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The Spiral Staircase:
My Climb out of Darkness

by Karen Armstrong
Harper Collins, 2004

review by John Tintera

Karen Armstrong has been a discovery for me. I’ve avoided reading A History of God, mainly because I sensed it could be a little too challenging to my faith. There’s enough going on in the world right now to make me disillusioned. After reading The Spiral Staircase, however, I can’t wait to get my hands on everything Armstrong has written. Not since immersing myself in Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain have I been so excited about a religious writer, as a writer. It’s easy for me to get turned-on by all sorts of religious ideas, of which the world is in no short supply, but it’s very rare to find a smart author who is also a great stylist. There are very few religious books that I could recommend to anyone, even my most ardently agnostic friends, but this is one of them.

The Spiral Staircase has to be one of the best books ever written about failure. Author Karen Armstrong failed at being a cloistered nun, an Oxford Don, a high school teacher, a writer for TV, and fell flat on her face with men. It wasn’t until she was slouching toward forty that she discovered her vocation as a writer devoted to the search for God. In retrospect, all of her failures seemed to lead her, providentially, away from what would have been false vocations for her. The most amazing thing is that in reading about her vocational flops, there’s not one ounce of self pity. After each setback, she approaches her challenges with earnestness and sincerity.

Armstrong makes clear that more than 30 years later she is still haunted by her seven years in the convent. She entered in 1962, right after high school, filled with idealism and hungry for a meeting with God. In her youthful naivete, Armstrong believed that a meeting with God should be completely unmediated. She had no concept that God speaks to us through the love of friends and family, through the rituals of the liturgy and the sacraments, and through the beauty of art and music. Her prayer life was a disaster because she could not accept that consolation in prayer is God’s gift as well. To her credit, Armstrong was not satisfied with finding God through the usual methods. She longed for the type of mystical experience described by the saints, but it never happened. By the time she left the convent, the sixties revolution was at its height. She had been so totally sheltered from the cultural changes taking place that during a party in 1969 she didn’t recognize a popular Beatles song that was blaring in the background.

The Spiral Staircase is also a book about epilepsy. During her last years in the convent, Armstrong began to have fainting spells. After leaving the cloister, her mental problems worsened to include frightening hallucinations. Her mental state was sometimes so bad that she would be laid up for days at a time. All the while she was seeing a series of shrinks who fobbed off her anguish as the symptom of a nervous disorder and treated her with talk therapy. It wasn’t until she took a bottle of sleeping pills during one of her stupors that she was properly diagnosed as having a common form of epilepsy. It is shocking to know that as recently as 25 years ago, something so obvious as epilepsy could have been so grossly misdiagnosed.

Like Merton before her, Armstrong is the rare person in whom an innate sensitivity toward spirituality is combined with a gift for writing marvelous prose. One unsettling aspect of her biography is the fact that for years after leaving her religious order, Armstrong no longer believed in God. She stopped practicing her faith altogether, except to take an autistic child whose parents were unbelievers to Sunday mass. Now that she has her epilepsy under control and is making a nice career for herself as a writer, Armstrong has also made peace with God. What’s amazing about her faith is the fact that it is so clearly both hard-won and utterly simple. Without trying, Armstrong has come to an authentic spirituality that is more worthy of emulation than almost anything else going right now. And there’s no doubt that that is the greatest irony of her life so far.

Read an excerpt

Copyright ©2004 John Tintera

The Spiral Staircase

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