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The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness

3.99  ·  Rating Details  ·  5,157 Ratings  ·  525 Reviews
Karen Armstrong speaks to the troubling years following her decision to leave the life of a Roman Catholic nun and join the secular world in 1969. What makes this memoir especially fascinating is that Armstrong already wrote about this era once---only it was a disastrous book. It was too soon for her to understand how these dark, struggling years influenced her spiritual d ...more
Kindle Edition, 338 pages
Published December 18th 2007 by Anchor (first published 2004)
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Will Byrnes
A nun’s tale. Armstrong tells of her experience from her seven years as a teenager and then young nun in the convent through a loss of faith, severe physical and mental challenges, trying to find her way in the world as an academic, and ultimately coming to a new understanding of spirituality. It is a reasonably quick read. I found that I was very interested at times, and at others just going through the motions. One notable absence here is any real detail on her experiences with men. She notes ...more
Aug 25, 2011 Lobstergirl rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoir
I feel a little conflicted about Spiral Staircase. For one thing, it's Armstrong's third autobiography. She's a writer whose career started not with the religious histories for which she's now known, but with memoir-writing. Her abandonment at age 25 of a 7-year nun career aroused interest in the publishing world, leading to Through the Narrow Gate: A Memoir of Spiritual Discovery. This was followed by a sequel, Beginning the World. Spiral Staircase is in many ways a rewrite of Beginning the Wor ...more
Jun 12, 2013 William1 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Karen Armstrong is a bestselling author in the field of religious history. Some of her more popular books include A History of God, The Battle for God, and more recently The Case for God. This is her memoir about life after leaving the Roman Catholic church. She was a nun. It's a wrenching story. Armstrong, for reasons not clear until much later in her life, entered as a novitiate at the age of 17 with a great belief in her capacity to find God. The discipline was brutal, the nuns, whom she desc ...more
Doug Bradshaw
Jan 26, 2008 Doug Bradshaw rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a remarkably personal and insightful journey which takes us through the loss of hope and faith and then back to a higher realm of love and understanding. Here are my personal thoughts about this book:

1. By the end of the book, I felt a bond with her that is similar to something I have felt for some of my best professors and teachers who helped me understand complex things. Karen is extremely honest and open and able to describe emotions and reactions which many thoughtful people must ha
Sep 04, 2008 Aldean rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoir, religion
The first book I read that helped me realize that I was not alone in my experience of post-seminary difficulty. Armstrong's account of leaving the convent was so powerfully analogous to my own experiences that I nearly wept as I read (something I only do on very rare occasions), both with remembered pain and grief and with joy that there was nothing peculiarly wrong with me or my experience as a refugee from a life of professional holiness.
Nov 14, 2011 K rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Although this was more of a three in some ways, I'm giving it a four because of the way it spoke to me.

I loved Through the Narrow Gate: A Memoir of Spiritual Discovery, Armstrong's memoir of her years spent in a convent and her decision to leave. Aside from offering an intriguing description of a nun's life in the '60s (Armstrong lets us know on several occasions that it's probably much different now with the changes of Vatican II), I found that I related to it personally as a religious person a
Aug 08, 2010 Jana rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoir, spirituality
"Theology is – or should be – a species of poetry, which read quickly or encountered in a hubbub of noise makes no sense." Karen Armstrong

I read The Spiral Staircase a few weeks back between road trips, first to visit an aunt and uncle in a small university community and second to attend an Episcopal peace conference at a mountaintop retreat / convent. The timing of my read of this memoir (about a nun who left the church to pursue graduate work at Oxford only to leave academia and make her way
Dec 29, 2011 Paul rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Every once in a while, I get around to reading a book that surprises me because the author has put into words things that I have felt the urge to say, but not had the words for, nor had ever seen in print. Karen Armstrong's memoir, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness, is one of these books. If a soul could be said to have emotional strings, then Karen's book resonated with those frequencies in mine, and this made the book a breeze to read.

It had sat on my shelf for several years befo
Laila (BigReadingLife)
Jan 08, 2009 Laila (BigReadingLife) rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Laila (BigReadingLife) by: Book Group
I enjoyed this book more and more the deeper I got into it. Karen Armstrong is such an appealingly intelligent and slightly odd person. A fascinating memoir.
Lynne King
This book is excellent and a joy to read. Extremely uplifting too.

I may try and write a review on it.
Sep 08, 2015 Holly rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Just re-read this book and it's still amazing. Not reading it in a class, it did feel a little more difficult to get through. Her story is truly unique, but it is hard to read for so long about the pain and sorrow, the trauma and to feel no hope. She does an excellent job helping you feel that despair through a good portion of the book.

