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My Climb Out of Darkness

Written by Karen ArmstrongAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Karen Armstrong


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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 336 | ISBN: 978-0-307-42939-1
Published by : Anchor Knopf
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In 1962, at age seventeen, Karen Armstrong entered a convent, eager to meet God. After seven brutally unhappy years as a nun, she left her order to pursue English literature at Oxford. But convent life had profoundly altered her, and coping with the outside world and her expiring faith proved to be excruciating. Her deep solitude and a terrifying illness–diagnosed only years later as epilepsy–marked her forever as an outsider. In her own mind she was a complete failure: as a nun, as an academic, and as a normal woman capable of intimacy. Her future seemed very much in question until she stumbled into comparative theology. What she found, in learning, thinking, and writing about other religions, was the ecstasy and transcendence she had never felt as a nun. Gripping, revelatory, and inspirational, The Spiral Staircase is an extraordinary account of an astonishing spiritual journey.


1. Ash Wednesday

I was late. That in itself was a novelty. It was a dark, gusty evening in February 1969, only a few weeks after I had left the religious life, where we had practiced the most stringent punctuality. At the first sound of the convent bell announcing the next meal or a period of meditation in the chapel, we had to lay down our work immediately, stopping a conversation in the middle of a word or leaving the sentence we were writing half finished. The rule which governed our lives down to the smallest detail taught us that the bell should be regarded as the voice of God, calling each one of us to a fresh encounter, no matter how trivial or menial the task in hand. Each moment of our day was therefore a sacrament, because it was ordained by the religious order, which was in turn sanctioned by the church, the Body of Christ on Earth. So for years it had become second nature for me to jump to attention whenever the bell tolled, because it really was tolling for me. If I obeyed the rule of punctuality, I kept telling myself, one day I would develop an interior attitude of waiting permanently on God, perpetually conscious of his loving presence. But that had never happened to me.

When I had received the papers from the Vatican which dispensed me from my vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, I was halfway through my undergraduate degree. I could, therefore, simply move into my college and carry on with my studies as though nothing had happened. The very next day, I was working on my weekly essay like any other Oxford student. I was study- ing English literature, and though I had been at university for nearly eighteen months, to be able to plunge heart and soul into a book was still an unbelievable luxury. Some of my superiors had regarded poetry and novels with suspicion, and saw literature as a form of self-indulgence, but now I could read anything I wanted; and during those first confusing weeks of my return to secular life, study was a source of delight and a real consolation for all that I had lost.

So that evening, when at 7:20 p.m., I heard the college bell summoning the students to dinner, I did not lay down my pen, close my books neatly, and walk obediently to the dining hall. My essay had to be finished in time for my tutorial the following morn- ing, and I was working on a crucial paragraph. There seemed no point in breaking my train of thought. This bell was not the voice of God, but simply a convenience. It was not inviting me to a meeting with God. Indeed, God was no longer calling me to anything at all — if he ever had. This time last year, even the smallest, most mundane job had had sacred significance. Now all that was over. Instead of each duty being a momentous occasion, nothing seemed to matter very much at all.

As I hurried across the college garden to the dining hall, I realized with a certain wry amusement that my little gesture of defiance had occurred on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. That morning, the nuns had knelt at the altar rail to receive their smudge of ash, as the priest muttered: “Remember, man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.” This memento mori began a period of religious observance that was even more intense than usual. Right now, in the convent refectory, the nuns would be lining up to perform special public penances in reparation for their faults. The sense of effort and determination to achieve a greater level of perfection than ever before would be almost tangible, and this was the day on which I had deliberately opted to be late for dinner!

As I pushed back the heavy glass door, I was confronted with a very different scene from the one I had just been imagining. The noise alone was an assault, as the unrestrained, babbling roar of four hundred students slapped me in the face. To encourage constant prayer and recollection, our rule had stipulated that we refrain from speech all day; talking was permitted only for an hour after lunch and after dinner, when the community gathered for sewing and general recreation. We were trained to walk quietly, to open and close doors as silently as possible, to laugh in a restrained trill, and if speech was unavoidable in the course of our duties, to speak only “a few words in a low voice.” Lent was an especially silent time. But there was no Lenten atmosphere in college tonight. Students hailed one another noisily across the room, yelled greetings to friends, and argued vigorously, with wild, exaggerated gestures. Instead of the monochrome convent scene — black-and-white habits, muffled, apologetic clinking of cutlery, and the calm, expressionless voice of the reader — there was a riot of color, bursts of exuberant laughter, and shouts of protest. But whether I liked it or not, this was my world now.

I am not quite sure of the reason for what happened next. It may have been that part of my mind was absent, still grappling with my essay, or that I was disoriented by the contrast between the convent scene I had been envisaging and the cheerful profanity of the spectacle in front of me. But instead of bowing briefly to the principal in mute apology for my lateness, as college etiquette demanded, I found to my horror that I had knelt down and kissed the floor.

