Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Book Review: The Sprial Staircase by Karen Armstrong

The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness
By Karen Armstrong
© 2004
Alfred A. Knopf

Subject: Autobiography; Spiritual memoir

This is the sequel to Armstrong’s book, Through the Narrow Gate, which told the story of her seven years as a Roman catholic nun in a Convent in England. The title refers to the spiral staircase the poet climbs in T. S. Elliot’s poem Ash Wednesday and the chapter titles are phrases lifted from the poem. Armstrong sees her own journey reflected in this poem’s depiction of a spiritual recovery. Her journey was a passage from anger through scorn then skepticism then curiosity then understanding then compassion and finally transcendence.

Some of the transitions were slow and painful and throughout the inner adventure was mirrored and midwifed by outer struggles as one door of opportunity after another is closed to her requiring her to re-envision her future role in society again and again. One of the outer struggles was also an inner one as she suffered undiagnosed epilepsy for years and suffered the ministrations first of the nuns who thought it was a bid for attention and then of a clueless medical community who sent her to psychiatrists. The experience of not being in full command of her mental faculties was especially excruciating for this scholar and spiritual seeker--but it was also instructive.

In the decades since leaving the convent she has studied and written on the history and theology of several of the major world religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism. This work has put her in a unique position to understand and thus to explain to a shocked and bewildered world the ancient roots of the rage which fueled the events of September 11, 2001.

She explains that the roots of the rage expressed that day are steeped in pain having sipped for centuries of the soil soaked in the blood of the fratricidal wars between the Children of the Book--Jews, Christians and Muslims. But those wars were predicated on a misconception of God for the sages and prophets of all the world religions have enjoined on the devout a practical compassion as evidence of true communion with God. Practicing compassion precludes war or killing in the name of God as well as un-kindness, cruelty, self-righteousness and belligerence. The implication is that "Our task is to learn to see the sacred dimension in everything around us--including our fellow men and women."


Like yesterday's book review, this one is being recycled from my other site, Joyread. I was reading this one in 2005, the year my Dad was dying. It helped me come to terms with the fact that my Dad and I were never going to see eye-to-eye on theological issues again (in this lifetime) and yet we could still know ourselves loved by the other as unconditionally as human love is capable. That love, I began to see, was rooted in the essence of God as I had come to understand it, and everything else was irrelevant. At that point, I began to let go of the need to proselytize for the first time since I was six years old.

My own spiritual journey has mirrored Armstrong's in so many ways. I've gone through the anger, scorn, skepticism, and am settled fairly stably in curiosity coupled with compassion. Still waiting for transcendence.

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