A former religion editor at Publisher's Weekly, Phyllis Tickle is well-suited to explore what she calls, in her book's subtitle, "America's religious landscape." Prayer Is a Place (Doubleday, $23.95) is a combination of memoir and state-of-the-faith analysis.
The book begins in 1977, when Tickle, her pulmonologist husband, and five of their six children left their home in Memphis to live on a working farm in Lucy, Tenn. "Our concern in the mid-1970s . . . was not with the place where we were," she writes, "but with who we were. . . . The dust of Vietnam was always on the mirror we looked at ourselves in; and there was the keening sigh, audible even in the city, of an earth being used, not tended." These sentiments evoke not only the counterculture of the '60s but also the embrace of traditional values that prefigured the revival of religious conservatism. Throughout Prayer Is a Place, the farm in Lucy provides a constant, nurturing backdrop to Tickle's travels.
The juxtaposition of lyrical passages about Tickle's spiritual insights with her accounts of wider cultural movements (like the growth of American Buddhism, the implications of Islamic immigration, and the publication of such books as Embraced by the Light and The Celestine Prophecy) gives the book a curious structure. But the author's genteel prose serves as a unifying element, matching her civilized tone, as when she notes that "there is in my heart great affection for many a conservative Christian with whom I differ intensely and frequently."
Some of the book's loveliest passages describe Tickle's 40-odd years of observing the Benedictine tradition of "praying the hours," which led to the publication of her popular series of prayer volumes, The Divine Hours. But because Tickle's primary interest is in religious culture -- the diversity of rituals, celebrations, and worship practices among world religions -- she often fails to consider how religion functions as ideology. Her earnest belief that religious understanding will promote tolerance keeps her from adequately addressing how various faiths -- sometimes violently at odds with one another -- will ever be harmonized. She pays little attention to the broad appeal of conservative religion, whether Jewish, Christian or Islamic. Nor does she say much about evangelicalism aside from references to an increasingly "Christianized" popular culture.
Despite its ultimately skewed portrait of American religion, Prayer Is a Place is to be recommended for its fascinating witness of Tickle's life. In the course of the events the book describes, she manages to withstand serious illness in herself and in her family while editing, writing books, praying the hours and sustaining the haven of the farm -- testimony to her astonishing energy and accomplishment. Ultimately, her conviction of the value of a loving family to the life of the spirit is the book's most compelling theme. *
Caroline Langston has published fiction and essays and has reviewed for Books & Culture and Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion.