Penelope Eckersley - St James's Church Piccadilly … · Penelope Eckersley The death of Penelope...
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The death of Penelope Eckersley on 20
January aged 89 has brought to a close a
remarkable ministry of counselling,
befriending and retreat-giving across a wide
spectrum of Christian groups and activities.
Earlier in her life she contributed to formal
Anglican structures as an ACCM selector for
10 years and a member of the English
Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission.
However her particular calling was to
promote personal prayer and healing as the
foundation for a life of social responsibility.
For many years Pen (as she liked to be
known) led the prayers for unity from 12
3pm each Friday established by George
Appleton at Westminster Abbey. In 1965
she was professed as a Tertiary in the
Society of St Francis, where despite a
comfortable upbringing she gladly
embraced its voluntary simplicity. From
1968-80 she was the secretary of the
Association for Promoting Retreats, where her skills at listening and bringing people together
supported its amalgamation with the Roman Catholic National Retreat Movement and other
Free Church groups to form the National Retreat Council.
Many people will have known Pen, and sought her spiritual guidance, through her decades of
participation in the life of St Jamess, Piccadilly. During the rectorship of Donald Reeves, St
Jamess was renowned for innovation, and attracted many who might otherwise have been
sceptical about Christianity. This increased the need for someone like Pen, an archetypal wise
woman who was anchored in Christ yet able to relate to those who were searching and
questioning. She was a regular preacher, ran a Julian group in the Tower, organized prayer vigils,
and helped the Dunamis project bring theological scrutiny to bear on pressing issues of power,
peace and international security in the fraught 1980s. Artists in particular seemed to gravitate to
her. Some came to stay in her home, and found that their interrogative eye could see the world
more keenly after discussing the big questions of life with Pen.
Following her studies with the National Retreat Movement and at Heythrop College, Pen
became greatly in demand as a leader of retreats and quiet days. Although well-grounded in
Ignatian and Franciscan spirituality, she developed a distinctive approach that brought together
body and spirit using exercise, fasting, creativity and a powerful sense of God in nature. She also
devised her own form of Tai Chi, flowing movement to accompany interior prayer. Every aspect
of Pens life was rooted in her personal commitment to silent prayer. She particularly loved the
solitude, silence and grandeur of nature on Bardsey island, and her retreats there were much
sought-after by those who knew about them.
Pen offered discreet guidance and encouragement to all who asked. Those who benefited from
her spiritual direction would find that she recommended a wealth of reading, ranging from the
classical (the Desert Fathers and Mothers, Julian of Norwich, the Beguines) to the contemporary
(Denise Levertov, Rosemary Radford Ruether, R. S. Thomas). A lot of informal spiritual direction
took place around the kitchen table of her home in Paddington, London, where the seeker or
the broken-hearted were welcomed and nourished. She had an immense gift for friendship and
hospitality, and for supporting people on their individual journeys.
After the death of her much-loved husband Timothy in 1980 Pen began to travel more widely.
This led to a remarkable journey in her 70th
year, when she spent a month on retreat at a
Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the Nepalese Himalayas. Getting there involved an arduous
mountain trek at altitudes where the air was thin. Staying there meant embracing deep silence
and spartan living conditions. She wrote about this in her book Holding the Silences: A Nepal
Notebook published by Abbey Press, Glastonbury.
Pen experienced the deep grief of losing a
daughter in infancy, but was enriched by her
four other children and an ever-expanding
circle of grandchildren and great-
grandchildren on three continents. Certainly
her family helped keep her young, but there
was always something youthful about
Penelope Eckersley that flowed from deep
within her. Her open-mindedness, her desire
to understand the world around her, her
innate sympathy all these testified to the
spark in her soul.
Right up to the end Pens mind was as sharp as ever, although heart and joints had slowed her
body. She left instructions for the funeral that, at the words of the resurrection by the
graveside, all the grand- and great-grandchildren able to be present should release gas filled
balloons of all colours into the Sussex sky with shouts of joy and clapping. At St Marks, Hadley
Down, on 30th
January, they did just that, as she was laid to rest next to her husband and
Alison Murdoch and Terry Tastard