Sunday, April 9, 2017


Karen Armstrong’s The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness is a testament to the power of literature and poetry.

This second volume of Armstrong’s spiritual autobiography takes its central conceit and title from T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday.”  Armstrong compares her climb out of darkness to hesitantly climbing a spiral staircase, moving up and dropping back.

Along the way, Armstrong quotes Coleridge, Pope, Tennyson (with whom she has a strong affinity), Wordsworth, and others. She takes the words, “We will grieve not, rather find/ Strength in what remains behind,” as her mantra.  Those words come from Wordsworth’s “Ode to Immortality.”

At one point, Armstrong writes  “...the religious quest is not about discovering ‘the truth’ or ‘the meaning of life’ but about living as intensely as possible here and now. The idea is not to latch on to some superhuman personality or to ‘get to heaven’ but to discover how to be fully human....”

Later she writes: "Here again, the religious traditions were in unanimous agreement. The one and only test of a valid religious idea, doctrinal statement, spiritual experience, or devotional practice was that it must lead directly to practical compassion."

And later yet,  "Compassion was the litmus test for the prophets of Israel, for the rabbis of the Talmud, for Jesus, for Paul, and for Muhammad, not to mention Confucius, Lao-tzu, the Buddha, or the sages of the Upanishads. In killing Muslims and Jews in the name of God, the Crusaders had simply projected their own fear and loathing onto a deity which they had created in their own image and likeness, thereby giving this hatred a seal of absolute approval. A personalized God can easily lead to this type of idolatry..."

And finally, she comes back to the role of literature in her salvation. “Indeed, studying English literature at university may have been a fruitful preparation, because increasingly I was coming to see theology, like religion itself, was really an art form. In every tradition, I was discovering, people turned to art when they tried to express or evoke a religious experience: to painting, music, architecture, dance, or poetry. They rarely attempted to define their apprehension of the divine in logical discourse or in the scientific language of hard fact. Like all art, theology is an attempt to express the inexpressible.”

So, after she left the convent, Karen Armstrong's love of literature helped her deal with her mental depression and physical illness. It brought her to a place where she could write The New York Times’ bestseller A History of God and many other books.

I came to know Karen Armstrong from her writings about Islam, some of which I read following 9-11. I wanted to know more about the Muslim faith. The jingoistic slogans I heard everywhere back then (and still hear now) seemed inane to me.  

I plan to read more. Right now, I have Armstrong’s Buddha on my reading list, and her most well-known book, A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Also, I plan to read her Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths. The City of Jerusalem and her visits to the Holy Land played a large part in Armstrong’s healing.

Karen Armstrong’s The Spiral Staircase is a moving book. If you are interested in spiritual biographies and in how one woman worked through her darkness to find light, you might want to read this book.

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