In Karen Armstrong’s The Spiral Staircase, she tells the story of her lifelong experience with spirituality and religion, beginning with her time in a convent. This was a very interesting memoir to read, as you get a firsthand account of this persons long and complicated struggle with religion, told honestly about her experience. No matter what you believe, it seems you could easily find something to gain from this book, as she does not push religion as something one must find to be happy in life, but rather details her struggle in finding something that worked for her in finding fulfillment.
Reading about Karen’s struggle to find peace and happiness in her life, is something we could all relate to, as it is a very human story of feeling lost and confused, but can offer us hope as we see that you can find your way out of that, as she describes doing in The Spiral Staircase. Overall, the content of this book is quite interesting, as we start by learning a bit about Karen’s years in the convent. The type of religious life she experienced while in the convent, is exactly the type that many consider to be the worst type of religion.
It was dry and seemingly without much love or ompassion, as she was forced to follow many difficult rules, and labelled as a difficult girl when it seemed she was not getting much out of being a nun. But the inflictions of the convent were self imposed, as Karen was the one who decided to put herself in this situation because she thought it could bring her the type of enlightenment that could elevate someone high above others, such as the Saints of the Catholic Church.
She ultimately fails this of course, and we go into her life at Oxford, and her struggles to adapt to the secular world. These years are ery difficult for her, as she has a very difficult time adjusting to a world so different from the one in the convent. But it is not just the transition from being a nun to trying to live as a normal college student that is difficult for Karen, but also the fact that through all of this she is struggling with mysterious health issues.
The most frustrating thing to read about in this memoir, is Karen’s struggle with physical and mental health issues that nobody seems to take seriously until over halfway through the book. She is very obviously not doing well, as everyone in her life eems to decide for her, but with experiences like fainting, strange spells of terror or forgetfulness, and even engaging in dangerous activities like not eating or taking large amounts of sleeping pills, it should have been very clear to those around her that she was not in great shape.
Especially so to her psychiatrist, who refused to listen to his actual patient about what was wrong with her, ignoring her very obvious symptoms, and instead projecting his own ideas about her struggle onto her. Finally you feel the relief right alongside her as her symptoms ulminate into a seizure, and a doctor at long last provides her with a diagnosis of epilepsy: an easily identifiable condition which is totally treatable. A huge part of her journey out of darkness, was simply to find treatment for her health issues, and once she starts getting this treatment it seems to help tremendously.
This is also around the time Karen experienced her second great failure, as her thesis was failed and she found she could not work in a scholastics. She gets a nice job at a high school, but it seems that she is not happy with this as the atmosphere is too reminiscent of the convent. An interesting thing about Karen, it seems, is that she was not content to live an ordinary life, as seen when she joins a convent at such an early age, and then when she manages to find a perfectly decent job at the high school, which simply does not excite her.
Thus, it turns out to be a good thing when she is fired for her health problems, as suddenly she gets the opportunity to start writing, and to take part in TV. Once again she is thrust back into the world of religion that she had turned away, as she is immersing herself in project such as writing about her time as a un, and working on a show about Saint Paul. These new projects ignite something in her, as she finds a love and a passion in the study of religion that she was never able to find in all her years at the convent.
Even when her TV career came to an end, Karen continued her studies into the world of religion, and found the enlightenment she had dreamed of as a young girl entering a convent, in the world of theology. It took Karen a lifetime of struggle to find something that worked for her, but when she finally did it proved to be exactly the thing she needed o bring her fulfillment and give her an interesting lifestyle set apart from everyone else. The largest strength this book seems to have, is how absolutely human it is.
You are not given an academic or a fantastical look into religion, but simply the struggle of someone with it. She tells her story beautifully, as you empathize with this woman and all of the difficulties she faces as she struggles to find happiness. And the struggle for happiness and fulfillment is one we all experience in our life, as no one seems to have life figured out like they would like to. Karen ended up failing many hings in her life, but ultimately she ended up doing something she loves and forging her own path in this world.
Everyone seems to be afraid of failure, but through looking at this book you can see how important it can be in finding success. We all may fail at something at one point or another in our lives, but what this book can teach us is that we don’t have to let those failures dictate our life, as they could open us up to opportunity we never could have imagined. So overall the greatest strengths of this book lie in the valuable life lessons to be obtained in eading such an honest and human experience of life.
It would be very difficult to criticize this memoir, as you would be criticizing the life and experiences of one person. This book is a very personal and intimate story of Karen’s own experiences with life and religion, and to offer criticism of that seems a bit inappropriate. Some may criticize this book by saying that Karen speaks of religion in a negative light, which she does seem to do in much of the book. But she is not damning all religion treating is as some ridiculous institution that only fools would engage in, ut rather she is giving her own personal experiences with it.
And yes, she does have a lot of negative experience with religion, and she provides some interesting critiques of religion that stem from these negative experiences. Her critiques however, are not an angry slam at all religion, but offer an interesting and more balanced look into the very real dark sides of religion that exist and have caused harm to many people. A darker look at religion is part of her personal journey into the light, and should be taken not as an insult but as an informed and interesting aspect of one woman life.
Finally if I had to ask Karen anything it would be this: If you had to go through and do it all again would you change anything? Would you choose to once again go into the convent knowing what you know now? Would you once again put yourself through all of your failures? Karen has led a very interesting life full of failures and successes, and times of confusion. In the end though, she made it to a point in which many dream of, as a very successful author in a genre she has found great fulfillment in.
It seems all of her struggles ultimately brought her omewhere worthwhile, and it would be interesting to ask her first hand about how important she found these struggles to be in her personal journey. Overall, this was a very interesting read, as it offers a firsthand account of how religion is truly experienced and applied in someone’s life. Her climb out of darkness and long and complicated, but ultimately she was able to see the light. This story can inspire us all that no matter how many times we keep turning in our own lives, seemingly going nowhere, to turn again, for if we want to find the light, we must first struggle in the darkness.