A chemist’s love for the liberal arts
These days Fr. Arthur Pendleton, a monk of the Belmont Abbey Monastery, can be seen walking around campus talking to faculty and students. He frequently carries with him an assortment of books. The former chemistry teacher isn’t carrying science books, though. Now he’s looking in a more liberal direction, reading works from Thomas Aquinas to Flannery O’Connor.
As a chemist, Fr. Arthur never did spend a lot of time studying literature, rhetoric, philosophy, or theology. “Working for my Masters,” he says, “I took one English course and one Psychology course. So I really wasn’t liberally educated.”
Now retired, he takes at least one course a semester. “When I was studying in college I knew I wanted to know about Thomas Aquinas and I knew I couldn’t do that then,” he recalls. “But when you come through Belmont Abbey College you start to see what’s going on. I haven’t really touched history courses, but I’ve touched other subjects. I don’t do much homework, but I take notes in class because it’s very important to get the ideas.”
Fr. Arthur took courses in philosophy when the college still had a philosophy department, and he is currently taking a course in rhetoric and writing. “I got the book on rhetoric and started reading it this summer because I wanted to get ready for this course with Dr. Weir. I like her style of teaching; I know it’s a very healthy style of teaching.”
Fr. Arthur is a regular guest at the college’s Agora events, and is always open to a discussion about language and literature. Perhaps it takes him back to an earlier time when he would spend his childhood evenings surrounded by music and poetry.
His mother came to Rhode Island from Ireland. She brought with her a great talent for cooking—where Fr. Arthur’s appreciation for good food comes from—and cooked for wealthy families. When she was married and had children, she stayed home, spoiling her children with nicely cooked cakes, pies, potatoes, and vegetables. Those family meals brought out in Fr. Arthur an appreciation of the finer things.
“In those days,” he remembers, “it wasn’t unusual for people to stay around and have meals together. So, we would all gather, and my mother was the great talker. She would start talking about Ireland or almost anything. My father would sit there until he finished, then he would go off into the parlor and read his newspaper. We would continue to stay at the table, just because mother was very lively. She would read tea leaves or she would read poetry. She had picked up an ability to just say poetry, and sometimes in Gaelic. We were always interested in the stories”
After dinner, his family would wash dishes, and then listen to the radio. “The big entertainment was listening to a series of evening musical programs. We always would be sitting around for that time. We were pretty lucky.”
In high school Fr. Arthur discovered an interest in chemistry. “In the second year of high school we had one year of it, and right away, very quickly, I liked it.” However, he had already developed a keen interest in literature. “My father liked mystery and Westerns, but I just read Westerns. We had a small library in our town and the librarian was our next door neighbor, so she would always have adventure stories. Moby Dick was considered an adventure story. I read them because they were ‘adventure.’ I didn’t know I was getting exposed to good literature.”
After high school, Fr. Arthur went to Rhode Island School of Design to study Textile Chemistry and Coloring. He then ventured south to Charlottesville, Virginia to study Textile Technology. Upon completing a master’s degree, he took a job in South Carolina doing textile research. He loved his work, and, he says, “I was working at night. I wasn’t being paid for it, I just enjoyed research.”
After working in the textile industry for six months, he volunteered to go into the United States Army. “I’ll give you the fancy name for what I was,” he says with a smirk. “I was an Administrative Assistant; for your knowledge, Clerk Typist.”
“That was supposed to be for twenty four months, but I got out slightly early. Then I went back to my job in South Carolina. I worked in a textile research lab for about three years. Then, at that time, I decided to go into the monastery.”
During those three years of working he realized he wanted to be a monk, though he had never thought about being a priest. “The reason I never thought about the priesthood when I was growing up was that I never thought I could stand up at the pulpit,” he says.
“I had one elective that I could have had at the Rhode Island School of Design. It was going to be public speaking and I chickened out.” He had thought about his vocation, but, he says, “I wasn’t very wise in the faith; I thought if it was tough it was right.” But then he saw an advertisement that said, “Even if you have a vocation you don’t have to follow it.” He remembers feeling relieved. “That made me free because all a long I had been thinking about vocation as priesthood. I didn’t know about monks all I knew was ‘priest.’ So, with that ad in mind something clicked and suddenly I thought ‘I could be a brother!’ And that was the perfect solution.”
After this realization he made a phone call to a friend who was a priest. Fr. Arthur told the priest of his desire to be a monk. The priest, he says, “knew monks in Belmont and he says, ‘They have a really good Saint Benedict’s Day party.’ He remembered what they had; there’d be a meal and drinks and things like that—nice celebrations. He says to me, ‘Maybe you’d like to go there. So here’s this strict priest being a mentor telling me they throw good parties. He knew I really needed to loosen up, and he knew enough about what is good. What he was doing was seeing that these are a pretty well balanced group of people in Belmont.”
So, following his friend’s “recommendation that the monks threw a good party,” Fr. Arthur made a trip to see the monks of Belmont Abbey.
