Author Phyllis Tickle dies at 81 – a profile

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Phyllis Tickle is a southern born and bred, mother of seven and a doyenne of religion writers. She is now 81, and a widow living on a small farm in Lucy, Tennessee just outside of Memphis. The land where her cows once roamed, stray dogs she has adopted and some family surround her. She is being treated for Stage IV cancer. Religion News Service photo by Karen Pulfer Focht

Phyllis Tickle is a Southern-born and -bred mother of seven and a doyenne of religion writers. She is now 81, and a widow living on a small farm in Lucy, Tenn., just outside of Memphis. On the land where her cows once roamed, stray dogs she has adopted and some family surround her. She is being treated for Stage IV cancer. Religion News Service photo by Karen Pulfer Focht

EDITOR’S NOTE: Phyllis Tickle died in her sleep Tuesday (Sept. 22), months after being diagnosed with lung cancer. This story was written in May, shortly after news of her diagnosis. 

READ: Rest in peace, Phyllis Tickle

LUCY, Tenn. (RNS) Over the past generation, no one has written more deeply and spoken more widely about the contours of American faith and spirituality than Phyllis Tickle.

And now, at 81, she’s working on her final chapter: her own.

On Jan. 2, the very day her husband, Sam, succumbed to a long and debilitating illness, Tickle found herself flat on her back with a high fever, “as sick as I’ve ever been” and racked by “the cough from hell.”

The fever eventually subsided, but the cough wouldn’t let go. When she finally visited the doctor last month, the diagnosis was quick, and grim: Stage IV lung cancer that had already spread to her spine. The doctors told her she has four months to live, maybe six.

“And then they added: ‘But you’re very healthy so it may take longer.’ Which I just loved!” she says with her characteristic sharp laugh.

Indeed, that’s the kind of irony that delights Tickle, even in sober moments like this, and it embodies the sort of dry humor and frank approach that leaven even her most poignant, personal reflections. It’s also central to the distinctive style, delivered in a rich Southern register, that has won her innumerable fans and friends who will be hard-hit by the news of her illness.

Phyllis Tickle is a southern born and bred, mother of seven and a doyenne of religion writers. She is now 81, and a widow living on a small farm in Lucy, Tennessee just outside of Memphis. The land where her cows once roamed, stray dogs she has adopted and some family surround her. She is being treated for Stage IV cancer. Religion News Service photo by Karen Pulfer Focht

Phyllis Tickle and one of the stray dogs she has adopted on her farm in Lucy, Tenn. Religion News Service photo by Karen Pulfer Focht

Tickle has been writing almost since she can remember, with poetry the focus of her earliest efforts. At 21 she married Sam Tickle, a medical student and childhood friend from Johnson City, Tenn. He went on to become a doctor; she took a variety of teaching jobs and launched the first of what would become a series of publishing ventures.

But Tickle really began to achieve prominence when she was recruited by Publishers Weekly in the early 1990s to start its religion division. Then her first “big” book, “Re-Discovering the Sacred: Spirituality in America,” came out in 1995, followed two years later by “God-Talk in America.”

In poems and essays, homilies and memoirs, countless public talks that explored sociology and history and the next big thing, Tickle has diligently mapped the pathways of the heart and the demographics of the soul while becoming one of the nation’s leading public intellectuals on all things religious.

‘Am I grateful for this? Not exactly. But I’m not unhappy about it.’

Even after she wound down her career on the lecture circuit last year — at 80 she decided she’d rather not spend up to 40 weeks a year on the road and away from her ailing husband and their beloved farm north of Memphis — Tickle was still in good form. Her puckish humor and youthful vigor always pulled her beyond the travails of the day and kept her focused on future writing projects and a couple gigs as a visiting professor.

She’s best-known for a range of essays and books on faith and life, most notably and successfully her series  on “The Divine Hours,” about the power of daily fixed-hour prayer. (Raised a Presbyterian, Tickle was drawn to the Episcopal Church and its liturgy and has called herself “the world’s worst, most devout evangelical Episcopalian.”)

In 2008, her landmark work, “The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why,” probed how a new and vibrant Christianity is recovering elements of the past and carrying them into a whole new future. That’s a theme she continued to develop in a 2013 book, “The Age of the Spirit: How the Ghost of an Ancient Controversy Is Shaping the Church.” She has yet more to say on that, cancer permitting.

