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Review of Spiral Staircase

I found myself completely engrossed in Karen Armstrong's spiritual autobiography,The Spiral Staircase: My Climb out of Darkness. She begins her story when she entered a convent at age 17. She was drawn to give her life to God against the wishes of her parents because she desired that union with God in prayer she had read about. She found anything but that.

It was a time of misery for her. She was too emotional and kept having seizures. These seizures were later diagnosed as epilepsy but the superiors severely chastised her for what they called "childish, emotional fits." Finally after seven years she left, crushed that God seemed so utterly remote. (She did experience moments of deep connection during the singing of chants, but she never for a moment thought that was God. She erroneously thought that because music was human, it could not be from God.)

She had poured her life and all her energy into obeying the order and her vows. One day the needle on her sewing machine broke. Because she dared speak to her superior about this during their silent hours, she was ordered to "sew with a needle-less machine until told to stop." It was weeks later that the same superior asked her in shock why she was sewing without a needle and Karen told her what she had obviously forgotten. "Go get the needle then," the nun said, chagrined. The many hours of sewing without a needle became an emblem of blind, pointless obedience that wasn't at all pointing her to God.

It took her years to regain her emotional footing, and even more years to even begin to understand that God was closer to her than she thought. As I read her story I kept thinking that it was utterly amazing that God found her at all. Her "climb out of darkness" was indeed miraculous, a testament to grace. I also saw how all those difficulties shaped her. As completely messed up as her life was by her epilepsy, by the ways that her years as a nun had warped her self-expression and ability to think for herself God found her. He first found her in a poem by T.S. Eliot called "Ash Wednesday", which is where the title of the book comes. Ironically, Eliot in this poem is giving up religion, and it was through giving up religion that she began to be found by God.

I kept thinking as I read that even though being "raised Mennonite" wasn't as extreme as living in Armstrong's convent, there are parallels. In a way, I was raised to obey church and family rules and to even obey a loveless God. Judgment would come down if we dared ask questions about it. When Armstrong was in university, she realized she could expertly emulate other people's thoughts, but she herself had no original ideas. I often see this in myself (the no original thoughts part). I remember years ago my friend Cal telling me, "You don't know what you really want." Often in reading what my son Joel has written, I am struck by how much more open he is because he hasn't had the years of constraining thoughts like I feel I did. Writing and reading is often a way for me to recover my deeper self, the one that isn't the "people- or God-pleaser", and I'm very grateful for that.

Another aspect of the book I really enjoyed was that it was like a short summary of our course on Jesus. There is so much excellent thought in it, as well as a glimpse into the religion of Islam. She calls Christianity, Islam and Judaism three branches on the same tree. This book made me want to read her book called A History of God. I don't know if I actually will, but her clear writing is easier to read than I thought.

Another excellent benefit of the book was the interpretation she gives on the T.S. Eliot poem. A portion of it is in her introduction, and when I first read it I barely understood it and just skimmed it. But in the context of her story, she explains what the poem meant to her and it was like learning a deeper language in that short poem. I really enjoyed having that opened up to me.

Her bio was the second spiritual autobiography that I read this summer, the first being C.S. Lewis' Surprised by Joy. That one was equally as enjoyable. It is fantastic that God finds these people with great minds and draws them to himself and they then contribute to the world with a transcendent perspective. We are all richer for it.

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