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The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness (original 2004; edition 2005)

by Karen Armstrong

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1,359365,652 (3.99)43
Member:SaintSunniva
Title:The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness
Authors:Karen Armstrong
Info:Anchor (2005), Edition: 1st Anchor Bks Ed, March 2005/ 8th Pr., Paperback, 305 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:****
Tags:Autobiography, England, Author, Religion, Epilepsy

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The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness by Karen Armstrong (2004)

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Six-word review: Religious scholar wrestles with personal demons.

Extended review:

Whatever issues I may have had with religion don't seem to amount to much when compared with Karen Armstrong's sojourn in a convent and subsequent attempts to readjust to the secular world. The aftermath of spiritual crisis, thorny with guilt, resentment, confusion, self-doubt, and depression, plagued her for many years and seemed to mock her search for something resembling a normal life. Her repeatedly derailed journey through academe, her attempts to sustain various relationships, and her efforts to build a career on the considerable knowledge and skills she possessed constitute the substance of this exceptional narrative.

I have special appreciation for the account of how she dealt with her own agnosticism and atheism and ultimately arrived at a state of spiritual awareness that did not compromise her integrity.

As a distinguished scholar of the history and varieties of theology and religious practice, Karen Armstrong has written influential books and created presentations in other media. This personal history reveals the dark side of her struggle and the process by which she came to terms with her inner life. ( )
  Meredy | Jun 6, 2014 |
Memoir of the second part of the author's life, after she left the convent and tried to make her way in the secular world. ( )
  Pferdina | Nov 17, 2013 |
I received this Book through goodreads giveaways. At first I didn't think I was going to like this book but as I continue to read I went into this Memoir. I can relate to her panic attacks and her fear of having them. I also went through this. Nice story. ( )
  rachelep | Sep 9, 2013 |
Review first published on my blog: http://memoriesfrombooks.blogspot.com/2013/08/the-spiral-staircase-my-climb-out-...

Karen Armstrong grew up Catholic and joined a convent at age 17 in 1962. She spent 7 years training to be a nun and then made the difficult decision to leave the convent in 1969. The ensuing years brought trials and a whole a new life, ultimately leading to her world-renowned work as a comparative theologian.

This memoir is the story of her decision to leave the convent and what came after. It includes reflections on what brought her to become a nun, her life at the convent, what caused her to leave, her adjustment to life outside the convent, and her long struggle with an unidentified illness (ultimately diagnosed as epilepsy).

The title, The Spiral Staircase, is a reference to a T. S. Eliot sequence of poems that speaks about the journey of spiritual recovery. It speaks about one who has lacked faith but who find his or her way towards God. The spiral is the lack of a clear path, the seeming repetition of choices and mistakes, the seeming lack of movement at times, but at the end of it all, a progress upwards. Karen Armstrong uses the poem and the image of the spiral staircase as symbols of her own journey.

What comes through clearly in the book are many of the negative aspects of convent life that caused Karen Armstrong to leave the convent life and also the turmoil that the decision entailed. The "outside" world was not what she expected. The life she found was not the one she expected. Positive and negative emotions intermingle throughout the book. The confusion and the questions come through ranging from the spiritual ones to the physical ones of her illness. The struggles sometimes lend the book a sad and negative tone. The reader is ultimately left with the idea that each person must travel his or her own individual path. There are no easy answers.

Prior to reading this book, I did not realize that this is the third memoir that Karen Armstrong has written. The first, Through the Narrow Gate, describes her years in the convent and was originally published in 1982 about twelve years after she left the convent. The second, Beginning the World, talks about her transition out of the convent and was originally published in 1983. According to the author herself, "It is the worst book I have ever written and I am thankful to say that it has long been out of print." This book, The Spiral Staircase was originally published in 2004 and is essentially another look at the the same time period covered in Beginning the World. A do-over, if you will.

In the preface to this book, Karen Armstrong explains why she felt the book Beginning the World needed re-writing. "It was not a truthful account. This was not because the events I recounted did not happen, but because the book did not tell the whole story ... It was an exercise in wish fulfillment, and predictably, the result was quite awful."

I completely understand that our view of the world and our own past changes with time, age, maturity and distance. However, the statement in the introduction to a memoir raises for a question of credibility. If the books reflect a different outlook at a different point in time, what gives one greater credibility over the other. What makes one "awful" and the other more reflective of the truth other than a change in perspective?

