The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness
New York: Alfred A. Knopf ©2004
The Universe has a way of getting our attention — guiding us into the life for which our gifts are best suited. Idiosyncratic humans that we are, we often struggle against these messages, thinking we know better, determined to do whatever it is in our own way, intent on "making our mark," or "going it alone." Even so (perhaps, especially because of this attitude?), many of us spend lengthy periods in bewilderment, wondering what is our true purpose in life. We seek guidance, direction, help from activities or work or the latest celebrity or book or guru. We want "The Secret" without the requirement of effort. But knowledge, particularly self-knowledge, does take effort. The unfolding can be messy, unpleasant, filled with anxiety, or challenge, even if the outcome is ultimately brilliant.
Karen Armstrong, one of the world's best-known writers on religious matters, seems not to consider her life one of brilliance, satisfied instead to find something akin to a soft glow with staying power, even if it flickers occasionally, as most do, in strong winds. In The Spiral Staircase, Armstrong shares her journey of discovering purpose and making a life despite (because of?) the challenge of undiagnosed illness and the violence to her spirit done by years of emotional conditioning. This elegant, authentic, very readable memoir picks up where Beginning the World, Armstrong's earlier (and unsatisfactory to her) attempt at autobiography, leaves off. Staircase explores what has happened to her since she left the convent after seven years of study to become a Catholic nun.
Although the outcome of that experience was a loss of faith, Armstrong regained her spirit and has become a leading figure in worldwide interfaith dialogue. Her books on various aspects of Christianity, as well as Islam, Buddha, Muhammad, Jerusalem, the Crusades, Genesis, St. Paul, and others, offer an ecumenical perspective on the world's important wisdom traditions and their impact on believers and non-believers alike. Especially since the events of September 11, 2001 in the United States, Armstrong has been a sought-after resource on the true nature of Islam, the challenges of fundamentalism in all faiths, and opportunities for common ground across doctrines.
As a British teenager in the 1950s, Armstrong grew up in a period of radical change, one where "many of my generation, born in the last years or in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War" had an "inchoate yearning for transformation." She is all too clear that "postwar Britain was not an easy place to grow up. We may have defeated Hitler, but the war had ruined us. Britain was now a second-rate power, and food, clothing, and petrol were strictly rationed well into the 1950s. Because thousands of homes had been destroyed during the blitz, there was a grave housing crisis. Our cities were scarred with desolate bomb sites and filled with towering heaps of rubble. The center of Birmingham was not completely rebuilt until after I left for the convent [in 1962]. After the war, we were in debt to the United States for 3 billion pounds, our empire was dismantled, and though we were fed on a surfeit of films celebrating Britain's endurance and victory, nobody seemed prepared to look facts in the face and decide what our future role in the world should be. Young Britons, like myself, who came to maturity in this twilight confusion of austerity, repression, nostalgia, frustration, and denial wanted not only a different world but to be changed ourselves."
While Armstrong's journey of transformation took her into the convent, she likens it to "the quasi-religious fervor inspired by the rock 'n' roll records that fell like manna from heaven between 1954 and 1959 on a country that had no tradition of Afro-American music. It seemed to promise a new world.... In the world conjured up by rock 'n' roll, nobody had to do national service or listen to endless stories about the war...." Having been a product of a convent school and uncomfortable with the raucousness of the rock 'n' roll 1960s life that seemed to be unfolding in Britain and elsewhere, Armstrong opted for God and religious study as her path to a purposeful life. Needless to say, things didn't work out quite as she envisioned.
Clear-eyed in her description of the challenges, successes, and personal devastation of her convent experience, Armstrong nevertheless acknowledges that the choice to take this path was hers and hers alone. In fact, family and friends actively discouraged her, although her parents finally relented. What no one knew, however, was the toll it would ultimately take on this impressionable seventeen-year-old, especially since the prevailing religious philosophy was that any difficulties were the result of inappropriate emotionality. In the book, Armstrong details her struggle with this attitude, with the philosophy, and with recurring physical symptoms no one knew how to interpret. When she encountered medical professionals, they opted for psychological approaches that contributed to Armstrong thinking herself nearly mad and unfit for gainful employment — completely missing for many years what would finally be diagnosed as temporal lobe epilepsy. Today, with medication, her symptoms are controlled; her work and life have stabilized.
The stability brings Armstrong full circle — or up another rung on the spiral staircase. The book's title comes from "T.S. Eliot's Ash-Wednesday, a sequence of six poems that traces the process of spiritual recovery." Armstrong describes it as "central to my journey.... In Eliot's Ash-Wednesday, we watch the poet painfully climbing a spiral staircase. This image is reflected in the twisting sentences of the verse, which often revolves upon itself, repeating the same words and phrases, apparently making little headway, but pushing steadily forward nevertheless. My own life has progressed in the same way. For years, it seemed a hard, Lenten journey, but without the prospect of Easter. 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 all the time, without realizing it, I was slowly climbing out of the darkness."
In addition to the story of Armstrong's personal journey, we are also treated to a taste of her 'new' path — her scholarship regarding the world's wisdom traditions, their points of commonality, and their emphasis on "practical compassion." Although she felt ready to abandon her study of God and religion upon leaving the convent, Armstrong found explanations both profound and understandable as she continued to encounter several religious experts. Armstrong recalls a conversation with Hyam Maccoby, Judaic scholar and librarian at London's Leo Baeck College, in which "he had told me that in most traditions, faith was not about belief but about practice. Religion is not about accepting twenty impossible propositions before breakfast, but about doing things that change you. It is a moral aesthetic, an ethical alchemy. If you behave in certain ways, you will be transformed. The myths and laws of religion are not true because they conform to some metaphysical, scientific, or historical reality but because they are life enhancing. They tell you how human nature functions, but you will not discover their truth unless you apply these myths and doctrines to your own life and put them into practice." Hence, "the one and only test of a valid religious idea, doctrinal statement, spiritual experience, or devotional practice was that it must lead directly to practical compassion. If your understanding of the divine made you kinder, more empathetic, and impelled you to express this sympathy in concrete acts of loving-kindness, it was good theology...."
Armstrong also recognizes the useful and necessary mythological analogies to what Joseph Campbell describes as "following your bliss" or what Parker Palmer urges in his book Let Your Life Speak. Palmer talks about "way closing" and "way opening" and how, regardless of the amount of effort we put into the search, we often cannot discover our true purpose ("way opening") until we look back and inventory the avenues that closed to us for any number of reasons. Those paths probably evaporated because our ideas for ourselves cannot compare with the wonder of what the Universe has in store for us, once we get our egos out of our own way. Armstrong states: "The great myths show that when you follow somebody else's path, you go astray. The hero has to set off by himself, leaving the old world and the old ways behind. He must venture into the darkness of the unknown, where there is no map and no clear route. He must fight his own monsters, not somebody else's, explore his own labyrinth, and endure his own ordeal before he can find what is missing in his life. Thus transfigured, he (or she) can bring something of value to the world that has been left behind."
"In mythology," says Armstrong, "stairs frequently symbolize a breakthrough to a new level of consciousness. For a long time I assumed that I had finished with religion forever, yet in the end, the strange and seemingly arbitrary revolutions of my life led me to the kind of transformation that — I now believe — was what I was seeking all those years ago, when I packed my suitcase, entered my convent, and set off to find God."