- Paperback: 336 pages
- Publisher: Random House Canada (Feb. 22 2005)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0676974686
- ISBN-13: 978-0676974683
- Product Dimensions: 13.3 x 1.8 x 20.3 cm
- Shipping Weight: 281 g
- Average Customer Review: 9 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #138,197 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness Paperback – Feb 22 2005
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From the Inside Flap
The moving story of her own search for God by the highly-acclaimed author of the bestselling A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam; The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism; and Islam: A Short History.
In 1969, after seven years as a Roman Catholic nun -- hoping, but ultimately failing, to find God -- Armstrong left her convent. She knew almost nothing of the changed world she was entering, and she was tormented by panic attacks and inexplicable seizures. Her struggle against despair was fueled by a string of discouragements -- failed spirituality, doctorate and jobs, fruitless dealings with psychiatrists -- but finally, in 1976, she was diagnosed with epilepsy and given proper treatment. She then began the writing career that would become her true calling, and as she focused on the sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, her own true inner story began to emerge. She would come to experience brief moments of transcendence through her work -- the profound fulfillment that she had not found in the long hours of prayer as a young nun.
Powerfully engaging, often heart-breaking, but lit with bursts of humour, The Spiral Staircase is an extraordinary history of self.
"From the Hardcover edition.See all Product description
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I found myself identifying very strongly with Armonstrong at almost every turn, and yet in some respects I am her exact opposite. I am a male, happily married with three beautiful children, protestant and an ordained minister. Yet there is something about her story that transcends all of that and touches so many of us who grew up in the church at the peak of the modern era.
Armstrong has followed what seems to me to be a pattern. I say this respectfully, as I appreciate that her life is hers alone and not mine or anyone elses. I present her as a pattern, but only in a tentative kind of way. Her own peculiarities and personality are too precious to be lost in the "universal." She must remain an individual and be read and respected as one. Sympathy for her struggles, hurts, pains and adjustments and shared joy in her triumphs and successes will be easily profered. Her story is powerful, personal and very touching.
But, what is this pattern I see. It is, I said, a pattern followed by the masses since the 1950s. It follows seven basic steps:
1. Uncritical acceptance of simple religious truth
2. Whole hearted devotion to that simple religious truth
3. Confusion at the relation of simple religious truth with existential reality
4. Staged withdrawl from religious devotion
5. Denial of religious truth
6. Awareness of a hunger for religious truth
7. Acceptance of a complicated religious truth
The stages mirror the cultural movement of Western Civilization. In the 50s and 60s churches were packed to overflowing in a strange and historically unique way. Then, all of a sudden, it lost its relevancy. People struggled to see how the religious devotion they learned and practiced made sense in the 20th century. Some transferred their religious devotion to other faiths, most simply "dropped out." More recently there has been a religious awakening, a kind of revival of interest in spirituality and religious devotion, but on terms radically different than those of yesteryear. It is much more personal, much more individual, and a lot less dogmatic and confessional.
Armstrong's book provides a challenge to those religious enterprises that have sought to renew the past. What she demonstrates is movement. Her life has been one of constant movement. It is during those moments when she sought to stand still and hold steady in a fixed spot that her life broke down. So it is with our culture.
We have moved from the religious turf of yesteryear. We live in different places, spiritually speaking. Our conception of religious realia is very different from what it was just twenty years ago. Armstong's life story is a powerful self-portait of this truth.
Life is truth! Religion that seeks to subvert or manage life in ways that diminish its vitality and power have no place. The great narrative of modernity has broken down into a series of personal and community stories that need to be heard and respected. Philsophically, culturally and spiritually we are not what our grandparents were, and for this I thank God.
Thank you Karen for the privilege of accompanying you on your restrospective voyage. I learned a lot about myself. God bless you.
Andrew R. McGinn
Finding no God, Karen left an authoritarian convent feeling simultaneously free, yet adrift, with no clear way out. While believing her relationship with God was over, she wrestled with shifts in her inner life, undiagnosed epilepsy, and career ups and downs. She likened herself to Tennyson's Lady of Shallot whose struggle to free herself from her prison almost destroyed her. Eventually, she found God, both unknowable and compassionate. Also, Karen's wisdom and compassion has permeated her work with people from many religious backgrounds.
I was interested in her understanding of the roles of belief, action, and compassion in religion. Her quote of Louis Massignon's "science of compassion" was helpful when I wrote school papers, or in ordinary conversations. I was particularly grateful for her insights into Islam, including her reminders not to judge any faith by its extremists and to consider how we contributed to the situation.
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