I have enormous respect for Karen Armstrong's knowledge and her work in promoting a world of mutual understanding and respect between different faiths. That is the main reason I wanted to read the memoir. That respect remains unchanged after reading this book, but the inspiration I was hoping to find in her personal story was not there for me.

*** Reviewed for the GoodReads First Read program *** ( )
  njmom3 | Aug 21, 2013 |
I have never read any of Karen Armstrong's books, but I have seen many references to her writings and have perused her books at the bookstore and found them interesting. I thought this might be a good book to begin with and I was not disappointed. She is an interesting woman who has opened herself and has shown all the darkest corners of her being in what I found to be a very matter-of-fact way. She certainly has enough baggage from a rather strange past, but I felt she was honest in dealing with her frustrations, her weaknesses, her mistakes, and her achievements. I do find her bitterness at the Catholic Church a bit much at times; surely there was someone in the convent or in her early Catholic life that was a positive influence. She can be a harsh judge of others, but I think she also judges herself harshly at times.

The last chapters of Spiral Staircase are especially interesting and worthy of going back to reread. I find her explanation of the paradox of the absent God and as she says "a presence in my life" insightful. Her analogy of ascending a spiral staircase and her spiritual journey is so apt. Ms. Armstrong has done for me something that I do not have the time, skill, or intellect to do and that is to step back from the boundaries of a very traditional religious upbringing and take a much larger view of this unnameable force in our lives that we so innocently and ineffectually call God.

I would also recommend The Seven Storey Mountain by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton (who is referred to in the last pages of Spiral Staircase). Thomas Merton's faith journey leads to the Catholic Church rather than away from it, but I believe the ultimate destination of both Merton and Armstrong are not that far from each other. ( )
1 vote maryreinert | Aug 17, 2013 |
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T.S. ELIOT, Ash-Wednesday, I / Because I do not hope to turn again / Because I do not hope / Because I do not hope to turn / Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope / I no longer strive to strive towards such things / (Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?) / Why should I mourn / The vanished power of the usual reign? / . . . Because I know that time is always time / And place is always and only place / And what is actual is actual only for one time / And only for one place / I rejoice that things are as they are . . . [etc.]
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I was late. That in itself was a novelty.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0385721277, Paperback)

Karen Armstrong speaks to the troubling years following her decision to leave the life of a Roman Catholic nun and join the secular world in 1969. What makes this memoir especially fascinating is that Armstrong already wrote about this era once---only it was a disastrous book. It was too soon for her to understand how these dark, struggling years influenced her spiritual development, and she was too immature to protect herself from being be bullied by the publishing world. As a result, she agreed to portray herself only in as "positive and lively a light as possible"---a mandate that gave her permission to deny the truth of her pain and falsify her inner experience. The inspiration for this new approach comes from T. S. Eliot's Ash Wednesday, a series of six poems that speak to the process of spiritual recovery. Eliot metaphorically climbs a spiral staircase in these poems---turning again and again to what he does not want to see as he slowly makes progress toward the light. In revisiting her spiral climb out of her dark night of the soul, Armstrong gives readers a stunningly poignant account about the nature of spiritual growth. Upon leaving the convent, Armstrong grapples with the grief of her abandoned path and the uncertainty of her place in the world. On top of this angst, Armstrong spent years suffering from undiagnosed temporal lobe epilepsy, causing her to have frequent blackout lapses in memory and disturbing hallucinations---crippling symptoms that her psychiatrist adamantly attributed to Armstrong's denial of her femininity and sexuality. The details of this narrative may be specific to Armstrong's life, but the meanin! g she makes of her spiral ascent makes this a universally relevant story. All readers can glean inspiration from her insights into the nature of surrender and the possibilities of finding solace in the absence of hope. Armstrong shows us why spiritual wisdom is often a seasoned gift---no matter how much we strive for understanding, we can't force profound insights to occur simply because our publisher is waiting for them. With her elegant, humble and brave voice, she inspires readers to willingly turn our attention toward our false identities and vigilantly defended beliefs in order to better see the truth and vulnerability of our existence. Herein lies the staircase we can climb to enlightenment. --Gail Hudson

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:43:01 -0400)

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The author relates her decision to leave her convent after failing to find religious fulfillment, her struggles with depression and epilepsy, her realization of her calling, and her career working with sacred texts.

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