In other words, you have to pay your dues to get to the insightful thoughts on theology. It really is the last chapter where you can't stop highlighting things s
Ahmad Ardy
Nov 04, 2014 Ahmad Ardy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The spiral staircase merupakan novel autobiografi ke tiga tulisan Karen Armstrong. Yg pertama adalah through the narrow gate, dan yang kedua, beginning the world. Mulanya, bg aku jumlah autobiografi yg sebegitu adalah absurd. Satu spatutnya dah cukup. Tapi ada sebabnya knp Karen tulis smp 3 autobiografi beliau.

Through the narrow gate adalah lebih kpd pengalaman beliau selama 7 tahun menjadi rahib bermula pd umur 17 tahun. Beginning the world pula merakamkan perjalanan hidup beliau pasca gereja (
Tim Titolo
Jan 21, 2011 Tim Titolo rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2011
I am a fan of Karen Armstrong. Her contributions to religious history are very large. And I always took her as presenting evidence fairly while not being prejudicial to one or other particular religion. I have read many of her books.

The Spiral Staircase was intimately entertaining. I always knew of Armstrong's experience in the convent and rejection of the same but the book goes on into much more detail of her experiences.

She says, at one point, that if Satan were mythology and God was mythology
Debbie "DJ"
Received through Goodreads First Reads. (Thanks!) Karen Armstrong is nothing less than a master of the written word. While this is a memoir of her life, it is also a powerful look into religious theology and personal transformation. I had previously read her outstanding book "A History of God", and was captivated by this read describing how she came to write such a book. Starting out as a catholic nun who later leaves the church and religious life behind, only to come full circle to a place of s ...more
Jun 27, 2008 Joe rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: those struggling with their spirituality
Recommended to Joe by: NPR
Shelves: own, memoir
Nancy Pearl has stated that if a book doesn't catch your attention within the first 40 pages, it is not worth your time.

I am glad that I don't prescribe to this belief.

Slogging through the first 100 pages of Karen Armstrong's memoir The Spiral Staircase was a task. Peppered with a constant, nagging reiteration of her thesis ("Nunnery ruined me and did not prepare me for secular life"), these pages drag on interminably. It all comes across as mewling and self-conscious.

When, however, Armstrong a
Mar 31, 2009 Melanie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Before Karen Armstrong became an authority, both learned and accessible, on the religions of the world, she spent seven years in a convent. Her first memoir, Through the Narrow Gate, recounted those seven years. This book takes the reader beyond those years. through a period of intense sufferings and trials, and to the point where she discovers her true vocation.

The first part of this book recounts the end of her time in the convent. The brutal and, sometimes, absurd practices of the nuns numbed
Jun 30, 2014 Lynne rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
For much of this book, I kept thinking "TMI"...too much information, way too much personal information.

But Armstrong captured me with her last pages which resonated very strongly with me and which wrapped up the first 263 pages and made me realize the necessity of her long litany of her religious life.

Part of me feels quite akin to Ms. Armstrong...I was always the rule follower, the doctrines were important...but in the past few years I've come to realize the perennial tradition that is strong i
Brandy Boyd
Jan 08, 2009 Brandy Boyd rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: folks entering a nunnery
its a cold world and epillepsy sucks.
Dec 15, 2007 Adam rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
From Publishers Weekly
In 1962, British writer Armstrong (The Battle for God, etc.) entered a Roman Catholic convent, smitten by the desire to "find God." She was 17 years old at the time—too young, she recognizes now, to have made such a momentous decision. Armstrong’s 1981 memoir Through the Narrow Gate described her frustrating, lonely experience of cloistered life and her decision, at 24, to renounce her vows. In its sequel, Beginning the World (1983), she tried to explain her readjustment to
Austen to Zafón
A friend loaned me this book and said it was good. She said, "It's about this nun who leaves the convent and what she goes through afterward." That sounded pretty dull. I'm not a religious person, but neither is my friend, so I thought I'd give it a try. I was hooked on the first page. It may be a bit hard to believe, but this book was a real page-turner for me. Three different times I sat in the bath until the water was almost cold because I couldn't stop reading. Armstrong entered the convent ...more
Jon Stout
Dec 17, 2009 Jon Stout rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: religion
After reading Muhammad a Prophet for our Time Eminent Lives by Karen Armstrong, I’ve become a Karen Armstrong enthusiast. The Spiral Staircase is her autobiography, and provides the shortest and most personal access to understanding how she got to her current position of being an interpreter of religious tradition in the face of its “cultured despisers” Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. If forced to speak in the most literal terms about a being within the universe, Armstrong ...more
Jul 03, 2010 Nancy rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
It's interesting: I think I read this book several years ago (although it is possible I read THROUGH THE NARROW GATE, her previous memoir, instead). If I DID read this one, clearly I have changed since that time, because this time, it was Armstrong's struggle with faith that hit me hardest, and what I remember last time was being simply mesmerized by her account of life as a nun. Which is horrifying, by the way! When Armstrong talks about life as a nun - and as an ex-nun - and how her formation ...more
Mar 02, 2012 Tammy rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was a great book... another author that writes in a way that motivates you from the heart not just your head knowledge. This is a quote I liked a lot.. “The constant reprimands made me hyperconscious of my own performance, and so instead of getting rid of self, I had become embedded in the egoism I was supposed to transcend. Now I was beginning to understand that a silence that is not clamorous with vexation and worried self-regard can become part of the texture of your mind, can seep into ...more
May 09, 2016 Relstuart rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: faith, memoir
The sequel to Through the Narrow Gate, this is the continuing life story of religious historian Karen Armstrong. In the first book Karen tells us how she spent her younger years and decided to become a nun. After seven years she believes it was no longer for her because of health and intellectual reasons. This book picks up with her in school and her college days followed by trying to find her way in the world. How does one become a religious historian anyway?

