RELIGION

Author Phyllis Tickle Faces Death As She Enjoyed Life: 'The Dying Is My Next Career'

05/26/2015 01:31 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2015
Karen Pulfer Focht/RNS

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.

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.

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.

phyllis
Phyllis Tickle and one of the stray dogs she has adopted on her farm in Lucy, Tennessee.

“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.”

‘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.

“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.”

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.”

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