"Please, Lord" 

Phyllis Tickle offers prayerful insights for today's troubled times.

y the time Publishers Weekly, the bible of the book trade, invited Phyllis Tickle to become its religion editor in 1992, she had taught at Rhodes College, served as the dean of humanities at the Memphis College of Art, and founded the Memphis publishing house St. Luke's.

What did she know of religion? A lot and you know it if you've read Tickle's moving memoir, The Shaping of a Life (2001), which covered not only her faith but her childhood, her education, and her marriage to Sam Tickle, a doctor who studied and practiced in Memphis.

In 1977, the couple and their children moved from Midtown to Lucy, a town just north of Memphis, to a house with a double garage. The garage came in handy -- would, in fact, serve as Grand Central years later when Tickle signed on at Publishers Weekly, whose offices are in New York City.

It was a garage big enough to hold the manuscripts, galleys, and books it was Tickle's job to track, but it was also a garage jerry-rigged with wiring for her to communicate by phone, by fax, and by e-mail when she wasn't on the road attending trade shows and conferences. That garage in Lucy succeeded as a workplace, however, and, thank God, according to this prayer: "Please, Lord," Tickle recalls asking in her latest (and excellent) memoir, Prayer Is a Place, "don't let anyone ever ask to see where PW's religion division is, or we'll be dead in the water."

In time, though, some did visit that house in Lucy -- among them, Tickle's friend and colleague Bob Abernethy, host of Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly on PBS -- and "dead in the water" Tickle figuratively was not, never was, to judge from the energy and intelligence she brought to PW's wide coverage of religion books and publishing trends.

But the same cannot be said for the hundreds (thousands?) drowned in the wake of Katrina, which makes Prayer Is a Place a title that is unexpectedly timely -- if prayer can be said to have a right or wrong time. But a place, Tickle believes, it does have, and you needn't be a believer to respect the ground it occupies in her life and the lives Tickle has touched through her writings and public appearances.

But prayer in what form in the face of such catastrophe and suffering? Praise be to God, according to the closing pages of Prayer Is a Place and according to the difficult lesson Tickle learned after she addressed an audience inside New York City's Trinity Church in the wake of 9/11, an address, she feels, that failed.

Signs of renewed "religiosity" and "spirituality" had nothing to do with what she sought to convey that day. Statements about "the long lens of history" and "the longer perspective of eternity" struck her as equally empty even as she uttered them. Leaving Trinity, she felt like a fraud, but in time she remembered the Magnificat, the prayer Mary spoke at the commencement (not as a result) of her sorrows, of Mary's rejoicing in the sight of God "whatever the horror and however great the confusion."

Words these days, then, to pray and live by if you're so inclined. Phyllis Tickle's Prayer Is a Place: expert writing whatever your thinking.

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