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God-Talk In America

In conversation: Phyllis Tickle: Memphian and religion editor, Publishers Weekly.


By definition: the Divine Hours: fixed-hour prayer at regular three-hour intervals, offering praise and thanksgiving to God and drawn primarily from passages in the Old and New Testaments, especially the Psalms; aka the Divine Offices: office, from the Latin root word opus, work: the work of God.

Flyer: Your third and final volume of The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime, from Doubleday, is now in bookstores. The first of what promises to be an ongoing autobiography, The Shaping of a Life, came out last April. You've been busy but you're well?

Phyllis Tickle: Everything is fine, considering the events of September 11th. At this point in time, though, how can any American or any human being say to another that everything is all right? Obviously it is not.

As religion editor of Publishers Weekly for several years now, you've been especially called on these past few weeks? In what ways?

With calls from the media, congregations, churches, dot-coms wanting a comment. And finally, I guess two weeks after the event, at the urging of, I put out a paragraph on the 'Net. That paragraph simply stated that there's a time for silence and this is it, though certainly words are appropriate to those who are suffering the immediate and obvious loss, the physical loss.

But words are a wonderful tool for human beings. They're how we domesticate horrors. How we surmount difficulties. But this is a time to listen. A horrible thing has happened.

Two of the employees at Publishers Weekly were on the plane that took down the second World Trade Center tower. I did not know them. My colleagues were standing at the windows of the publication's offices on 17th Street and watched the towers crumble. There is an immediacy to what they were feeling, what they need now to say that cries out for silence from the rest of us.

But what are your audiences saying? Book sales saying?

I think Rabbi Kushner [author of When Bad Things Happen To Good People] and people in collars generally are catching the really tough questions. But as far as publishing, one of the first things in bookstores to go was Nostradamus. Everything "Islam" is gone essentially. The Koran's sales are huge right now. And Bible sales have certainly shot up.

No, the questions I get are, What is this about Islam? What do you know about it? And what I know is probably a paucity. I know enough to do my job, but it certainly does not make me an Islamicist in any sense of the word. So I have to come at the question in terms of comparative religion, that is, from a Christian standpoint, from the differences between Christianity and Islam but with a certain overlay of professionalism.

You also get, with live audiences, strange questions like, What do you feel about this? Which is kind of wonderful in a way. It de-intellectualizes the whole thing. And it's good to hear because it doesn't so much matter what I feel as what the people in that room can use to tell each other how they feel. It's a great evoker of conversation rather than a provoker of any answer from me that's of worth.

Are there questions you're at a loss to answer?

No, because I'm not ordained. Mine have been human questions not questions of authority, with the exception of, What is Islam? What is jihad? Some of these questions I almost embrace, because out of my limited knowledge there is a part of me that does believe that such frank and open conversation needs to happen.

Islam may teach peace, but it teaches peace under submission to Allah. It's basically theocratic. And no, this is not a holy war, but I think it is a religious war.

Would you call these terrorist acts in the name of Islam a perversion of Islam? I don't know.

Well, I don't suspect any of us know. Even my Islamicist friends are the first to use many words to answer simple questions, which tells me they too are a little uneasy.

But as I understand it, this cannot be called a "perversion" of Islam. This rather has to be seen for what it claims itself to be: a religiously inspired attack by those who truly believe that America must be destroyed. And not just America -- Euro-America, Enlightenment civilization, Western civilization. Because they are morally corrupt when thrown against the yardstick of the Koran.

Muslim leaders aren't now at pains to clarify Islamic doctrine?

I think they are distancing themselves from the fundamentalists in the same way that most Christians in this country distance themselves from fundamentalists. I'd be the first to say, as an observant Christian, that there is much in fundamentalist Christianity that just makes my hair stand up, spiritually and literally. And I'm sure that's true of Islamic leaders around the world. But that doesn't give me the right to say that the Jerry Falwells of this world are not Christians and are not acting out of Christian motivation. They are. It's just not my definition, nor is it a mainstream definition, of what Christian values and theology are all about.

