Phyllis Tickle is a writer whom I’ve never read, but have often seen quoted and referred to by others. Picking up her memoir as the first thing I read by her may have been an odd way to go about it, since this memoir of her early years assumes that the reader is familiar with Tickle’s career as a writer about religion, one whose books have done much to introduce American Protestant readers to the ancient Christian contemplative traditions and spiritual practices. The memoir has the feel of someone trying to explain “This is how I got from where I started to where I am today,” which is why it might hold most interest for those already familiar with the author’s work.
As a stand-alone memoir, it was interesting to read, though the formality of Tickle’s language made it feel somewhat distant compared the very intimate, confessional memoirs I’m used to reading by women of my own generation (I believe Tickle is now in her 70s). It’s a spiritual memoir, but a very unemotional one, lacking much in the way of sin, repentance, or epiphanies. Rather, it’s a memoir of small moments in a young woman’s life (it covers the years from childhood through college, marriage and young motherhood) that nudged her towards an appreciation of prayer, meditation, and liturgy.
There are no earth-shattering moments here, and some readers, like me, may feel that the language is more analytical and formal than they are used to in a memoir. What I found most interesting, in fact, was not the depiction of Tickle’s spiritual journey, but the glimpses of life in a genteel, educated Southern family in the early twentieth century, and of college life in an era when both students and teachers still believed in the intrinsic value of education. As a snapshot of a particular kind of life in a very specific place and time, The Shaping of a Life is an enjoyable journey.