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 relayed. The book’s structure is a delight: each chapter title alludes to a phrase from T.S. Eliot’s poem Ash Wednesday, and in sharing the content of her life, Armstrong illustrates and clarifies some of the implicit meanings of Eliot’s poem.
I doubt all audiences will receive this memoir as I have, but anyone who vacillates between wanting a conventional career path and a path less predictable will ponder—once again—how this all works and may even wonder how one figures these things out. For Armstrong, it seems, ambivalence and serendipity have been partners in directing her journey. And anyone who has questioned or is questioning faith will find plenty of ideas on which to reflect. Her writing on this topic is compelling because she avoids the dogmatic forcefulness so typical of both those with and those without faith. She has given up the certainty that at times can look so ugly on either side, immersing herself instead in the physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual experience that is the reality of being alive. Her motive is not to convince but to share, as the subtitle “My Climb Out of Darkness” would suggest.
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive toward such things
. . .
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?
. . .
Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are . . .
-T.S. Eliot, Ash-Wednesday, I