This was the scene with which I opened Beginning the World, my first attempt to tell the story of my return to secular life. I realize that it presents me in a ridiculous and undignified light, but it still seems a good place to start, because it was a stark illustration of my plight. Outwardly I probably looked like any other student in the late 1960s, but I continued to behave like a nun. Unless I exerted constant vigilance, my mind, heart, and body betrayed me. Without giving it a second’s thought, I had instinctively knelt in the customary attitude of contrition and abasement. We always kissed the floor when we entered a room late and disturbed a community duty. This had seemed strange at first, but after a few weeks it had become second nature. Yet a quick glance at the girls seated at the tables next to the door, who were staring at me incredulously, reminded me that what was normal behavior in the convent was little short of deranged out here. As I rose to my feet, cold with embarrassment, I realized that my reactions were entirely different from those of most of my contemporaries in this strange new world. Perhaps they always would be.

But there may have been another reason why I kissed the ground that evening. Ever since my dispensation had come through, many of my fellow students and tutors had made a point of congratulating me. “You must be so relieved to be out of all that!” one of them had said. “It never seemed quite right for you.” “How exciting!” others had exclaimed. “You can start all over again! You can do anything, be anything you want to be! Everything is ahead of you!” It was true, in a sense: now I could fall in love, wear beautiful clothes, travel, make a lot of money — all the things that, most people presumed, I had been yearning to do for the past seven years. But I didn’t feel excited or relieved. I didn’t want to do any of the things that people expected. I had no sense of boundless opportunity. Instead I felt, quite simply, sad, and was constantly wracked by a very great regret. When I pictured that dedicated Lenten scene in the convent, it seemed unbearably poignant because it was now closed to me forever. I mourned the loss of an ideal and the absence of dedication from my new life, and I also had a nagging suspicion that if only I had tried just a little bit harder, I would not have had to leave. There had been something missing in me. I had failed to make a gift of myself to God. And so I felt like a penitent, and perhaps, when I kissed the floor that night, I had unconsciously wanted — just once — to appear in my true colors to the rest of the world.

In Beginning the World I described how I had threaded my way through the tables, flinching from the curious gaze of the other students, until I was rescued by a group who had become my friends and who had kept a kindly but tactful eye on me during the past difficult weeks. There was Rosemary, a cheerful extrovert, who was reading modern languages; Fiona, a gentler, more thoughtful girl; her constant companion, Pat, who had been a pupil at one of the boarding schools run by my order; and finally Jane, who was also reading English. All were Catholics. All had some experience of nuns. Jane retained a great fondness for the kindly semienclosed sisters at her rather exclusive school. Pat had actually known me as a nun, since I had been sent to help out at her school in Harrogate. There were other people at the table for whom Catholicism and convents were alien territory and who clearly intended to keep it that way. In Beginning the World I made them all tease me good-naturedly about my gaffe, question me about convent life, and express shock and horror at such customs as kissing the floor, confessing faults in public, and performing elaborate penances in the refectory. Maybe there was some discussion along these lines; certainly people were curious, up to a point. But I doubt that anybody was really very interested.

These young women had been quite wonderful to me. It had been Rosemary, Fiona, and Pat who had marched me down to Marks & Spencer a couple of hours after my dispensation had come through and helped me to buy my first secular clothes. Rosemary had cut and styled my hair, and all three had escorted me to dinner, my first public appearance as a defrocked nun. But they were probably wary of prying too closely into the reasons for what they could see had been a traumatic decision. I certainly had no desire to discuss the matter with them. In the convent we had been carefully trained never to tell our troubles to one another and it would never have occurred to me to unburden myself to my peers. And these girls had their own concerns. They too had essays to write; they were falling in love, and trying to juggle the demands of concentrated academic work with those of an absorbing social life. They were making their own journeys into adulthood, and now that the drama of my exodus was over, they almost certainly assumed that I was happily reveling in my new freedom, and were content to leave well alone.

I also knew that they could not begin to imagine my convent existence. Occasionally one of them would express astonishment if I inadvertently let something slip. “My nuns weren’t a bit like that!” Jane would insist stoutly. “Your lot must have been abnormally strict.” Pat would look even more bewildered, because she and I had lived with exactly the same community, but her perspective, as a secular, was different. “They were so modern and up-to-date, even sophisticated!” she would protest. “They drove cars, were starting to go to the cinema again, and were changing the habit!” Both girls would look at me reproachfully, because I was spoiling a cherished memory. Nobody likes to be told that things were not as they imagined. But I was quite certain that my own order had not been particularly austere, and agreed with Pat that it had been far more enlightened than many. Most nuns had observed these arcane rituals, had kissed the ground, confessed their external faults to one another, and were forbidden to have what were known as “particular friendships,” since all love must be given to God. That was why the reforms of the Second Vatican Council were so necessary.

