The Spiral Staircase, by Karen Armstrong

by Robert A. Parker

Armstrong subtitles this probing, thoughtful work, My Climb out of Darkness. For me, this 2004 work is both a reminder and a mirror image of The Seven Story Mountain. Merton’s book was about his disenchantment with the secular world and his search for spiritual fulfillment in a monastery. Armstrong’s book is about her disenchantment with the spiritual life of nuns and her search for fulfillment in the secular world.

Both of these works have their immediate appeal to me because they are personal stories. The emphasis here is on Armstrong’s struggle to discover a career and her relationship to the people around her, all within the psychological strait jacket she is trying to escape from. Yes, both stories are told within a spiritual context, but it is not about their spiritual life itself, but about how their spiritual life intersects with their secular life—granted, the two authors are going in the opposite direction.

Armstrong enters the convent at age seventeen on a spiritual quest to find God. She leaves seven years later “having suffered a mild break-down, obscurely broken and damaged,” which is “nobody’s fault.” She says nobody’s fault because, although it was the time of Vatican II, the sisters at her nunnery resisted many of the Council’s changes, training her to be strictly obedient, to keep her eyes downcast, and never to think for herself.

So when she re-enters the secular world, she finds it to be a changed world of war, youthful rebellion, and sexual revolution, often expressed in loud music and energetic dancing—in short, a world difficult to adjust to, a world of culture shock. She confronts it as a shy, reserved woman who cannot think creatively. But she does discover T.S. Eliot’s poem, Ash Wednesday, and it is from this poem that comes the title, The Spiral Staircase, a metaphor, as Jane Lampman says, for “spiritual progress that seems to go in circles while, in fact, moving upward into the light.”

Highly intelligent, Armstrong continues as a student of literature at Oxford, after she is released from her vows; but she finds no one, even Catholics, who understand her difficulty in adjusting to this new world. Moreover, she still draws her literary insights from others, meaning she cannot evaluate literary works on her own. The nuns had trained her to seek deeper insights only in terms of higher states of prayer—and she had always failed.

As a nun, perhaps in rebellion, Armstrong began having fainting spells, and these continue after she leaves the order. Finally, confronted by abnormal visions that fill her with horror, she is sent to a psychiatrist. But such visions of an abnormal reality also start her thinking about God and wondering if He were real. After all, she had never got close to Him in the nunnery.

As a doctoral candidate, Armstrong takes a room with an atheist couple, the Harts, who have a teenage autistic son, Jacob. She cares for him in exchange for her room, and they quickly relate to one another. And yet, she cannot relate to others. She even cuts down on eating, telling herself it is to save money; but her psychiatrist insists the panic attacks she has are a symptom of repression, that she has built an ivory tower around herself, and he believes the source to be in her upbringing.

Meanwhile, that tower had also locked her away from a belief in God. And yet one day she is asked by the atheistic parents to take Jacob to mass, thinking he will take to its ritual and be comforted by the community worship. And Jacob does love it, and insists she take him there regularly.

But Armstrong’s life is suddenly turned upside down. She swallows sleeping pills and ends up in a hospital. She is 27, and it is a cry for help. Rescued by he Harts from a psychiatric ward, she recovers. And then, inspired by a lecture on Ash Wednesday, she realizes that she cannot undo the past, that she must now find her own way. That way, however, unlike Eliot’s, is to move further and further away from God.

Armstrong is telling many stories here. There are her relationships with the Harts, including Jacob; with fellow students, like Jane and Charlotte, and the faculty at Oxford; and with a sickly nun, Rebeca, from her past life. There are also her mental issues, including her sessions with her psychiatrist, Dr. Piet. And there is her inability to relate to God. She weaves all of these elements into a rich and fascinating self-portrait.

Now, Armstrong’s life changes. She moves to London and takes a job at London University while she finishes her thesis. But that thesis is rejected because her Oxford examiner is biased against her close reading of literature. There is a scandal, but nothing can be done.

And yet, Armstrang feels suddenly liberated. With nothing to prove, she begins to think on her own. And then two remarkable events become quite moving. First, she collapses again, and is diagnosed, finally, with having epilepsy. This fills her with joy, for she now knows her mental issues are physical, not emotional or a threat to her sanity. And it liberates her further, for she no longer needs to avoid people for fear she may have a seizure in front of them. She can live a normal life. She has a future.

Second, Armstrong becomes godmother to Jacob at his baptism, and this unbeliever sees the son of atheists receiving the sacrament with joy. She sees the irony, too, but the reader wonders if it heralds more. For she also rooms with a Jewish girlfriend, who introduces her to the relaxed rituals of Jewish worship.

At this point, Armstrong refers briefly to a love life that this reader had wondered about. She calls herself a “failed heterosexual,” because she has had a number of affairs, all brief, she says, and all unsatisfactory, not worthy of mention. One has to agree with her that they do not belong in this book that is a memoir of her internal life. But the brief reference is necessary.