Phyllis Tickle is a southern born and bred, mother of seven and a doyenne of religion writers. She is now 81, and a widow living on a small farm in Lucy, Tennessee just outside of Memphis. The land where her cows once roamed, stray dogs she has adopted and some family surround her. She is being treated for Stage IV cancer. Religion News Service photo by Karen Pulfer Focht

Phyllis Tickle. Religion News Service photo by Karen Pulfer Focht

Taken together, Tickle’s works combine the sprawling scope of historian Karen Armstrong with the fine-grained command of sociologist Robert Bellah and the rural sensibilities of poet Wendell Berry. Throw in a dash of Thomas Merton’s sense and spirituality for good measure.

“Tickle has earned her place as one of the modern spiritual masters of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries,” her friend and occasional collaborator Jon Sweeney writes in the introduction to an upcoming selection of Tickle’s writings in Orbis’ Modern Spiritual Masters Series.

What’s just as impressive is that she did all this and raised six children — a seventh, a son, died just two weeks after he was born — mostly on a 20-acre working farm, where the family moved in 1977. It was a big change for the kids after living for years in the upscale Central Gardens neighborhood in Memphis.

“They hated it,” Tickle says in her Tennessee drawl. But they love the country life now, and the Farm in Lucy, as she calls it, has always been a backdrop, or even a character, in much of her work.

In spite of this impressive literary lineage, however, it is the cancer that is shaping the last chapter of Tickle’s life.

And yet, she displays a remarkable equanimity in the face of this final, and most merciless, deadline.

“At 81 you figure you’re going to die of something, and sooner rather than later,” she says, sitting at her kitchen table for her first interview about her diagnosis. “I could almost embrace this, that, OK, now I know what it’s probably going to be, and probably how much time there is. So you can clean up some of the mess you’ve made and tie up some of the loose ends.”

“I am no more afraid of dying than I am of, I don’t know, drinking this coffee,” she continues, pointing to her mug. (It’s actually filled with Postum since she’s had to give up caffeine. She remains, thankful, though, that she can still drink a nightly whiskey.  “Jack Daniels, of course!” she says, shocked at the suggestion that a Tennessee native would drink anything else.)

During a morning-long conversation, Tickle is regularly interrupted by a nagging, sometimes racking, cough that alternates with her signature laugh. “This is part of it,” she says matter-of-factly.

Her once boundless energy starts to fail by midday. She started radiation treatment on Thursday (May 21), mainly in an effort to forestall the possible collapse of her spine, which would leave her helpless and in intractable pain. “That sounds a little formidable to me,” she says. “I was never much for suffering.”

She goes on, her words carefully chosen. “Am I grateful for this? Not exactly. But I’m not unhappy about it. And that’s very difficult for people to understand.”

Phyllis Tickle is a southern born and bred, mother of seven and a doyenne of religion writers. She is now 81, and a widow living on a small farm in Lucy, Tennessee just outside of Memphis. The land where her cows once roamed, stray dogs she has adopted and some family surround her. She is being treated for Stage IV cancer. Religion News Service photo by Karen Pulfer Focht

Phyllis Tickle walks the farm where her cows once roamed. Religion News Service photo by Karen Pulfer Focht

‘It’s a gift’

How then, did Tickle reach such a state of grace so quickly and, seemingly, easily? Is it the wisdom of age? Years of religious practice? Or the relentless attempt, as Sweeney has written of her, “to come to terms with the essentially and elusively spiritual in the world about her”?

Tickle’s answer is as surprising as the revelation of her diagnosis: She had a near-death experience at 21, she says, thanks to an experimental drug she was given to try to prevent a miscarriage.

In the middle of the night, she stopped breathing; her husband, a medical student at the time, was able to revive her long enough to get her to the hospital.

“Mine was a classic near-death. So, not much to say,” she begins. “I was dead.

“I was like a gargoyle up in the corner of the hospital room,” she continues. “And I remember to this day looking down and watching Sam beat on me again and screaming for the nurses, and the nurses coming with the machines and the whole nine yards. And then the ceiling opened and I just went out the corner and into a tunnel, which was grass all the way around. Ceiling, sides, the whole thing.

Phyllis Tickle is a southern born and bred, mother of seven and a doyenne of religion writers. She is now 81, and a widow living on a small farm in Lucy, Tennessee just outside of Memphis. Her glasses rest on a large piece of paper where her creative scribbles lie until they find their way onto real pages. Religion News Service photo by Karen Pulfer Focht

Phyllis Tickle’s glasses rest on a large piece of paper where her creative scribbles lie until they find their way onto real pages. Religion News Service photo by Karen Pulfer Focht

“And I went to the end of the tunnel to this incredible — people call it ‘the light.’ I guess that’s as good a name as any. But an incredible peace, a reality, unity, whatever. The voice, which was fortunately speaking in English” — she laughs again — “said, ‘Do you want to come?’ And I heard myself saying, ‘No, I want to go back and have his baby,’ meaning Sam.”