When we don't understand that there's a strong thread of worldwide Islam that does indeed see this as jihad, as God-inspired, and as God-directed, we are not only guilty of not respecting the religious nature of this. We're very close to making a really foolish mistake in evaluation. Because people who are fighting for religious reasons will fight to the death, since on the other side of death is reward. We need to understand this.

The fundamental thing, and audiences are interested in this, is that theocracy is alien to Americans. We've forgotten why it was the Pilgrims got onto wooden boats and traveled 2,000 miles. What it was they were trying to avoid. Well, you know, theocracy may have disappeared off our cultural radar screen, but it sure hasn't disappeared off the world's. And it most certainly hasn't disappeared off Islam's.

Can we turn now to The Divine Hours? The history of this project. When you started it and why.

I've kept the Hours for 37 years but always did so I suppose the word is unobtrusively. A bit shy of anybody particularly knowing about it. But not because I was ashamed of it but because of "religiosity." Religiosity is one of the great bugaboos of this world, as far as I'm concerned.

You define that word how?

By those who go around with all the trappings of religion, making them visible. Keeping the Hours isn't something one runs up a flagpole as if to say, Oh, it's 3 o'clock! I have to go to my prayers. See how good I am! I managed for all those years to just slip away. It's amazing how many times in my life I've had to go to the bathroom when it's 3 o'clock.

You're in the bathroom a lot in your memoir, The Shaping of a Life.

You're right. After a while it gets pretty funny. The bathroom just happens to be the place that's guaranteed for sanctuary. Or you use that excuse. Or you don't even have to make an excuse. You just disappear and people assume that's where you're going.

But why a new variation on the Divine Hours? In the '90s it became increasingly obvious to those of us in the book business and in professional religion that the general culture was moving back to the liturgy. The cry was, Take us back before all the divisions and the schisms in the Church. Tell us what it was like in the beginning. A friend of mine in publishing said, as best she could tell, we were hastening rapidly to the first century. And I think she probably nailed it.

In Christian spirituality, the two oldest disciplines are fixed-hour prayer and the Eucharist, because they come out of Judaism's fixed-hour prayer and Passover. It's just that simple. And those Jews who didn't know they were Christians yet brought with them into the Christianity they were approaching those two disciplines they were already so familiar with.

As we neared the millennium, when it became apparent that there was this "push" back to the liturgy, there were stirrings on the part of publishers that it was time to address liturgical prayer or fixed-hour prayer or whatever you want to call it. But on the decision that was made for me to produce a new variation on the Hours, I'm not sure. I do know that my agent, Joe Durepos, a good Roman Catholic, an ex-seminarian, said to me, "Don't give me any of that Churchese. Give me English, by God!" And so, by God, I gave him English.

I was amazed that Joe and Doubleday asked me. And I'm still somewhat amazed at my reaction, which was one of pure joy. If anybody had told me that I'd ever be given such an opportunity I would have, number one, denied it, and number two, denied the depth of my yearning to do it.

Even before the late '90s, though, there was a growing interest in monasticism generally, the work of author Kathleen Norris, for example, and the Hours specifically. Why?

You can date that interest to the very early 1990s. But in the mid-'70s, Professor Robert Weber wrote a book called Pilgrims On the Canterbury Trail, which was the first articulation of a shift in culture that was going to come to a fast, hard boil 20 years later. He was the first to identify the fact that we were trying indeed to move back to a preschism, predivision Church, which means going back to that nice man and monk in the 6th century, St. Benedict.

Benedict became a spokesman for a society looking for peace. He became the pivot between those first 500 years of the Church, when the story was relatively pure, and the subsequent 1,500 years, when it has suffered various assaults and some would say corruption. But by 540 A.D. you've got this marvelously clear voice that says: Here's the best of what has been, and here is what will last through what is to come. Benedict founded a monastic order and he established a "master template," or Rule, of fixed-hour prayer.

The public's hunger for tradition in the late 20th century ... it came in stages, didn't it?

