The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness
by Karen Armstrong
Published by Knopf
306 pages, 2004
Reviewed by Margaret Gunning
Every once in a long while a book comes along that speaks to your core, as if it has your name on it and is meant only for you. It's ironic that I had this intimate and immediate reaction to Karen Armstrong's compelling memoir of spiritual struggle and transcendence, as it seems to be speaking to a lot of people, readers and critics alike, in the same personal way.
I've tried to analyze this, and can only conclude that it has something to do with the gut-deep level of honesty. This is an unusually clear-eyed view of religious life, recounting a long, hard struggle in which Armstrong was knocked back to zero over and over again before she arrived at a personally meaningful concept of the divine.
This woman was so determined to find God and immerse herself in holiness that she entered a convent at age 17, to the horror of her non-religious family: "They wanted me to get it out of my system as soon as possible." She had her reasons, beyond spiritual thirst. The traditional female role as helpmate and housekeeper left her cold. Nuns "had no men to tell them what to do, ran their own lives, and were, presumably, engaged in the higher things of life. I wanted that radical freedom."
This was 1962, and the reforms of Vatican II had not yet penetrated to Armstrong's conservative order in Birmingham, England. Though she had sought "intensity and transformation in the life of a nun," she found instead a painful rigidity and deprivation. Friendship was not allowed, and the loneliness was unrelenting. Hemmed in by pointless rules, ordered to subjugate herself to serve God, Armstrong came to feel like a miserable failure. When she left the convent in 1969, she was virtually oblivious to the fact that the world had been turned upside-down by social and political upheaval in the interim.
She was so naive and insulated that she barely knew who the Beatles were, or that there was a war going on in Vietnam. The result was a profound culture shock that afflicted her for years: "I had found, to my considerable sorrow, that even though I no longer belonged in the convent, I didn't belong out here either."
Her intelligence saves her, and she is able to carve out a niche for herself as an academic at Oxford where the study of literature stirs a dormant spiritual spark. She is especially drawn to T. S. Eliot's poem "Ash Wednesday," from which came the title image of a spiral staircase: "Because I do not hope to turn again" is its melancholy refrain, seemingly hopeless, yet relentless in its upward persistence: "Because I do not hope to know again/The infirm glory of the positive hour/ Because I do not think/ Because I know I shall not know/The one veritable transitory power... "
She deeply identifies with Eliot's spiral path: "I toiled round and round in pointless circles, covering the same ground, repeating the same mistakes, quite unable to see where I was going." Yet there is some comfort in the life of the intellect: "If I had lost one cloister, I could immure myself in my studies and find another."
It's both heartbreaking and compelling to read of Armstrong's difficult, obstacle-strewn path. It takes her three arduous years to complete her doctoral thesis, during which time she cares for an autistic boy who demonstrates an unusual facet of spirituality. Then comes a complete and shocking reversal: her thesis is coldly rejected as inadequate, forcing her to come up with an alternate plan for her life. She eventually lands a teaching position at a prestigious girl's school, but meanwhile alarming health problems begin to plague her.
She experiences strange spells in which noxious odors come to her out of nowhere, and everything and everyone seems remote, removed and strangely threatening. Psychiatrists dismiss her symptoms as neurotic, and it is ten years before she receives a correct diagnosis of temporal lobe epilepsy. In the meantime she copes as best she can: "I did not want to appear before the world as pathetic, depressed, and psychologically ill. ... So I erected a barricade of words and wit around myself, so that nobody could see how needy I really was." Even more distressing than her health struggles is the feeling that she has permanently lost her faith: "I was finished with God; and God -- if he existed at all -- had long ago finished with me."
She couldn't be more wrong. Armstrong would go on to write 15 books about religious experience, covering everything from Christian feminism, mysticism and the Crusades to the lives of Buddha and Muhammad -- not to mention a history of God. But there were moments in her journey when she felt truly Godforsaken, endlessly spiraling in despair: "Every time I thought I had turned a corner, I seemed to get knocked back. I was an ex-nun, a failed academic, mentally unstable, and now I could add epileptic to this dismal list."
She takes another hard knock when she is dismissed from her teaching job due to her condition, even though it is kept under control with medication: "I kept getting derailed, ejected from one job, one lifestyle to another. Doors kept slamming in my face." With typical resourcefulness, she lands on her feet, writing a memoir of her years as a nun (Through the Narrow Gate) that makes her into something of a celebrity.
On the strength of this, she writes and narrates a successful BBC-TV series on the life of St. Paul that makes her into a media figure. En route to this success, she has some strange misadventures, as when she appears on a show about the seven deadly sins and has to fend off a randy Scottish talent agent:
"Would ye be interested in doing an act called 'The Stripping Nun'?"
Though she is "still convinced that God and I were through," a strange thing begins to happen as she conducts her research in the Holy Land: "Paul, a difficult, prickly genius, had stormed his way into my affections." Visiting various holy sites, she begins to come alive spiritually as never before: "I felt as though I had been plugged in, like an electrical appliance, and suddenly come to life."
And then, as if on schedule, another devastating setback. After three years of intensive work, her TV series on the Crusades is abruptly canceled when the funds run out. Once more she is back to zero, forced to reinvent herself: "I was desperate to get to work on something -- anything -- to convince myself that I still had a future."
That "something" was A History of God, a book everyone warns her against: "Karen, don't write this book now! You need to do something more mainstream," one publisher pleads with her. A book on God seems like an ironic choice for someone who fled the convent, but "at some inchoate, unconscious level, I felt that God and I had unfinished business -- even though I didn't believe that he existed."
In plunging into this dense and difficult work, something truly remarkable happens: she begins to believe, not in the old patriarchal and limiting God of the convent, but in something radically new: "I had no idea that I was about to 'turn again' and experience what the Greeks call metanoia, or conversion."
A History of God is a gateway to a rich exploration of religious life in all its permutations. Through this deep search, Armstrong arrives at some powerful truths: "Theology, like religion itself, was really an art form. ... Like all art, theology is an attempt to express the inexpressible." She also begins to experience a kind of transcendence through the silent devotion of her writing: "A disciplined attempt to go beyond the ego brings about a state of ecstasy. ... We are most creative and sense other possibilities that transcend our ordinary experience when we leave ourselves behind."
It's ironic that Armstrong ends up in a kind of monastic, solitary existence, alone with the divine. It is as if she has indeed "turned again," and come full-circle. The last chapter of this remarkable memoir of perseverance in the face of darkness is so packed with revelation that I read it several times, allowing it to sink in deeply. The spiritual nuances she expresses are impossible to sum up briefly. This is not a book to be breezed through, and at times Armstrong's discouragement and despair are painful to witness. But, through it all, she continues to strive relentlessly towards a light she can barely see.
The result of all this turmoil and testing is a personal philosophy that calls for "compassionate action and practically expressed respect for the sacred value of all human beings, even our enemies. ... Our task now is to mend our broken world; if religion cannot do that, it is worthless."
Karen Armstrong is more in demand now than ever as an interpreter of Islam in the post-September 11 era, when understanding other ways of faith is crucial to maintaining tolerance and respect. This is her ministry and her mission. Everything she knows she has learned the hard way, from having been busted down and knocked flat over and over again. Her spiritual resilience in the face of all this adversity is simply amazing. Far from being a depressing read, The Spiral Staircase is utterly compelling, absorbing and remarkable in its intelligence, wit and flat-out honesty. | April 2004
Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. She is the author of the novel Better Than Life, published in 2003 by NeWest Press. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.