From the Hardcover edition.
Karen Armstrong|Author Q&A

About Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong - The Spiral Staircase

Photo © Michael Lionstar

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.  

Author Q&A

A Conversation with


author of


Q: What made you decide to write this memoir?
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.



“Enjoyable and deeply interesting. . . . Very rewarding.” –San Francisco Chronicle

“A story about becoming human, being recognized, finally recognizing oneself. . . . It fills the reader with hope.” –The Washington Post Book World

“Riveting. . . . It’s a pleasure to read simply because it’s honest and hopeful. . . . Armstrong is such an evocative writer.” –Newsday

“I loved this powerful and moving account, and read it nonstop.” –Elaine Pagels, author of Beyond Belief

“In . . . Armstrong’s memoir there lurks wisdom about the making and remaking of a life . . . from which all of us could learn.” –The New York Times Book Review

“A powerful memoir. . . . Buoyed by keen intelligence and unflinching self-awareness and honesty. . . . Armstrong is an engaging, energetic writer.” –The Christian Science Monitor

“A minor masterpiece.” –Elle

“Exceptionally impressive. . . . Karen Armstrong’s account of her spiralling journey provokes thought and inspires respect.” –Daily Telegraph

“The story of the making of a writer. . . . It manages to dramatize the writer’s process of intellectual development and to find in it genuine interest, and, indeed, suspense. . . . As an account of the intellectual journey of an intelligent and unique individual, the book is often gripping.” –San Francisco Chronicle

“Candid and compelling, and the sentences are flawless.” –The Dallas Morning News

“Unputdownable–absorbing, moving.” –Daily Mail

“Remarkable. . . . Unflinching. . . . This candid memoir will clarify thinking about the search for the sacred.” –Booklist

“Gripping. . . . Uplifting. . . . Utterly compelling.” –The Edmonton Journal

“Armstrong writes with sensitivity and wisdom. . . . She employs a breadth of learning that reflects the scintillating, shifting light and shade of human experience.” –The Times (London)

“Absorbing. . . . Profoundly inspiring and engaging.” –Tallahassee Democrat

“An honest and affecting book.” –The Independent

The Spiral Staircase . . . is great. Armstrong is a marvelous writer and her subject matter is meaty. Her subject is the meaning of life.” –Deseret Morning News

“Open and accessible, Armstrong manages to put into words something that most of us cannot express.” –New Statesman

“Moving, insightful. . . . Compulsively readable.” –Library Journal

“A subtle and funny memoir.” –Sunday Telegraph
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book


“A story about becoming human, being recognized, finally recognizing oneself. . . . It fills the reader with hope.” —The Washington Post Book World

The discussion questions, suggested reading, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of Karen Armstrong’s memoir The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness.

About the Guide

Karen Armstrong, the writer who has introduced thousands of readers to the world’s great religions, now tells the story of one of the most difficult periods of her own life. At the age of seventeen, driven by a strong yearning to connect with God, she entered a Roman Catholic convent in England. She emerged seven years later in 1969, having failed in her quest for a spiritual life, to begin anew in a world now alive with antiwar activism, the music of the Beatles, and the counterculture. While pursuing degrees in literature at Oxford, she struggled to find a place for herself but was overwhelmed by feelings of alienation and despair. At times she experienced frightening symptoms that eventually led to a diagnosis of epilepsy. When her plans for an academic career went awry, she set out upon an independent path, writing books about theology. It was only through this pursuit that, years later, she arrived at a kind of spiritual fulfillment.

Deeply honest, thoughtful, and full of hope, The Spiral Staircase is a moving odyssey of a writer’s search for God and for herself.

About the Author

Karen Armstrong is the author of numerous other books on religious affairs including the bestselling A History of God, Through the Narrow Gate, Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World, and Buddha. Her work has been translated into forty languages. Since September 11, 2001, she has been a frequent contributor to conferences, panels, newspapers, periodicals, and other media on both sides of the Atlantic on the subject of Islam. She lives in London.

Discussion Guides

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?

Suggested Readings

Peter Ackroyd, T. S. Eliot: A Life; Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast; Joan Chittister, Called to Question: A Spiritual Memoir; Jill Ker Conway, When Memory Speaks; Brian Friel, Dancing at Lughnasa; Hilary Mantel, Giving Up the Ghost; John McGahern, The Dark; Iris Murdoch, Existentialists and Mystics; Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas; J. D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey; Mark Salzman, Lying Awake; Simone Weil, Waiting for God; Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain; Philip Zaleski, ed., The Best American Spiritual Writing.

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