In the '80s, you'll remember, we had this rash of angels, which nearly drove us all crazy. What a time to be in the book business that was! Angels came in because they were the easiest thing for nonobservers and observers alike to "domesticate," to get hold of as spirituality became more important.

Benedict was becoming a buzzword in publishing circles. But if you weren't in Christian circles, if you were among the semi-Churched or the Church "alumni," Benedict wasn't big -- yet. Angels, on the other hand ... As the general population began to yearn for what they called "spirituality," angels were the first things to grab because everybody's got them: Jews, Christians, Muslims, New Agers. Everybody's happy.

Shortly after angels, though, we switched to saints. Saints were running wild on bookstore shelves. My greatest amusement was how many Baptists and Church of Gods and Assembly of Gods suddenly fell in love with St. Francis of Assisi. Or thought that Hildegard of Bingen was wonderful. Come on, let's get real. We'd lock her up today! That woman was crazy.

And then, by '93, we were having a love affair with Celtic spirituality, which we haven't gotten over yet. If you look at early Celtic spirituality, however, it predates Benedict, but if you look at neo-Celtic (that's the word, I suppose) spirituality, it's Benedictine in its allegiances. It's here you begin to see the big presence of St. Benedict in secular conversation -- where everybody knows who Benedict was or at least knows enough to answer a question on a crossword puzzle.

And now we're into labyrinths.

And every part of me just says, Oh, please! Except as a good Episcopalian I'm supposed to believe in those things. I'm sorry. They make my hair stand on end.

Don't you think that part of the appeal in keeping the Hours is the forced interruption they make in one's day?

Oh, there's no question. Time becomes more precious when you know you're going to interrupt it. It becomes far more manageable ... this awareness that you're stopping and acknowledging that you're not running the world. You're not even responsible for the world. All you're responsible for are those next three hours and accountable for the past three.

But I don't think those who keep the Hours keep them for what the Hours do for them. You come to the Hours with a sense of privilege. And it is a privilege. You're using the words that have been used by the faithful for almost 4,000 years, words that others like you are also using at the same time, a cascade of prayer. You don't stop and watch a mighty fireworks display for what it's going to do for you. You stop and watch because it takes you somewhere else. The Offices are a display of divine fireworks that go off every three hours.

But there have been times, I admit, when keeping the Hours, even after all these years, is a crashing bore. I can remember when I was a younger woman almost dreading the approach of them. Thinking, Why am I doing this?

Dreaded them because they can be inconvenient?

Yeah because they can be inconvenient! And because it gets repetitive and because you do the same thing every three hours every day of your life, and after a while, you know, it gets to be a rut. And then, suddenly, the Hours come flooding back in as the privilege they are.

What's been the reader reaction to your books The Divine Hours?

Look, I've written books for years and authors always get letters. But never in my life have I gotten correspondence like I have with these books. Amazing. People just wanting to tell me why they're saying the Hours. How wonderful it is to discover you don't have to be born Roman Catholic to observe them.

The really interesting thing has been the number of folks from not only nonliturgical but antiliturgical traditions. One woman, for example, she approached me at a book signing, the last person standing around. She told me thanks. She told me the Hours had been for her like finally seeing behind what had always seemed to her a screen. I thought that was a wonderful way of putting it. But I was thinking too that she was waiting for me to autograph her copy. She said, "No, I'm Assembly of God. If my mother saw that I have this book, that you'd signed it, she'd kill me!"

What do you suggest then to those who ask how to start the Hours?

You say it takes some discipline and it has an annoying side from time to time. You say be aware of that. Beware of anything you commit yourself to. Commit yourself to what you can do. And if it's not for you, you'll know soon enough.

The Jews, God love 'em, they always nail it. They always get it right. In my next life maybe ... But anyway, the good rabbi says, "It's not the prayers you don't say. It's the prayers you do say that matter." If you can only observe one Office a day, great, go for it. If you can observe all of them, wonderful, go for that. "May God bless you on either path" is what the rabbi says. And, you know, the good rabbi's right.

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