She recalls that she turned around and went back down through the hole in the ceiling and into her body.

It’s a startling story coming from Tickle, and one her husband admonished her never to speak about, much as she wanted to. For him, a medical professional, it was simply a result of hypoxia, or lack of oxygen. “That’s not religion,” he would say.

Years later, he himself had a few uncanny spiritual experiences that softened his opposition, and in recent years she began to speak a bit about her episode, most recently and expansively to a television crew that’s making a documentary on end-of-life experiences.

“You’re never afraid of death after that,” Tickle says of her long-ago taste of mortality. “I’m sorry. You could work at it but you’d just never be afraid of it. … You don’t invite that kind of thing. It’s a gift. It’s not like you can prepare for it or anything. It’s part of the working material you’re given.”

‘Christianity isn’t going to die!’

Yet it isn’t material she has ever used — though that could change.

Tickle had been mulling a book on aging before her diagnosis, and she hopes to finish it, knowing that it will probably be informed by her new perspective. “I hope it won’t be another model, ‘this-is-how-we-die’ thing,” she says. “If it veers over to that I’ll be the first to burn the manuscript. Or pull the plug.”

She is also assembling a collection of her poems, though she is not as high on them as others are: “I would have been a poet had I had the skill or the gift. What I have is a very little skill and a very moderate gift.”

Phyllis Tickle is a southern born and bred, mother of seven and a doyenne of religion writers. She is now 81, and a widow living on a small farm in Lucy, Tennessee just outside of Memphis. The land where her cows once roamed, stray dogs she has adopted and some family surround her. She is being treated for Stage IV cancer. She is in her bedroom, where she sleeps in a bed made by her great grandfather surrounded by other family furniture and her books. Religion News Service photo by Karen Pulfer Focht

Phyllis Tickle in her bedroom, where she sleeps in a bed made by her great-grandfather and surrounded by other family furniture and her books. Religion News Service photo by Karen Pulfer Focht

She’s also chewing over another “big picture” book on what she sees as a “rapprochement between Western Judaism and ‘emergence’ Christianity,” and just musing on the idea starts her on a riff on the transformation of religion after the Reformation, which she then seamlessly links to the blockbuster Pew Forum survey earlier this month that showed Christianity quickly losing ground in the U.S. as the number of unaffiliated “nones” spikes sharply.

It’s all grist for Tickle’s mill.

“Christianity isn’t going to die!” she exclaims, almost offended at the suggestion. “It just birthed out a new tributary to the river.”

“Christianity is reconfiguring,” she says. “It’s almost going through another adolescence. And it’s going to come out a better, more mature adult. There’s no question about that.”

For Tickle, the most interesting cohort in the survey is not the usual “spiritual but not religious,” but the “neither spiritual nor religious” who get “lost in the shuffle” but are in fact the key to the future of faith.

“There is an honesty in their conversation and self-understanding that, it seems to me, makes them much more open to conversation and analysis and perhaps, ultimately, to persuasion than is true for other groups,” she writes in a follow-up email. “I may be wrong, but I am, as I say, fascinated.”

Yet, that will have to be another book for another author.

‘If that makes me a mystic, so be it’

As she reflects on her life, Tickle says she has always seen herself as a listener, something she admits may surprise those who know her literary output and her gift of gab.

It’s an inner voice, she says, that has always told her what to do, what was coming next in a life filled with so much variety. And it’s a voice she has always obeyed.

“It’s the truth. Just like I’m told to do this,” she says, referring to her terminal illness. “Which is why it doesn’t bother me. The dying is my next career.

“You can call it whatever you want to. Spooky? I hate the word ‘mystical.’ It has such a cachet now. Like an exquisite and high-priced perfume. But if that makes me a mystic, so be it.”

KRE/MG END GIBSON

  • Ira Rifkin

    nice piece, David. She was always a wonderful person in our past professional encounters.

  • Marcia

    Acutely heard. Thanks, David.

  • Philly Rains

    I am devastated to hear this news about my friend, Tickle. She has, and always will be, an inspiration for me, and her friendship is a much cherished thing. She is….I don’t even know what I was going to say, because there are no words in my heart to sum up what she is to me. I will just say…God is so lucky to know she’s coming, and I am jealous that she is leaving us for him. But, I understand that that is life. And I will see her again. I love you, Phyl Tickle.

