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Phyllis Tickle and the Power of Daily Prayer

Discover why the Christian author found praying the offices so powerful and see the private prayer she said twice daily for years.

Interior stained glass windows of St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague, Czech Republic

Phyllis Tickle was the author of  The Divine Hours, a kind of manual for daily, liturgical prayer, along with many other books about prayer and faith. In this excerpt from Phyllis Tickle: A Life, published after her death, discover how she wrote the beloved book, and what it meant to her to pray the divine offices–the Christian prayers said at certain times each day. Here, too, is the powerful and personal prayer of her own creation that she said twice daily.

The readings in prayer manuals usually follow a pattern of Gospels in the morning office, Old Testament or Epistles at midday, and hymns at Vespers, but [as she wrote The Divine Hours] Phyllis relished being able to make these choices, now, for herself and others—including the juxtaposition of the psalms, the refrains, and so on, within each office, to the biblical texts.

The book cover of Phyllis Tickle’s
new novel ‘Phyllis Tickle: A Life’

“I caught myself smiling over and over again, my heart light and my spirit soothed by the pleasure of dropping a psalm in place beside a section of the Gospels that had always somehow seemed to me to be its natural and euphemous mate,” she said. Phyllis set to work and  for twenty-two months of ten-hour days, she and a research assistant (her daughter, Rebecca) completed the work. Mother would lay out the various texts, often clipped and taped in place on two-page spreads of a notebook, and daughter would type it all up.

After praying the hours five times a day (Phyllis often skipped the 6:00 p.m. office of vespers in her personal practice) for more than thirty years, stopping to pray throughout the day while compiling the first of The Divine Hours added layers to her experience. . . 

In the same sense of the medieval Benedictine monks, praying “the Hours” was, for Phyllis, “work for God.” But spiritually, the best explanation she ever provided for why she remained faithful to this form of prayer throughout her life was to Bob Abernethy of PBS:

“It is a way of constantly keeping this open. Regardless of how much I sin, regardless of how many errors I make, regardless of how awful I perceive myself to be at times in my decisions and in my reactions to people and in my greed and lust, I’ve still got this core. I’ve still got, in the middle of my day, in the middle of all of my consciousness, this one passageway, this one place that connects me with the Divine, that’s there, that’s solid, that says, “Are you distressed by all these things you are? Are you heartbroken about all these things you have just done? It’s all right. Come here.” When I’m standing in that one place that is the Divine Office, I know God’s in his heaven and I’m part of that heaven.

Unbeknownst to her readers, to whom she was emphasizing the spiritual vitality of non-petitionary (non-Protestant) prayer in these books, and unknown to her closest friends, who simply never asked, Phyllis also prayed twice a day every day—post-nones and pre-compline—a series of prayers, which evolved and changed over time. These prayers asked God for help and guidance. She prayed them by rote, but they were of her own devising.

She seems to have written them out only once, and at the request of her closest friend in prayer, when she was seventy years old. They “constitute a kind of private credo,” she said, used “so to speak, to record the One to Whom I [am] praying, like taking a picture of the unpicturable.”

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Emphasizing that the language of these private prayers has changed slightly over the years, she summarized it on this singular occasion this way. Notice the borrowing of language from both East and West.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner. (Several times) Lord Jesus, forgive my sins (then named usually.) Take from me every thing, person, desire, pretension, and habit that keeps me from perfectly loving You and serving the Kingdom. I would love the Lord my God with all my heart and all my mind and all my soul and all my strength, and my neighbor as myself. Place Your yoke upon me and give me Your burden and take mine; and keep me on the narrow path and bring me through the straited gate.

May that heart and mind be in me that were also in You, and may I be a living branch of the living vine. Give me clarity of vision, profundity, keenness and quickness of intellect, grace and effectiveness of delivery, humility, focus, energy, and passion. And grant that I may be like that piece of fertile ground You spoke of when You were here: the thorns having been raked away and burned, and the weeds have been pulled and burned as well, and the rocks and stones having been tossed aside, the word may fall, take root, and bear much fruit.

I ask grace. I pray as well for the guidance, correction, and instruction of the Holy Spirit. I pray for the protection, guardianship, communion, and all-encompassing, all-surrounding, total embrace of the Holy Spirit, love and discipline. Open me from the core out that this may be a life of praise and thanksgiving, obedience and charity, humility and service. Grant that I may be filled with the peace of God, the love of God, the fear of God, the Spirit of God, the kingdom of God, the presence of God, the favor of God, the wisdom of God, the ways/works/words/ and worship of God, the knowledge of God, trust and faith.

Oh God, with Whom all things are possible, save my soul, my spirit, my life and those of my husband into Your Kingdom here and hereafter, now and forever; and renew all the component parts of them—our bodies, hearts, minds, souls, and spirits—and grant that our strength may mount up like the eagle in accord with Your purposes and those of the Kingdom.

Excerpted from Phyllis Tickle: A Life by Jon M. Sweeney © 2018 by Jon M. Sweeney. Used by permission of Church Publishing.​

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