Autobiographies are funny things. So often these days, they fall into the kiss-and-tell, headline-hogging "My Story" genre, with a television miniseries, usually starring the author. But they can be something quite different. "The Shaping of a Life," by Phyllis Tickle, is remarkably different - refreshingly, categorically, powerfully so. More an extended essay on the development of its author from an ordinary child in Tennessee to an intelligent "intentional Christian," doctor's wife, and mother, it is also a study of the language and poetry of 4,000 years of Judeo-Christian culture within its literary, historical, liturgical, and prayerful contexts.
Having grown up in a small town in Tennessee, in the aftermath of World War II, Tickle could no doubt have given a Norman Rockwell slice of American apple pie life, but she doesn't. That is to say, she does - writing affectionately of her independent childhood; of going to Shorter College as a freshman, where she was taught classics by the extraordinary Dr. Clara Thompson; of marrying her childhood sweetheart, Sam Tickle; and of learning to starch his lab coats and wash his socks in the heat of a Memphis summer.
But she gives so much more, too. For hers was no ordinary childhood, and neither did her early adulthood fit neatly into any greeting-card stereotype. Early on, she was self-consciously aware of the differences between what she saw and what is, the world of appearance and the issues of the soul. And this focus on the things of substance not seen informs the whole of her work, whether she's writing of her parents and the mental and moral atmosphere of her home, the aspirations and expectations that molded her childhood, her girlhood and collegiate education, or her marriage and the vicissitudes that marked her early married life. Throughout the whole, she traces the path of her unfolding relationship with God and the transforming influence of catching others in the vestibule of the spirit - of catching others at prayer.
It is this theme of prayer that is central to Tickle's life. She begins her autobiographical journey with these words: "My father taught me to love words, and my mother taught me to pray. In his case, it was patient and intentional. In hers, quite the opposite."
Indeed, the author's life may be seen as a perfect marriage of these two disciplines, though to call this a tale of soul-searching is too glib, too facile a term for the hours and days the author spent searching the Scriptures and literature for the thread of the sacred.
Her collegiate study of ancient poetry drew her to the beauty of the psalms, which for her were the beginning of a life of regular prayer. And later, as a young wife, she continued her inspirational pursuits, grappling with the spiritual poetry and literary piety of Dante and his 20th-century devotee, T.S. Eliot, "both of whom knew for a personal experienced fact that God was the material as well as the point of their efforts."
The daughter of a renowned academic, trained to think, query, and excel by renowned academics, and an academic herself, Tickle brings intellectual rigor to her subject. This contributing editor in religion for Publishers Weekly wields her huge vocabulary with confidence as she elucidates and explains the import of all her experiences, both material and spiritual.
But this is not some dry-as-old-seed-pods memoir of an aesthetically isolated ivory-tower existence. Not at all."The Shaping of a Life" is packed with paragraphs that reach into the heart with the intensity of human emotion - of loss, grief, beauty, and affection.
Yes, autobiographies like this are rare indeed - as rare as the balm in Gilead - but, like it, just as blessed.
Melissa Bennetts is a historian and freelance writer, living in England.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor