about the world around him, and once told Jones that if he were ever hospitalized, he should “pay attention to the people who are lowest on the totem pole,” such as those who clean the rooms.
The least powerful, Rev. Pendleton said, “sometimes are just God’s angels, people who are instruments of healing,” Jones recalled. “And that’s kind of telling about who he was. He was convinced there was a special kind of beauty and holiness and healing to be found in places where a lot of people tend not to look.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.