Excerpted from The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong. Copyright © 2004 by Karen Armstrong. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Karen Armstrong is the author of numerous books on religion, including The Case for God, A History of God, The Battle for God, Holy War, Islam, Buddha, and The Great Transformation, as well as a memoir, The Spiral Staircase. Her work has been translated into forty-five languages. In 2008 she was awarded the TED Prize and began working with TED on the Charter for Compassion, created online by the general public, crafted by leading thinkers in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. It was launched globally in the fall of 2009. Also in 2008, she was awarded the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Medal. In 2013, she received the British Academy’s inaugural Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Transcultural Understanding.
A Conversation with
THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE: MY CLIMB OUT OF DARKNESS
Q: What made you decide to write this memoir?
A: I have found that whenever I give a lecture, people always want to know about my personal journey. And that many find my descriptions of the difficulties I had, with the existence of God, for example, or with the practice of prayer and meditation, to be liberating. I also wanted to give a more complete account of my experience than I had in my earlier books. The process of writing helps me to sort things out, so you could see this new book as a personal meditation on my life as I approach my sixtieth year.
Q: Tell is the us about the symbolism of the book’s title.
A: As I write in my introduction, T.S Eliot's poem, Ash Wednesday, has been very important in my life. In this sequence of poems, Eliot uses the image of a spiral staircase, which the poet climbs during his spiritual recovery. In many cultures, a staircase or a ladder is a symbol of ascent from one mental state to a higher one. The spiral staircase symbolizes a major but gradual change of consciousness, and my book traces the pattern of my recovery from the destructive religious experience of the convent to a new kind of spirituality. When climbing a spiral staircase, you go round and round, apparently covering the same ground and making little progress, but in fact pushing steadily upward, towards the summit.
Q: You write in your work about the 60’s revolution. Tell us about your impressions of that time period.
A: As I explain in the book, I missed the 1960s. I entered my convent in 1962 and left in 1969. So I had never heard of the Beatles, never heard of Vietnam. When I emerged into secular life, I was astonished to see the change in society. I felt like Rip Van Winkle in the story, who goes to sleep for a hundred years, and emerges from his cave to find himself in an utterly transformed world. I was astonished to see that young people were no longer deferential, as we had been pre 1962, and as we young nuns had been in the convent, but felt able to protest and rebel. I was astonished to see the change in dress. We looked like replicas of our mothers, but the sixties youth dressed in wild clothes, with long wild hair, and the sexual revolution had clearly transformed relations between men and women in a way that was bewildering to me. And yet I could understand something of this. Because like these young people, I too had been dissatisfied with the world, had wanted major change, and in my last year in the convent I too had been a rebel. So I was responding to the zeitgeist, but in a different way. I had been fighting a different war, but understood the underlying spirit.
Q: What are some of the differences you see between being a Catholic in the United Kingdom and being an American Catholic? Do you note differences in the diffculties faced by each community?
A: I cannot speak for American Catholics, who are having a very difficult time right now. But it is true that Catholics were a despised minority in America for a long time. This was especially evident during the American Revolution. But America is a country where people become more American by asserting their difference. The experience of the Mormons is salutary here. And by asserting their difference from mainline Protestantism, American Catholics managed to create a proud identity for themselves here. When I first started to visit America, I was struck by the openness and pride with which Americans at Notre Dame or Georgetown University flaunted their Catholicism in a distinctive and self-confident way, which would be unthinkable in Britain, where Catholics remain apologetic. It was not until about 1820 that Catholics were emancipated, and permitted to attend Oxford and Cambridge, or take public office in the country. They still feel like personae non gratae. The monarch of England may not marry a Catholic, and I do not think that we could have a Catholic Prime Minister. But Americans have had a Catholic President.
Q: Your expertise on Islam and the Middle East made you greatly sought after for speaking engagements and media interviews after the events of September 11th. Has your life changed since the events surrounding September 11th?
A: My life has changed since September 11th. In the last chapter of this book, I speak about the solitude and silence that changed my approach to religious texts and doctrines. I now have a much busier life, but, as I explain in the book, this often happens with hermits like myself. Throughout history, solitary people, like Thomas Merton, are constantly sought after. The more solitary they become, the more people seek them out. People who are not at all religious, for example, constantly seek help from contemplative nuns. And that is how it should be. Because religious experience must always be fed back into the community. It is not an end in itself, but must issue in service. And so even though I miss my solitude and silence, even though I now have much less time for writing, it has been a privilege to contribute to the debate in these dark times.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. Of convent life, Armstrong writes, “We lived together in community, cheek by jowl, but were so lonely that we might as well have been living in solitary confinement” [p. 26]. She notes as well “the emotional frigidity of our lives” and the fact that “friendship was frowned upon” [p. xvi]. She says, “I entered in 1962 as an ardent, idealistic, untidy, unrealistic, and immature teenager, and left seven years later, having suffered a mild breakdown, obscurely broken and damaged” [p. xi]. What principle was behind the goal of making the convent a punitive, cold environment rather than a life-affirming one?