During six years of teaching at a wealthy girls’ school in London, Armstrong’s life takes a new turn. A teacher friend Sally persuades her to keep a diary, and the result is the author’s first book, Through the Narrow Gate, about studying to be a nun and then leaving the convent. The book is a critical success, and when a paper edition is issued, she is invited to give a talk for a proposed Channel 4 series, and urged to treat any subject that is “punchy and controversial.” She gives a spontaneous and striking talk on women in the Church that resonates with me. “This is my body,” she quotes and then remarks how little the Church has valued the body, especially the female body, and so failed “to integrate the sexual with the divine.”

This, in turn, leads to a six-part television series on St. Paul, for which she travels to Israel, to the holy sites that she has heard so much about. It is a remarkably evocative visit that leads to an emotional connection to her former faith. In addition, Paul becomes to her not a typical male figure from the New Testament but a human being. She comes to like this man whom she originally intended to expose as a founder of the Church she now despises.

But even more significant, she grasps the heart of the Jewish faith, and its being a precursor to Christianity. After the television series succeeds, she is asked to write a series on the Crusades. But as she studies the Moslem faith, the television money runs out. And then she is suddenly inspired. ”For three years, I had steeped myself in the deadly hostility that had separated Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Why not study something they held in common? The Abrahamic faiths worshiped the same God, for instance. Why not study the way they all had seen this God over the centuries?”

And so, she begins her next major book, The History of God. Now able to see the other’s viewpoint, as well as to bring her own original thinking to the subject, she focuses on her own inner life. And concludes that religion does not bring us the meaning of life but is the means “to discover how to be fully human.” That: “Men and women have a potential for the divine, and are not complete unless they realize it within themselves.”

But in the middle of writing this book, she is struck by the negative reaction of people to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, and their claim that the Islamic faith is a faith of violence. And so she writes a corrective life of Mohammed, revealing that he preached, like the Jews, a faith not of belief but of action, a faith of physical prostration and human compassion.

Back with The History of God, she revels in being alone with her books—and falls in love with her subject. Studying literature has helped her see that “theology, like religion itself, was really an art form…Like all art, theology is an attempt to express the inexpressible.” This is be her vocation.

Her book concludes that the theologians of all three faiths reached similar conclusions. “None of them had a monopoly of truth.” And the basis for that truth was to have compassion for others, “to feel with” the other, to understand why they felt or thought as they did.

And then the author reaches the most profound truth of her book. Does this mean I believe in God, she asks. And she both ducks the question and answers it. God is not a being, she says, not an unseen reality, because God is beyond our world, is on an entirely different level of existence. As Cantwell Smith showed her, she says, “faith was the cultivation of a conviction that life had some meaning and value…an attitude also evoked by great art.”

And: “The one and only test of a valid religion,” she writes, “is that it leads to practical compassion.” And again, “Compassion was the litmus test for the prophets of Israel, for the rabbis of the Talmud, for Jesus, for Paul, and for Mohammed, not to mention Confusius, Lao-tzu, the Buddha, or the sages of the Upanishads.”

God cannot be reached through reason, she concludes. He transcends either personality or objective fact. Whereas, the practice of compassion can “bring us directly into the presence of God….It dethrones the ego from the center of our lives and puts others there, breaking down the carapace of selfishness that holds us back from the experience of the sacred. And it gives us ecstasy…”

“The inner dynamic of all these great religious convictions can work effectively,’ she continues, “only if you do not close your mind and heart to other human beings.” And a friend tells her, “You are constantly living in the dimension of the sacred. You are absorbed in holiness all the time.”

To sum up, this is a personal book and a profound book. It works, first, because the author takes us through a series of defeats, first the convent, then her health problems, then the failed thesis, then the dissatisfaction as a high school teacher, then her solitariness and her inability to relate to others, then the failed television series. This is a confused and struggling human being we are reading about.

But the memoir works primarily because it is a story of the author’s search to find God. It is about her internal life, along with her external life. And it is unique because she finds a different God than most of us seek, a transcendent God beyond our level of existence, a God that is revealed through her compassionate relations with those around her as well as in the aspirations within her. She learns the organized spiritual life where she first sought Him actually closed down her brilliant mind rather than opened it up.

This is not a work that the orthodox of any religion would be comfortable with. But it forces us to see the real world around us, the world we share, a world of searching, and of personal failure and frustration; and through it, we become aware of our own often superficial reaction to that world, a reaction that focuses on us rather than on others. And on our relationship to what we call a personal God that, she says, conceals the truth of a relationship that is beyond our power to conceive.

Every reader should be grateful that Karen Armstrong has bared her soul to them, for she crystallizes our frequent inability to understand the meaning of this life we live. What she has done here is to show us the spiritual world beyond religion, a view that will not please everyone but does show that that spiritual world is out there, even if it may be difficult for some to find that elusive being called God. (February, 2015)

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