Karen Armstrong, it turns out, is a big deal. She’s an author and speaker on spirituality whose A History of God is evidently an incisive and readable history of the Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It’s probably her best-known book, and it sounds fascinating but it’s The Spiral Staircase that fell into my hands. Thus I read Armstrong’s memoir without any real sense of why I should be interested in her, which is slightly disconcerting.
Of course, there’s the nun experience: one of my little obsessions. Armstrong entered a Catholic convent in 1962 at the age of sixteen, confidently looking forward to a lifelong union with God. Seven years later, after earnest effort, great misunderstanding and deep pain, she was released from her vows and became an ordinary undergraduate at her Oxford college. Yet despite her evident brilliance –which she manages to convey without seeming to brag, a neat trick — her PhD. thesis was failed and she did not receive her doctorate. Thus two cloistered worlds, the convent and academia, were closed to her.
These developments take up the first half of the book, and I found them riveting, though I wasn’t sure why I was supposed to be interested. Armstrong is an excellent writer and her outsider’s view of 1960s Oxford was fascinating. The stress here is on her outsider-ness, for Armstrong was not just emotionally damaged by her convent years: it turned out that she was an undiagnosed epileptic. Until 1975 she struggled with seizures and amnesia, despite being under a psychiatrist’s care. For a while she taught, and she wrote Through the Narrow Gate, about her years as a nun. The publicity for that book brought her to the attention of TV producers and she was enlisted to write and present a six-part documentary on St. Paul. (Can you imagine that on TV today?) It was this development that brought her back to the study of religion, in a completely different context, and set her on the path to her current eminence. The Spiral Staircase is structured after the first of T.S. Eliot’s Ash-Wednesday poems, and shows us Armstrong’s life as a climb — arduous, but satisfying — from darkness into light. She went into the convent to find God, she lost him, and found him again in a very different guise.
Yet for me this book felt like an incidental work. It sounds as if her thinking on spirituality and on the related monotheistic religions is so important that any memoir has to be secondary. Toward the end we get a sense of what feels like her non-memoir voice, and it takes on a new authority. About her decision to write A History of God, she says:
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 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… In the words of the Old French text of The Quest of the Holy Grail, he must enter the forest ‘at a point that he, himself, had chosen, where it was darkest and there was no path.'”
It wasn’t until I read this paragraph that I began to understand what all the fuss was about. The Spiral Staircase is pretty satisfying, but I’m left with the impression that Armstrong writes with more passion about God than she does about herself.