He entered the monastery in August of 1958. “I was 28 when I came to the monastery, just a child. In September I put in a year in the college taking mainly the Theology and Philosophy courses. Then I had a year in the novitiate. When you come they have to check you out, so they were looking me over then.”
When Fr. Arthur moved from South Carolina into the monastery, he found it to be “a wonderful atmosphere” with many kinds of characters. “By knowing some of these people you really can appreciate what we could call characters or individuals. Once you get to know the various monks you see differences and then you can really have an idea of the richness of the life.”
During his novitiate he did the usual work of a novice, “like emptying trash cans and carrying them down the stairs, painting walls, painting the porch, or chipping the paint off a staircase then painting it again. It was almost understood that you would do some of this, it was part of it.”
At the time Fr. Arthur entered the monastery a farm was still maintained by the community. For his work as a novice, he and the others would also spend time on the farm. “You’d cut the corn with the stalks, you would take that and shoot it into the top of the silo. Then you’d have a couple of people at the bottom of the silo who were spreading it with pitch forks.” He does not reminisce nostalgically about the farm work—“It’s not nice work because it’s soggy and the corn is falling on you.” But he admits, “It was a very balanced life. When I came here it was quite wonderful.”
When Fr. Arthur entered the monastery, he took particular interest in the community’s recreation time. “You wouldn’t go for TV or something,” he says. “You would sit and just talk or maybe walk. It was very good to be with these people.”
He professed his solemn vows, and then, at the suggestion of some older monks, he was ordained a priest. Fr. Arthur earned a master’s degree in chemistry from the University of Notre Dame and began teaching full-time in the college’s chemistry department.
Looking back on his time as a teacher, he remembers one special semester. He says, “One of the great moments in my life of teaching was when out of twelve students in my Organic Chemistry class six people got an A on the first exam. Then, the same six got an A on the second exam, and then the third. That just didn’t happen in Organic Chemistry! I thought I slipped up and made it too easy. But I checked into it, and then it dawned on me that this really was a good class! That was a great moment.”
As a priest he also took on priestly duties in the area as well. “Saturday you might leave at one o’clock with a couple of monks to Charlotte and other places to help with Mass and Confessions,” he says. “Then the next day, Sunday, you’d take maybe two Masses. So you were working full-time as a priest and a teacher. There was a shortage of priests so you could be having pretty busy days.”
Fr. Arthur studied for a doctorate in chemistry from Clemson University in South Carolina. Upon returning from Clemson, he faced one of the bigger challenges of his teaching career. “When I came back from my PhD in chemistry I was not assigned to teach Chemistry. Instead, I was given three sections of Intro to Algebra.”
In an effort to make his courses lively, Fr. Arthur sometimes tried slipping in a little humor. But it didn’t always work out. “I was teaching these three Intro to Algebra courses, and they were the same thing, so I used similar lectures. One time there was something I said in the first section that turned out funny. It was kind of a joke and everyone laughed. So, I tried to use the same thing in the second section, but it kind of dragged. Then, in the third section, it bombed! Nobody thought it was funny. Apparently you lose your spontaneity.”
Fr. Arthur cared deeply for his students and their education, though he was known as a strict teacher. “I really like teaching,” he says. “And I might have been a perfectionist in the sense of wanting them to do really good work.”
He admits, “I think I was considered a hard teacher, but I didn’t rejoice in it because I really enjoyed it when people understood. There’s something I always I wanted to happen in my class—I always wanted for a person who didn’t understand what I said to raise their hand and ask about it. As a teacher you fear that you’ll say something and they won’t understand. I wanted them to ask to try to understand.”
Fr. Arthur tells of a recent time he went for a surgical operation. “I was going to go in for an operation and they were going to put me under. One of the guys I taught was in charge of the anesthesiologists and he said to the one who was to administer the anesthesia, ‘He taught me Organic Chemistry, give it to him!’ I think my students were just happy to have survived my class.”
Fr. Arthur always took pride when his students learned. One time, he recalls, “there were some guys in a fraternity taking my Organic Chemistry course, and I didn’t realize they were making beer in the lab. It was only later that I happened to be cleaning up the lab and I found the remains of what you would use to make home brew. But I could not tell them that I was very happy with what they did; in my own mind, I was happy that they were able to use the knowledge they gained in my course.”
Once an educator, Fr. Arthur now enjoys being the student. He currently takes courses because, he says, “I enjoy being with the students, I enjoy learning. When I’m taking rhetoric I’m taking it to learn, to read, and to get things. I might die tomorrow, so I’m just making a reasonable effort.”
Fr. Arthur’s special training in spiritual direction has allowed him to exercise a very particular ministry to monks, students, and area laity. He is always open to hearing confessions and giving spiritual direction. Spiritual reading is a special pleasure for him, with classical texts as well as contemporary writings earning his attention. Fr. Arthur can always bring an original insight or penetrating question to any topic that arises, whether it is in regards to spirituality, literature, or science.