In 1992, my husband, John, and I came from England to be Friends-in-residence at Pendle Hill for the fall term. I have often thought and said that those were the happiest three months of my life.
So, what was so special? Apart from enjoying a complete break from the demands that we experienced while living in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, it was a wonderful place to be. First, there was the sheer beauty of the place—over 140 different varieties of trees, some of which, like the huge beech tree, are very old and have a felt presence. Rabindranath Tagore, who visited Pendle Hill, wrote, "Be still. . . . These great trees are prayers." Bill Taber, a Pendle Hill teacher at the time, said, "I still find that the trees who live here and the people who pass through are wonderful windows into the Divine Reality."
The meditation path, right around the perimeter of the property and a mile long, was a wonderful resource for walking alone or in company with someone else, while talking or sharing the silence. It was all so beautiful that at first, it seemed almost an enchanted place far removed from the harsh realities of life. But there was poison ivy, ticks that can cause Lyme disease, the sense that it was not safe to be out alone at night, and the continuous hum of traffic on the Blue Route, the nearby freeway, to remind us of the "real world."
The people with whom we shared that time were a very diverse bunch. Many were at some sort of crossroads in their lives, and showed such courage in exploring and facing big changes. The shared daily jobs and the weekly work morning meant that we all served each other and were welded into a strong community that shared joy and challenge. We made some lifelong friendships. There was a very good balance to our life between work and play, study and fun, prayer and discussion. Above all, we were united through the deep, nourishing daily half hour of worship. God was, as someone remarked, "on the agenda." We explored and wrestled with our faith and our doubts in a safe, supportive, and challenging environment.
We were each encouraged to take two or three of the classes offered and we spent the entire first week sampling them all in turn. I chose the clay class with Sally Palmer. I had grown up with the notion that I was not at all creative. Sally soon dispelled my fears, and I had a liberating breakthrough. When I made a little baby dragon hatching out of its shell and looking a little nervous about entering the strange new world, Sally, seeing the parallel with my own emergence, said, "You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube!" And indeed, I have not. From that day to this I have enjoyed my creativity while leaving the fear behind, and I have discovered the child within. As the studio was open 24/7, anyone who wanted to find me knew where to look first!
The other class I chose was the Gospels class, led by Rebecca Mays. She encouraged us to come to the texts as though for the first time, to wrestle with each other without needing to reach the same conclusions, and to stay with the ambiguity and live the questions. Twice Rabbi Marcia Preger joined the class—not to try to convert us but to let us use her deep understanding of Judaism to help in our own faith journeys. She took us word for word through the Lord’s Prayer, looking at the Aramaic for layers of meaning deeper than our translations had given us. Her teaching was truly inspiring and has stayed with me all these years, deepening and illuminating my faith.
Pendle Hill hosted a Zen Buddhist priest for a week and we learned mindfulness, meditation, and Zen walking. While Diane Benage lived among us, her quiet, centered presence taught us as much as anything she said. That has been a lifelong gift, which we have shared with countless others.
From our haven of peace at Pendle Hill, a group of us took hot food at night to the homeless on the freezing streets of downtown Philadelphia. A few of us led some workshops in inner-city schools, and John and I were sent as "Pendle Hill on the road" to help a new group in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, establish a program for interracial harmony. We continued to visit and support this group for many years, and we developed deep and lasting friendships.
There were many joyful times of celebration, such as when we did a raku firing (a type of Japanese pottery) together— or the time, as the winter cold set in, when we turned up the heat, dressed in our bathing costumes, and had a beach party! The end-of-term "Log Night" (an evening of fun, music, skits, and insights) was a drawing together of all our experiences of the term as well as our farewell party. And birthdays were eagerly awaited as they were the only times we had dessert!
Life was very full, and at times we needed solitude. So we would walk the path or even take a full day’s silence in one of the on-site hermitages. Community is challenging; it entails risk-taking and is painful at times. But as we each struggled to be authentic in our inner journeys and explorations, we were able to be there for each other in good times and bad. As someone said, "The test of community is whether it can contain the bad stuff."
At the end of our time, as we were finding it hard to face leaving, Bill Taber said that the precious unity we had all experienced daily in our worship and life together was not just to hug to ourselves, but to be taken out into the world to the people who happened to be around us—not just those we chose to be with. He suggested that we try to build worship into our daily lives, and we have done this ever since. We are so grateful for the difference it has made.