Brief Book Review: “The Spiral Staircase” by Karen Armstrong

What a wonderfully well-written and stimulating read! “The Spiral Staircase” charts Karen Armstrong’s slow process of emerging from an alienating experience of nun-hood, with her human ability to relate damaged, and without a sense of connection with God as depicted by conventional Christianity.

Spiral Staircase
Spiral Staircase

This is a brave book: it is very honest, humorous, and inspiring. Armstrong also  provides a tough and unsparing critique of the structures of formal religion and conventional psychiatry. I particularly enjoyed her portrayal of an outsider, gradually finding her unique place in the secular world – in a career talking and writing about God….

We all struggle to a greater or lesser extent with the twin challenges of self-acceptance and finding our place. In concluding “The Spiral Staircase” , Karen Armstrong has this to say on those crucial topics:

“My life has kept changing, but at the same time I have found myself revolving round and round the same themes, the same issues, and even repeating the same mistakes. I tried to break away from the convent but I still live alone, spend my days in silence, and am almost wholly occupied in writing, thinking, and speaking about God and spirituality. I have come full circle. This reminds me of the staircase in (T.S.) Eliot’s Ash Wednesday, which I picture as a narrow spiral staircase. I tried to get off it and join others on what seemed to me to be a broad, noble flight of steps, thronged with people. But I kept falling off, and when I went back to my own twisting stairwell I found a fulfilment that I had not expected. Now I have to mount my staircase alone. And as I go up, step by step, I am turning, again, round and round, apparently covering little ground, but climbing upwards, I hope, towards the light.” (pp 341-2)

I derived great comfort, support and encouragement from this book – do read it!