The First Thing I Saw of Pendle Hill was the Green
Adrian Nelson, Upper Fox Valley Quaker Meeting
The campus sits in the middle of a verdant wood, its buildings sharing space with maples and laurels, several towering redwoods, and the largest beech tree in Pennsylvania. Trees leaned over us during our meals on the outdoor tables; they screened the afternoon sun outside my window; they shadowed my morning journeys on the trails nearby. You are going into Penn’s Woods, someone told me as I left. I would think about early Friends walking through the woods—perhaps not these, but woods like these. It was Pennsylvania, after all.
Connections to early Friends lay in more than just the trees for me. Pendle Hill has been touched by the journeys of thousands of Quakers and other travelers passing through, visiting, teaching, living. And here I was at the place they had shaped, part of the Young Adult Leadership Development (YALD) Program for seven weeks in the summer of 2011. I and nine other young adults between the ages of 18-24 were set to spend the summer exploring our gifts and callings, learning to live in community, and spending 12-14 hour days at work in the program.
This work took many forms: some days, we went into Philadelphia to volunteer at various service sites. Other days, we worked at an assigned work site in Pendle Hill. Most days we had classes. Almost every day we had daily chores, cleaning up or preparing for meals. Once a week we had a speaker in a lecture series come in for us; once a week we would lead community worship. And even in free time there were many things to do: the art studio and the library were open to us; there were discussion groups and some workshops; and there was singing and walking and talking to do, spending time with the multitude of beautiful people who came in and out of Pendle Hill during our time there, whether working, at a conference or retreat, part of a workshop, or simply sojourning. Sleep dropped rather low on my priority list most times, for there was so much to experience and so little time to do it.
The community began with a firm foundation. With our co-leaders Rachel Stacy and Greg Woods, we created a covenant together that set the guidelines and expectations we had of our group. Together, we sat and talked about what we wanted the community to be—How would we handle conflict? What were rules of romantic relationships? Did sex, drugs or alcohol have a place?—and a smaller group drafted a document based on our meetings. As we talked we began to know each other, to understand personal boundaries, to see how we worked together. While we of course had individual differences, the process of drafting a covenant revealed to me a firm commitment on everyone’s part to working together so that everyone might get the most of the experience. We were committed to being inclusive and respectful, and to loving each other. While we might at times fail to live up to our own standards—and who is perfect in this?—it was this dedication at the beginning that saw our group through to the end.
My work at Pendle Hill was rhythmic. I had not realized how irregular my so-called regular life was until I entered into this community where the meals were on fixed hours; where worship was a half an hour every day without fail; where daily chores were identical from day to day; where each day repeated its structure weekly. I could feel my body falling joyfully into this rhythm, waking at the same hour without an alarm, hunger pangs striking regularly before each meal, energy levels rising and falling for various tasks. The regularity showed me the small changes passing as the season wheeled around me, whether the flowers blooming or the vegetables ripening, or the shifting of the sun across the spot that I sat at every breakfast. It also heightened the unscheduled moments, the spontaneity, the chance encounters of breathtaking beauty. My time, then, was marked by both the steady regularity of work and the unexpected moments that exploded in my life, moments where I was sure my fingers had brushed the divine.
I found myself centering around an essay I read early on for my class on the history of Quakerism. I had only vaguely heard of Thomas Kelly, but I was transfixed by his words in “The Light Within.” I read of the constant state of inward prayer that may be behind all outward concerns, and I could hardly breathe. I could feel, as if my being were drawn through the eye of a needle, a deep yearning for that state where prayer, as Kelly says,
rolls through us like a mighty tide. Our prayers are mingled with a vaster Word, a Word that at one time was made flesh. We pray, and yet it is not we who pray, but a Greater who prays in us. Something of our punctiform selfhood is weakened, but never lost. All we can say is, “Prayer is taking place, and I am given to be in the orbit.”
I knew then that Kelly had put the words to what I sought in wordless longing, reaching for that state of grace from which I could act, a place of compassion and inward light. I spent the rest of my time at Pendle Hill with Kelly’s words in the back of my mind, seeking, turning inward—and forgetting too many painful times, and having to stop, and take a breath, and begin again.
Pendle Hill abounded with small works of art left by whomever had passed through before me, and they would catch my eye around every corner. One of my favorite pieces was a little sign posted on the bulletin board outside of the serving line in the Main House. It read: “Today these vegetables would like to be chopped by someone singing God’s name. How does Hafiz know such top-secret information? Because each of us was, at one point, a potato, an onion, or a zucchini.” Much of my work involved the kitchen, both at Pendle Hill and at my service site in Philadelphia, and I liked to keep this advice in mind. I was not always successful, but my times in the Pendle Hill kitchen, working with the lively, talented and amazing staff there, remain foremost in my mind. Some days it would be husking corn; prepping vegetables for the salad bar; making bread or yogurt. Other days it would be harvesting greens in the garden, making coveted dessert (which only happens on birthdays, so everyone at Pendle Hill is happy for your birthday) or discovering odd-shaped vegetables, like an eggplant with a nose, which were proudly displayed at the serving line.
