Sunday, January 02, 2005

The Spiral Staircase, By Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong is a well-known theologian and author of best selling books like A History of God. The Spiral Staircase is her personal story.

The following passages are my underlines in the first part of the book. I found so many of her experiences resonating with my own and then others, intriguingly different. I'm always amazed at the complexity that is a part of the spiritual journey.

On the whys of leaving the convent
"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 to leave" (6).

"I had not left the convent because we had to do public penance but because I failed to find God and had never come within shouting distance of that complete self-surrender which, the great spiritual writers declared, was essential for those who wished to enter the divine presence" (9).

On praying daily
"For several hours a day on every single day of the year, I had to confront and experience my abject failure. In other ways my mind was capable and even gifted, but it seemed allergic to God" (42).

"I would sometimes wonder whether it wasn't a bit like the emperor's new clothes: nobody ever experienced God but nobody dared admit it. And then I would mentally shake myself. How could God reveal himself to a nun who harbored these shocking doubts?" (44)

"Our whole existence had had God as its pivotal point. The silence of our days had been designed to enable us to listen to him. But he had never spoken to me" (39).

On leaving the religious life
"Beliefs and principles that I had taken so completely for granted that they seemed part of my very being now appeared strangely abstract and remote" (16).

"One of the chief effects of my education so far had been an acute consciousness of everything that I did not know" (16).

On abusing your mind
"It seemed that I could no longer operate as an intellectual free agent. You can probably abuse your mind and do it irrevocable harm, just as you can damage your body by feeding it the wrong kind of food, depriving it of exercise, or forcing your limbs into a constricting straightjacket. My brain had been bound as tightly as the feet of a Chinese woman, and I had read that when the bandages were taken off, the pain was excruciating" (39).

Isn't it remarkable to look into another person's experience from a different world, culture and time and see your own experience mirrored within it? And at the points of disconnect, it is still something to behold an honest confession of how life was experienced for someone else that challenges my presuppositions about how it ought to work.


Dave said...

Those are moving quotes, Julie. That's some deep, personal stuff that she is sharing.

Karen Armstrong is a brave writer indeed!

I think what makes it so resonant (and by extension, inspiring, though she's talking about doubt, feelings of ineptitude, self-delusion, etc.) is that it's just so honest and real. Like, that's the "real" Karen Armstrong speaking, not a pose or a selective disclosure. Sometimes when I've read other forms of inspirational literature, when the author discloses his (usually, for me, it has been a male writer) flaws or weaknesses, I still got the sense that I was only getting a partial glimpse at what was really going on. Like his confession of sin and inadequacy was framed in such a way as to set him (and me) up to readily accept the solution (e.g. pray more, tithe more, read the Bible more, believe harder, etc.) that he would deliver in the next paragraph or chapter.

In other words, it doesn't look like Karen has a sales pitch in store so much as she's trying to simply lay out an honest account of what happened, for her own sake and benefit as much as for ours.

julieunplugged said...

I would love to write a memoir like this some day. She hits the exact note I find the most compelling to read: gentle self-exposure. She is deeply honest without a new clarion call. But I found her also able to level the charges she wanted to make without broadbrushing every institution that hurt her. Unique ability.

Great read.