The Spiral Staircase

Karen Armstrong, the author of The Case for God and many other books about world religion, spent seven years of her young adult life in a convent, hoping to meet God. When her pursuit proved fruitless and even damaging, she left and finished her English literature degree at Oxford. This memoir details those post-convent years and the long, slow process back toward God.

Armstrong entered her convent in 1962, the year that the Second Vatican Council began. The Catholic church was entering a period of transformation, but Armstrong’s convent was still under the leadership of a particularly conservative nun who imposed an extremely strict rule. When Armstrong left the convent, she realized that seven years of conditioning made such practices as keeping your eyes down and voice low into reflexes. In one incident, Armstrong, without thinking, knelt and kiss the floor when in an act of contrition for entering her college’s dining hall late. Those habits are hard to break.

Kneeling to kiss the floor at an Oxford dining hall is embarrassing, but the habits of extreme self-discipline and obedience that had been instilled in Armstrong threatened her health. To save money, she restricted her diet to the point of starvation. And in the spirit of not questioning authority, she assumed that psychiatrist was correct that her fainting spells, lost time, and hallucinations were a sign of an unbalanced mind, not the classic symptoms of epilepsy that it turned out they were.

Besides having health issues, Armstrong was also dealing with the kinds of professional crises that often come with being in your 20s and realizing that some doors may never open to you. She found a community of friends and became part of a makeshift family whose chaos was a sharp contrast to convent life. And as she learned to shed the convent habit, she realized that she no longer believed in God.

Armstrong channeled her new unbelief into a fledgling career as an ex-nun/religious provocateur. Her first memoir, Through the Narrow Gate, exposed the rigid convent life she experienced to the public, and an appearance on a pilot for a new talking-heads television series put her on a television producer’s radar. Soon, she had an offer to develop a documentary about the apostle Paul, and before long, she was on the path back to religion, albeit a completely different sort of religion than the one she began with. Or was it?

I first read this book several years ago, and on that reading I was most interested in Armstrong’s process of freeing herself from the mind-sets that come from living in a restrictive religious environment. This time, I was more interested in the journey back and how her new view of religion was different—and perhaps not so different—from her previous one.

As Armstrong researched Paul for her documentary and later studied the Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Christian history for her many books and documentaries, she came to understand the distinction between orthodoxy (right doctrine) and orthopraxy (right practice). She realized that the obsession with seemingly abstruse and irrelevant doctrines that she’d been exposed to was not necessary to the good practice of religion. And good practice is in itself an act of faith. Theology, as one Jewish acquaintance tells her, is “just poetry, really, ways of talking about the inexpressible.” I have a lot of reservations about the orthodoxy/orthopraxy dichotomy, because I think both are important and the dichotomy is often presented as a way to dismiss theology entirely. However, I liked this idea of theology as poetry. Poetry is important; we need ways to express the inexpressible, and God is too big to be contained by human expression. Theology gives us a vocabulary and a window.

What really intrigued me about Armstrong’s journey is that I think rules such as the one she was living under in the convent are intended to guide people to orthodoxy through orthopraxy. Spiritual disciplines of all types are intended to be transformative—to guide people toward God and help them become better people. But it doesn’t always work out that way, as Armstrong discovered in the convent. For her, the convent rule was crippling, life-denying. She was following someone else’s path. Late in the book, she writes,

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. But if the knight finds himself riding along an already established track, he is simply following in somebody else’s footsteps and will not have an adventure. In the words of the Old French text of The Quest of the Holy Grail, if he wants to succeed, he must enter the forest “at a point that he, himself, had chosen, where it was darkest and there was no path.” The wasteland in the Grail legend is a place where people live inauthentic lives, blindly following the norms of their society and doing only what others expect.

It seems to me that a lot of Armstrong’s difficulty in the convent came from the fact that she was never allowed to own her feelings. She was scolded for feeling anything outside the prescribed parameters. By being honest, she was able to be free, and that freedom led her back to God. It’s a beautiful story that shows the value of always seeking, even when the answers seem hidden in the darkness.