I worked at my service site in Philadelphia, a homeless men’s shelter called Our Brother’s Place, twice a week with another YALDer. During my first day I learned that their mission was “to find and care for the abandoned poor and to be family with those who have none.” This meant not just providing food, shelter, clothing and other physical necessities, but also looking to residents and guests’ spiritual, mental and emotional well-being. My work then involved not just prepping food and serving it in the kitchen, but also sitting down and getting to know people, talking, sharing stories (and often losing spectacularly to the chess sharks there). I was happy to be working for a shelter with a holistic view of human needs, and my partner and I worked to live up to its mission. Seven weeks was only just enough time to make connections that were happily deepening before I had to leave. And this is time, to walk in and out of other people’s lives, little aware of what footprints you may leave, but knowing the shape of all the footprints in yours.
I cannot begin to describe the intensity or the profundity of the relationships I had with every-one I knew while I was there. Perhaps it was the shortness of the time we had, or the space that Pendle Hill opened up, or the determination I came in with to live every moment, or the openness of everyone who came through, but I was overwhelmed by the light that shone from every person I met. Somewhere in the course of my summer I had been stripped naked before God, and everything felt raw and new and exquisitely agonizing to the touch. There were conversations, and singing, and hand holding, and walking, and silences, and in all of them, between myself and another person, or people, was a power moving that I am powerless to describe. I do not have Thomas Kelly’s, or St. Paul’s, or St. Teresa’s words to describe the ecstasy of Spirit that moved in my life, but my soul sang in wordless joy. I weep as I write this because words fail me. How do you describe finding out that you have been swimming in love’s ocean all along? How do you describe touching another human being beyond all differences you both have to the point where we all meet? “Deep calls to deep,” as one of our speakers put it, and my depths were singing.
These peaks of overwhelming joy were made all the brighter by some of the valleys that lay between them. I do not want to deny their part; they are just as necessary, all the more so because they are dark, and painful. I had my own lapses onto pathways of despair and anger and exhaustion. Towards the end of our program, in the very last week, difficulties arose in the YALD community that were made all the stronger and more painful because they had been left unspoken until that time. Our group was suddenly faced with the prospect of ending the summer with wounds opened and unhealed. There was a deep and terrible hurt in the room as we sat together the last Thursday, and the last Saturday before the program ended on Sunday. We talked, and we listened, and we talked, and frustrations and despair were building. The pain was rising from a different place for different people, and no reconciliation was in sight. I could not bear the thought of the beautiful community we had created falling apart. But in the midst of this sorrow and hurt, something else arose. The thought came to us: our happiness and our needs are different. They cannot be the same. The same thing cannot make us all satisfied. But—but—we can be in the same room together. We can work on the different things we need here, in this space, together. We are different but we can still share this space. And so we did.
I was overcome with awe at the movement of Spirit among us. Because despite our pain we were all still open, still yearning towards a space where we could all be ourselves, and come out of this program with love, not anger. Because we all wanted this more than anything else, despite our differences—because of our differences, with our differences—we came together.
And this gives me hope. Hope for all of our differences, between individuals, politics, countries, religions, and all manner of things that divide us, for there is still some level on which we can meet. We need different things but it is possible to be together in this space, this world. It is possible to live together.
That and a thousand other things is what I carry away from Pendle Hill. I cannot articulate, nor have I yet realized, how much the YALD program this summer has given me. All here has been my experience, and mine alone; I speak only from my own. But I leave with hope, with pain weathered, with joy and love. I hope to continue to carry this space inside of me. I hope for Kelly’s faith:
And in brief intervals of overpowering visitation we are able to carry the sanctuary frame of mind out into the world, into its turmoil and its fitfulness, and in a hyperesthesia of the soul, we see all humankind tinged with deeper shadows and touched with Galilean glories. Powerfully are the springs of our will moved to an abandon of singing love toward God; powerfully are we moved to a new and over coming love toward time-blinded human beings and all creation. In this Center of Creation all things are ours, and we are Christ’s and Christ is God’s. We are owned beings, ready to run and not be weary and to walk and not faint.
But the light fades, the will weakens, the humdrum returns. Can we stay this fading? No; nor should we try, for we must learn the disciplines of His will.