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  • Thomas Brackett

    It’s to Phyllis’ presence in my life – our life – that I owe 75% of my hope for the future of networked faith communities.
    Phyllis, my prayers call on Abram’s three visitors to pitch tent with you in your own Plains of Mamre and hold you closely in the Beloved’s fierce love that has consumed you all these years!

    With abiding affection, Tom

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  • “Christianity is reconfiguring,” she says. “It’s almost going through another adolescence. And it’s going to come out a better, more mature adult. There’s no question about that.”

    Whatever.

  • I love this woman – Dear God, grant me her/your grace.

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  • Mark

    She obviously has much more class than you do.

  • Kyle Cole

    Great story on a great woman, David. It’s been a while, but I worked with you both in the AAR’s religion and media project, along with Steve Herrick. Some of my favorite work was getting to know the religion writers around the country. You and Phyllis were great help in that project. Peace.

  • She’s ill and has an idiosyncratic reaction to that. She seems to have been a prolific verbalizer in the last 20 years. To what end really is not clear. She appears to be a mainline answer to the professionals on the evangelical speaking circuit. I can just never figure the point of the activity these people engage in (other than to hear themselves talk and pay the bills).

  • Wonderful piece, David. You captured her grace, grit and wit. She is such a treasure.

  • A beautiful piece about a beautiful woman. Phyllis is a role model–a hero, really–for many who write about their faith in a grace-giving God. You captured her voice perfectly, David. Thank you.

  • Burton

    “Christianity is reconfiguring.”

    This was the entire point of Paul’s letters to the Ephesians. THEY were “reconfiguring” Christianity, too.

  • I met Phyllis a few years ago, when she was lecturing at the Robert Webber Institute for Worship Studies. She is a delightful lady, never timid to express her theology or her great love for God and all of his creation. Thank God for you and your life. May you complete all that God has put on your heart to do.

  • Susan Blount

    Beautifully written article about a treasure of a woman. Phyllis Tickle amazing thinker, speaker and writer.

  • I am John

    bqrq, What a judgemental thing to say. Your statement, especially about Gays, shows great ignorance about life. Who appointed you judge? Judge not, lest thee be judged.

  • renee altson

    i love this woman. she has been an inspiring influence for me. she wrote the foreword to my book a decade ago, and i have read it hundreds of times in the last decade.

  • Back in 2008, Phyllis Tickle was the headliner for the annual conference of the Associated Church Press in Fort Worth that I chaired. It was my job to introduce her. In the midst of all my other responsibilities, I mislaid my extensively researched (and so I thought, beautifully written) introduction. Instead, all that came to me in the midst of a fervent prayer was one word: “mindfulness.” And I built a three-sentence intro out of the air with that one word. When her hour-long talk (at 77 with no notes) was over, Phyllis graciously said she thought my intro was one of the best she’d had, because “mindfulness” was at the core of what she was trying to do. I ache to think of what she must now endure, and I pray that God’s grace showers upon her.

  • Correction: Phyllis would have been 74, not 77, in 2008. Bad math.

  • Jae Ick Choe

    I am impressed to see this article although this is my first time to hear the name of Phylis Trickle. I just hope that she is able to finish the work she hoped during her remaining her life. God bless her !!

  • Allen Knight

    A sense of mercy and the love of Christ must not be a part of your journey, yet. I have know Phyllis since the 1990s and she was one of those special persons who is a beacon on the road to a closer walk with Christ. I pray to suppress my vitriol at your coarse and harsh words flung at this most gracious follower of Jesus. May this event in her life provide a catalyst for a softening of your heart and soul.

  • bqrq

    john said;
    “……bqrq, What a judgemental thing to say…..”

    Dear I am john,
    I gave credit to Mrs Tickle for her moral veracity and acknowledged respect for the way that she is approaching death without fear and dread. Unfortunately my previous comments were deleted so you may wish to further explain your response. Have a good evening.

  • Rosetta

    I am saddened to hear this news. She is a deeply reflective, articulate, intelligent woman and author, a prophetess of sorts. May God give her the daily bearing up she will need in the next season of her life.

  • Tim Titus

    I picked up “The Great Emergence” off of my bookshelf this afternoon and started to re-read it, not knowing that she had died. I guess that on a deeper level I knew that she had passed on. We will miss you Phyllis!

  • If you are not able to see the purpose (“to what end”) of someone’s work and life, perhaps the best response would be a respectful silence, while those of us who heard and learned from those verbalizations pay our respects?