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16 Responses to The Spiral Staircase

  1. litlove says:

    This sounds fascinating. I’ve long wanted to read Karen Armstrong but not known where to start. Would this be a good place – or with the memoir that precedes it?

    • Teresa says:

      This was, I think, the first book of hers that I read, and I think it’s a very good place to start. I haven’t actually read the earlier memoir, but from what she says in this book, I don’t think it would give a good sense of her thinking about God that informs her writing today.

  2. Deb says:

    This sounds like a wonderfully-interesting book that I’d love to read. My only (very small) quibble is that I wish Armstrong had chosen a different title because I’m sure some people will confuse this book with the woman-in-peril movie of the same name from the 1940s and think it’s just a gothic suspense novel (although reading the subtitle would put pay to that idea).

    • Teresa says:

      Heh. That hadn’t even occurred to me. She actually uses the image of a spiral staircase a lot in the book, in the idea of winding back around to cover the same ground in a different way.

  3. Cori says:

    This looks like a fascinating book. I’m always interested in orthodoxy/orthopraxy questions, since I know so many people trapped in dogma and rules that they lose the faith part of the equation entirely.

    • Teresa says:

      Orthodoxy/orthopraxy isn’t a major theme in the book, but it interests me, too, so the discussion of it stood out. I know people who’ve been in the situation you describe, and in some cases they ended up tipping so far in the other direction that doctrine and theology cease to matter at all, which seems sad to me because I think both matter. They just get out of balance so easily.

  4. Simon says:

    I have picked up an Armstrong’s book (I think maybe the first) and put it back, because tales of losing one’s faith just make me sad – but I think I could find this one much more valuable – and you’ve written a really lovely review of it, Teresa.

    • Teresa says:

      I find loss-of-faith stories interesting, but sad. This was nice, though, because she wrote after she’d gotten past some of the anger toward God and is finding a way back. The way back is not what many would consider traditionally Christian, but it feels like a path toward God anyway.

  5. I’ve read a number of Armstrong’s books – this one and its predecessor, This History of God, and Muhammad, among others – and the last time I read this one I too was struck by her journey back to belief. I notice that when Armstrong talks about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, she always speaks of Islam with especial warmth and tenderness. My theory is that she approaches Islam without the history that has tainted Judaism and Christianity for her; her formation in the convent seems to have given her a faint but inalterable distaste for those two faiths.

    • Teresa says:

      I think you’re onto something there. I didn’t particularly notice the distaste toward Judaism–in fact, I saw some affection for it here, especially when she talks about the strong intellectual tradition. One thing I noticed was that it seemed easier for her to see the beauty in non-Christian traditions and write off the abuses as aberrations, while she seemed more inclined to see the abuses within the Christian church as more of a norm, which is probably a result of experiencing the dark side of the Christian church firsthand.

  6. A fine review of a deeply fascinating and thought provoking book.

  7. Samantha says:

    Thank you for this review. I’m eager to read this book – I hadn’t heard of this one before. I wonder if my reaction to her experience in the convent will be the same, as a person who thrives on rules and discipline. What was your reaction? Would you too have walked away from God, had it been you living there for seven years?

    • Teresa says:

      I tend to love routine and ritual, but I don’t think I could handle the convent life she describes very well. I think a good bit of the problem was not with the rules themselves (although some of them seemed excessive) but with the way any deviation or struggle was dismissed as a lack of self-discipline, rather than genuine struggle that should be handled sensitively.

      Would such an experience have turned me away from God? I don’t know. I’ve always been pretty good at separating God from the institutions where we worship God. But seven years of this kind of treatment could have pushed me away entirely. Now that I think about it, one of the things Armstrong lacked was an alternate view. She saw this kind of convent life as the only way to get close to God, which was what she wanted. It’s only after her studies revealed that others have found different paths that she could step tentatively toward God again.

  8. Pingback: The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong | A Good Stopping Point

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