Monday, April 16, 2007

The Short Book Club -- The Spiral Staircase

Karen Armstrong entered a Roman Catholic convent at the age of 17. As a 24 year old student at Oxford, in 1969, after a near breakdown, she received dispensation from her vows and reentered a changed world. Her time in the convent coincided with a period of tremendous upheaval in the Catholic Church, after the Second Vatican Council, and she was one of the last nuns to be trained under the old system. As she says, " the reforms of the Vatican Council came just too late for me. And I experienced the traditional regime at its worst." In addition, during her time in the convent, she experienced the upheaval and anguish that the older sisters suffered during this period of transition.

She continued her studies at Oxford and underwent psychiatric treatment, but as she said in 2004, in the preface to her book, The Spiral Staircase - My Climb out of Darkness:"I have never managed to integrate fully with 'the world', although I have certainly tried to do so."

This book documents her life after the convent and her struggle to find her place in society, over the twenty four years since she left. Her health was very problematic and finally she was diagnosed with epilepsy, which was the beginning of the solution to her so called "psychiatric problems", in reality her untreated epilepsy. Her struggle to earn a living took her from teaching school, to working in television on documentaries for the Religious Department of the BBC, to finally becoming an author and lecturer on religions other than Christianity, especially Islam.

Along the way, after her loss of faith in God, with her belief in herself as a scholar beaten down by her colleagues, and the failure of her doctoral thesis at Oxford due to ridiculous circumstances, she was introduced to the religions of Judaism and Islam in particular and began to look at how other religions defined the practice of faith.

She met and was profoundly influenced by Hyam Maccoby, a British orthodox Jew, librarian, scholar, dramatist, and expert in the historical Jesus. He told her the story of Rabbi Hillel, a leading Pharisee in the time of Herod, who was approached by some pagans who offered to convert, if he could recite the whole of Jewish teaching, while standing on one leg. He obliged, saying, "Do not do unto others as you would not have done unto you. That is the Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn it."

Hyam also told her that in Judaism, belief was not important, theology was not important. He said, "We have orthopraxy instead of orthodoxy." In other words "right practice" rather than "right belief". It doesn't matter what you believe, just do it. This was a turning point for Karen as she continued on her own path to make sense of her life and she began to study other religions and to write about them.

In actual fact, she became the inquiring scholar that she, and others, did not believe she was capable of being. The list of books she has written -- about the Crusades; on St Paul; a History of God comparing Judaism, Christianity and Islam; on Muhammad; Jerusalem; Islam; Buddha -- is extremely impressive, with some being widely read. She leads a solitary lifestyle in pursuing her scholarship, and still considers herself an outsider. Living alone, she spends most of her days in silence, wholly occupied in writing, thinking and speaking about God and spirituality. She believes that she has come full circle, that she has been negotiating a narrow spiral staircase, a reference to TS Eliot's poem, Ash Wednesday. She says she has found a fulfillment that she had not expected. In the last sentence of her book, she declares: "As I go up, step by step, I am turning again, round and round, apparently covering little ground, but climbing upward, I hope, toward the light."

I found this book to be a very satisfying read and I could imagine rereading it without any difficulty. There are many ideas to reflect on and Karen is a very fine writer. It was painful to read about her struggle to fit into a society for which she did not seem to be well suited. However, there were some compelling stories about her personal life in the book, especially the period when she lived with an eccentric family and helped take care of the young mentally handicapped eight year old boy, in return for free board. Her travels in Israel were also extremely interesting. To my mind, The Spiral Staircase is an extraordinarily moving book about one woman's search for meaning and which I can highly recommend.

This book was chosen for the meeting of the Short Book Club, which takes place this evening. At first I intended to include a summary of the discussion in this post but it has become too long. So, if you are still with me, and, if you are interested, check back for my update on the discussion at the meeting, where I will take notes. You will also discover what book we will read for the next meeting.


ipanema said...

Oh, very delicate theme. Thanks for this review. I think I'll buy this book. Sounds like an interesting read.

It's sad if our experiences lead us to question God or even our faith.

james higham said...

Fascinating and well-written review on an issue for which there are no words of advice, nothing really to add.

jmb said...

Hi ipanema
It's a religious book but an extremely interesting one beyond that.
I think everyone goes through a questioning phase at some time in their lives.

jmb said...

Hi James,

I am looking forward to the discussion on this book since the group is rather non religious on the whole.
We shall see.

Janice Thomson said...

What a good certainly has made me want to check out the bookstores for that one. I look forward to your notes on it as well.

jmb said...

Hi Janice,

I liked the book quite a lot, but do read my post on the discussion.