Penelope Eckersley - St James's Church Piccadilly … · Penelope Eckersley The death of Penelope...

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Transcript of Penelope Eckersley - St James's Church Piccadilly … · Penelope Eckersley The death of Penelope...


    Penelope Eckersley

    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

    February 2010