The Spiral Staircase: My climb out of darkness

Updated: May 25, 2010, 12:27 PM IST

Devika Chhibber

‘The Spiral Staircase: My climb out of darkness’ by Karen Armstrong is a powerful memoir that encapsulates the turbulent years in the life of the author after she gives up her monastic life as a Roman Catholic nun (1969).

In the memoir, she presents her unrelenting quest for God. The book is the sequel to her first book ‘Through the Narrow Gates’ in which she had described her life as a nun.

Karen Armstrong’s book presents her pursuit for enlightenment, contentment and happiness. She has authored several books including ‘A History of God’, ‘A History of Jerusalem’, ‘The Battle for God ’, ‘Islam ’, ‘Buddha and Visions of God’, but none of them is as compelling as this one.

The book is an enlightening description of ups and downs in Armstrong’s life. While researching for a television documentary on St Paul, Armstrong’s life changed. She became curious about Judaism as well as Islam. And when she wrote ‘Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet’, she could not help comparing him with St Paul and began to respect his struggle. She wrote, "Religion is born out of desperation, horror, and vulnerability as well as from moments of sublime thought."

For the author, who had always been an introvert, it was difficult to leave the convent and readjust to life outside. However, her decisions to embark on a spiritual mission on her own changed her life completely.

It is said that religion sets you free, but this was not necessarily true in Armstrong’s case. Her life wrapped in religion only weighed her down when she walked out of hallowed corridors. She became both miserable and wretched as the world outside appeared strange to her. Her habits developed through long years of association with convent created problems for her. People eyed her warily as if she needed some psychological treatment. But some of her friends helped her out in moments of discomforts and perplexities. She was even tormented by panic attacks and inexplicable seizures, which made her life worse. Her attempts to find satisfaction and happiness always met with failures.

It was only later that she discovered her physical and mental ailments stemmed out from epilepsy. But the biggest shock came when the examiner at Oxford rejected her doctoral thesis and she was forced to take up a teaching job at a private girl`s school in London, which although satisfactory was yet not up to her desired level of satisfaction.

The book finishes with Armstrong ending up in a kind of monastic, solitary existence, alone with the divine. Life comes ‘full circle’ for the author and the last chapter of the memoir is simply enthralling!

The book made me think. We may try to search God in religious institutions, in preaching, in readings, in so many ‘gurus’ but the right path to find him is through ‘work’. We have been born to know our true self and help the needy, but most of the time we keep brooding over our woes instead of sparing a thought for others, who are in worse conditions.

Armstrong’s writing is eloquent and smooth. The choice of words is appropriate and simple, which makes the reader concentrate on the profound ideas. The memoir is a must-read for those on a spiritual quest.

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