2. Armstrong writes, “I was . . . convinced that I had embarked on a spiritual quest, an epic adventure, in the course of which I would lose the confusions of my adolescent self in the infinite and ultimately satisfying mystery that we call God” [p. viii]. How authentic was Armstrong’s desire to become a nun? In retrospect, how might her spiritual urge have been channeled more positively?
3. On her emergence from the convent into the vastly changed social world of 1969, Armstrong felt alien and lost. She writes, “I did feel in exile from everything that made sense. Because I could take nothing for granted, and did not know how to interpret the sixties world that had come into being during my absence, I too felt that the world had no meaning. . . . I felt spiritually dizzy, lacking all sense of direction and not knowing where to turn” [p. 24]. Having lived for seven years in a system based on strict obedience, she finds herself amidst a culture of rebellion. Does she rebel against her past in small ways? How does she learn to think for herself?
4. Among Armstrong’s chief reasons for leaving the convent was her daily difficulty with prayer and meditation: “I never had what seemed to be an encounter with anything supernatural, with a being that existed outside myself. I never felt caught up in something greater, never felt personally transfigured by a presence that I encountered in the depths of my being. . . . So, even in the convent, God had been conspicuous by his absence from my life” [pp. 42–3]. How did she interpret this failure to engage in the most central act of religious life? What might have been the reasons for her inability to pray?
5. How did the Hart family—and particularly Jacob—help Karen in reentering the world? What do she and Jacob have in common, and how do they help each other?
6. Karen and her friend Rebecca both suffer from anorexia. Her psychiatrist Dr. Piet tells her, “You’ve never been in love; you don’t want to look like a woman. . . . You’re still to an extent living in a convent, one of your own making. Both you and Rebecca are using all these repressed emotions to punish yourselves” [p. 108]. In his adherence to a strictly Freudian methodology, Dr. Piet is often off the mark. Does his analysis, in this case, seem correct about Karen and Rebecca? How does Karen eventually overcome her tendency toward self-punishment?
7. The book is inspired by T. S. Eliot’s Ash-Wednesday [see pp. xxi-xxii]. How do Armstrong’s thoughts about spirituality and depression resonate with the poem? What are the particular lessons learned from the poem, and what is the nature of the gift it makes to her [see pp. 139–44]?
8. Dr. Piet’s approach to Armstrong’s frightening symptoms—which he calls her “‘interesting’ psychic states”—is anything but sympathetic [pp. 122–23]. When she attempts suicide, he believes that she is acting in anger against him “whereas in reality, he was nowhere near as crucial to me as he seemed to imagine” [p. 126]. What are Armstrong’s thoughts and theories about why psychiatry didn’t help her [pp. 143–44]?
9. What is the irony of Armstrong’s sense of God’s presence in the midst of her epileptic seizure in the Baker Street subway station [p. 178]? Why did she consider the diagnosis of epilepsy “an occasion of pure happiness” [p. 182]?
10. How does Armstrong’s performance on the pilot for the BBC film The Body of Christ free her to speak her mind [p. 220]? Why, when she speaks about the ages-old anti-female bias of the Church, does she feel “elated” [p. 221]?
11. Armstrong’s study of Paul and his Jewish context is an intellectual breakthrough. How does her journey to Israel and the Middle East change her perspective on herself?
12. Given what she says about being “able to feel the pain of other human beings” for the first time in years, it seems that the drugs stabilizing her epilepsy allow Armstrong to have an emotional breakthrough as well [pp. 258–59]. What does she learn about the importance of feeling and acknowledging her own suffering [p. 272]?
13. Armstrong notes, “In deciding to write about God, I knew that I was setting off on a lonely path.” So she puts her struggle with faith in the context of quest mythology: “[The hero] 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” [p. 268]. How does this realization provoke Armstrong to make a choice that others insist is a mistake? Why is this among the book’s most important insights?
14. What is important about “the habit of empathy” [pp. 272, 274]? Consider Armstrong’s ideas about “editing out ego” and ecstasy [pp. 278–79], as well as her statement that “We are most creative and sense other possibilities that transcend our ordinary experience when we leave ourselves behind” [p. 279].
15. Why was her study of Muhammad, of all her books, the one that provoked “a kind of ecstasy” [p. 279]? Why did the events of September 11, 2001 change her thinking once again [p. 303]? How does she see Islam in relation to Islamic
16. How are silence and solitude transformed for Armstrong as she works on A History of God? What does she mean when she says, “Silence itself had become my teacher” [p. 284]?
17. Can you relate to Armstrong’s spiritual journey? How is it similar to or different from your own? Is the struggle to come to terms with religious truth a universal one?