Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Book Review: The Spiral Staircase


The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness
by Karen Armstrong.
New York: Anchor Books, 2004. Paperback, 306 pages.


Like a beautiful mosaic made up of broken fragments that when combined, make a complete picture, Karen Armstrong’s memoir on her life after seven years in the convent is an incredible witness to the hard and serious journey of self-revelation and meaning making. And perhaps, the importance of her witness is that she illustrates how one works with the interstices of life—the in-between spaces that are the cracks or openings to one’s life purpose—are frequently held together by the gooey grout of failure, sickness, loneliness, and misunderstanding.

The Spiral Staircase provides a moving account of a woman so engaged in the difficult struggle for a relationship with God (i.e., the fullness of life) that her body falls apart under the weight of what seem to be bad choices and bad luck. In retrospect, however, Armstrong realizes that for her the self-study of other religions allows her life to be cleansed of the ego holding her back from making her the person that she was intended to be: a writer for our time to explain the myths, beauties, and vagrancies of religion as it becomes the force for change in our world.

The language of this work betrays an outcome of Armstrong’s intense study of English literature that took her to the near completion of her ill-fated doctoral thesis. While she portrays this event as yet another failure of her life, it is easy to see how the eloquence of her language, amplified introspection, and intense interiorization of her study made her both the compelling and fascinating writer and speaker that she is today. Her allusions to various writers, Tennyson and T.S. Eliot in particular, also illustrate how literature can powerfully penetrate the reader’s soul once analytical academic rigor is set aside and the reader truly empathizes with the writer. A tremendous lesson here is documented for teachers and writers alike.

Finally, Armstrong inspires others, through example, her willingness to take on the woman’s journey to fulfillment and purpose in life. Unlike the man’s journey, which involves a hero’s strength and courage to overcome the tests of many outward forces, Spiral Staircase shows how woman calls on the strength and courage of her character to fight an interior struggle for wholeness—or in Karen’s case, for holiness.

This book is a must-read for people who aspire to or are attracted to the spiritual life for it portrays the illusions and traps of that path. It also provides women, young women in particular, with a view of the journey toward fulfillment and truth that must not be missed.

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