Karen's life has some interesting t
Nov 14, 2015 Jen rated it it was amazing
Slow start; fascinating finish

I cannot even begin to tell you how or why this book speaks to my heart like it does. It just does. The life, the journey--spiritual, religious, and otherwise--is one to which everyone and no one can relate. Yet, she comes so finally to a place of some understanding and therefore peace. But not really peace. Isn't that life though? We jump around in a state of unrest and rest only to find ourselves in unrest once again. Read it. My soul needed it.
Alan  Marr
Jul 23, 2015 Alan Marr rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I have read enough of Karen Armstrong's work to know that she is a clear thinker and able to express her thoughts so that people like me know what she's talking about. I assume when I read people like her that life has been a breeze for them..that's why they write so well. She entered a convent when she was 17 years old and left it 7 years later. The image of the title comes from a T.S.Eliot poem in which he is painfully climbing a spiral staircase. She uses images from the poem as chapter headi ...more
I received my copy free through the Goodreads First Reads giveaways.

The Spiral Staircase is in many ways an indulgence to it's author, Karen Armstrong. She admits early on that it is essentially a redo of the sequel she originally published to her memoir voicing her experience of seven years as a nun-in-traning. In this retelling, Karen felt she had more to say now that she has let more time elapse between herself and her first book. Even though I haven't read any of her work before now, I ca
Lee Harmon
May 11, 2011 Lee Harmon rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a new sequel to Karen’s first book, Through the Narrow Gate, after the first sequel, Beginning the World, flopped. Because, she says, she was “not truthful.”

Perhaps Karen overcompensated on the “truthful” part this time around. The result is a brutally honest autobiography of a repeat failure. At one point, Karen despairs, “I was an ex-nun, a failed academic, mentally unstable, and now I could add epileptic to this dismal list. … Even God, for whom I had searched so long, is simply the p
Marjorie Thelen
Feb 25, 2013 Marjorie Thelen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
This book by Karen Armstrong, one of many she has written, is about her transition from life in a convent to the outside world. She entered the convent in 1962 as a teenager and left seven years later. She struggled tremendously to make the decision to leave a life she no longer felt relevant. She questioned the very existence of God. She writes,
“He had been so consistently absent that he might just as well not exist.” (p 61)
While in the convent she started an undergraduate degree at Cambridge
Jul 31, 2012 Longfellow rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: five-stars
The Spiral Staircase prodded my brain into thinking and stirred my dormant, meditative resources. This memoir covers Karen Armstrong’s seven-year experience as a nun and her departure from the convent, her difficulty assimilating the secular world into her life, her eventual goodbye to Catholic faith, and her discovery of a significant life pursuit.

The Spiral Staircase is a wonderful accomplishment. Armstrong’s descriptions of internal thoughts and feelings and of external events are vividly re
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British author of numerous works on comparative religion.


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“If your understanding of the divine made you kinder, more empathetic, and impelled you to express sympathy in concrete acts of loving-kindness, this was good theology. But if your notion of God made you unkind, belligerent, cruel, of self-righteous, or if it led you to kill in God's name, it was bad theology. ” 173 likes
“I discovered that I felt at home and alive in the silence, which compelled me to enter my interior world and around there. Without the distraction of constant conversation, the words on the page began to speak directly to my inner self. They were no long expressing ideas that were simply interesting intellectually, but were talking directly to my own yearning and perplexity.” 58 likes
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