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  • Linda

    The Thanksgiving
    “Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised; for these eyes of mine have seen the Savior whom you have prepared for all the world to see. A light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel.” Amen.
    Nunc Dimittis
    From Phyllis Tickle’s “Pocket Divine Hours”

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  • PeterVN

    The great blog quote here again is “Religion is for the ignorant, the gullible, the cowardly, and the stupid, and for those who would profit from them.”

    Phyllis Tickle has landed well on the profit side.

  • As a Jesus follower, I am grateful for her life’s work thus far.

    As a hospice nurse I applaud her courage at this stage of her life.

    As a human being, I eagerly await her unique next few chapters to her story and how she will relate it to the world around her.

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  • bqrq

    “…….What’s just as impressive is that she did all this and raised six children….”

    This is why we honor Phyllis and her Husband Dr. Tickle. They practiced traditional marriage in a Christian home and passed on traditional moral values to their children. This is why Phyllis has respect and glory as she draws near to the end this life and begins eternal life. She set a good example for others to follow.

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  • Leslie

    Tim, she hasn’t died. She has stage 4 lung cancer and the prognosis back in January was that she may die within 4-6 months or so.

  • Ken Meyers

    Phyllis embodies a human spirit that fosters faith in all around her – faith in one’s self, the church, and our God. I am so attracted to her intelligence and instinct. My association with her in my congregation and on other occasions is close to my heart and high moments.

  • Oh the beauty of one who is willing to once again show us a new way to walk in the truth of what life IS…..

  • Joey Tickle

    I am so sadden to hear of Sams passing. It was one of my greatest hopes, to
    come to Tennessee and visit with you all. Now, you Phyllis, have time uncertain. I hope this message arrives for you to read. I feel that I had found such a family treasure In Sam and in you. I read your books that Sam had sent to me. You have a way of transforming thoughts into a rise of emotion. I will always cherish them, as the photos of Sams collection of his beloved doors.
    May Gods’ Blessing of Peace fill you..In his name I pray.
    Cuzin’ Joey

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  • I was a very, very green-behind-the-ears publicist when I first met Phyllis Tickle in the late 90s. She was the grand dame of religious publishing with her pioneering work at Publishers Weekly with the quick-witted and intelligent work duo of Daisy Maryles. Her graciousness and kindness to me was not deserved, yet she was always patient with my requests and submissions. But when she got up to speak to a crowd on religion — my goodness — she transformed into a fount of spiritual and religious information, sociological insights. What a gift it was to hear her, to work with her. Thank you David for a lovely article.

  • Don Ferrell

    so sadly dismissive of a faith that inspires so many. Suggest you ask yourself why you singled out this hopeful sentence.

  • eileen

    I too had the honor of meeting Phyllis in the 90s and she is one of bright ones who came to bless everyone with her incredible open heart. She made mine shine brighter and I’m forever grateful to have wonderful times with her and many conversations. Even doves flying overhead in a convention hall.

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  • Jo Ann Panter

    This news hits hard. It seems we are going to lose another great voice, a witness and a signpost for those of us still walking in the path of transformation. Having recently lost the voice of Dallas Willard as well, I am forever grateful for those puslbishing entities that have chosen to help us by capturing thier thoughts and gifts in writing and other forms of media. I eagerly await her reflections and writing on this passage and pray that in all ways, God will bless her during this transition.

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  • Dale

    Grateful for having crossed your footsteps.

  • John Topliff

    What a joy to know Phyllis Tickle as an author, as a religion reporter, as a preacher and teacher, and as a follower of Christ. Her embrace of people and her exuberance of faith expressed her true identity as a child of God. We are fellow pilgrims on the journey. With a full heart of gratitude.

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  • Carrie Ann KNox

    I just loved reading about this interesting lady…such an inspiring piece.

  • Lisa Garmon

    Well, thanks to a friend, I am now introduced to this lovely woman Tickle and so want to read her books! She is in my prayers that she live to write on and give a testament to Christ healing that I know from my own experience is real and true.

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  • Joe Durepos

    Even more poignant upon a second read on this sad day. Thank you David for what you captured and preserved of this wonderful soul so many of us loved and will miss terribly.

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  • Suggest you ask yourself about gaining insight into faith’s much bigger picture, historically, ontologically and otherwise. Tickle’s quote is the epitome of inspiring, a faith continuing to grow dynamically and bend the tools and textures of its times toward Grace is following in the apostolic routes of St. Paul’s footsteps.

  • Bernardo

    Unfortunately, like so many others she believed that there is a god.

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