In 1962, at age seventeen, Karen Armstrong entered a convent, eager to meet God. After seven brutally unhappy years as a nun, she left her order to pursue English literature at Oxford. But convent life had profoundly altered her, and coping with the outside world and her expiring faith proved to be excruciating. Her deep solitude and a terrifying illness–diagnosed only years later as epilepsy–marked her forever as an outsider. In her own mind she was a complete failure: as a nun, as an academic, and as a normal woman capable of intimacy. Her future seemed very much in question until she stumbled into comparative theology. What she found, in learning, thinking, and writing about other religions, was the ecstasy and transcendence she had never felt as a nun. Gripping, revelatory, and inspirational, The Spiral Staircase is an extraordinary account of an astonishing spiritual journey.
In 1962, British writer Armstrong (The Battle for God, etc.) entered a Roman Catholic convent, smitten by the desire to “find God.” She was 17 years old at the time—too young, she recognizes now, to have made such a momentous decision. Armstrong’s 1981 memoir Through the Narrow Gate described her frustrating, lonely experience of cloistered life and her decision, at 24, to renounce her vows. In its sequel, Beginning the World (1983), she tried to explain her readjustment to the secular world—and failed. “It is the worst book I have ever written,” she declares in the preface to this new volume: “it was far too soon to write about those years”; “it was not a truthful account”; “I was told to present myself in as positive and lively a light as possible.” The true story, which she relates in this second sequel, was far more conflicted and intellectually vibrant. Her departure from the convent, she writes, actually made her quite sad; she was “constantly wracked by a very great regret” and suffering on top of it with the symptoms of undiagnosed temporal lobe epilepsy. How she emerged from such darkness to make a career as a writer whose books honor spiritual concerns while maintaining intellectual freedom and rigor—this is Armstrong’s real concern, and the one that will be of most interest to the fans of her many acclaimed works.