From sunny San Antonio
Off to SXSW!

Up the spiral

One of the good books I've read during these days in San Antonio is The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness, Karen Armstrong's memoir about moving into, and then out of, and then in a different sense back into religious life.

Karen Armstrong was a Catholic nun for five years, beginning in 1962 when she was seventeen. The Spiral Staircase begins with the profound culture shock of leaving the regimented religious life, and entering into the wild tumult of the 1960s. Armstrong weaves together the details of her academic and professional life with their underlying emotional and spiritual narrative of struggle, trauma, and reintegration. And then, in the latter third of the book, we follow her into a new life of writing about the three major monotheistic religious traditions, and a new understanding of what transcendence, practice, and faith might mean.

The T.S. Eliot poem Ash Wednesday serves as an organizing principle for the book. The first section appears after the preface; each chapter is titled with a phrase from the poem, and as the book unfolds, the poem's significance to Armstrong becomes increasingly clear. This is a gorgeous poem which I hadn't read closely in years. It's really worth re-reading. (Go read it now, if you want; I'll wait.)

Armstrong writes honestly, openly, and with great sorrow about her religious life and how it went wrong. I felt a real pang when I read,

One of the most painful failures of my convent life had been my inability to pray. Our whole existence had God as its pivotal point. The silence of our days had been designed to enable us to listen to him. But he had never spoken to me.

Her descriptions of cloistered life -- and also of the process of returning to the secular world, feeling that she had failed to open herself adequately to God, and understanding herself to be irretrievably broken -- are stark and powerful. And yet she also manages, all these years later, to muster compassion for the women at whose hands she suffered. "The nuns, I knew, were good women," she writes, "and it must be almost unbearably painful for them to realize that they had damaged us. It is always difficult to forgive people we had harmed."

The parts of the book which deal with Armstrong's years in the convent, and the parts which focus on her illness and eventual recovery, are well-written. They're not what most often spoke to me, so they're not where this review will focus. (A different reader would, no doubt, be struck or moved by different passages throughout.)

But if cloistered life is a subject you're interested in, you'll find much of it in these pages. Allow me also to recommend Mark Salzman's excellent novel Lying Awake, about a nun diagnosed with epilepsy who questions whether treatment will remove her visions and her sense of God -- and Ron Hansen's novel Mariette in Ecstasy, which offers a graceful and lyrical depiction of the emotional and spiritual challenges posed by a young woman's novitiate. And hey, while I'm at it, Kathleen Norris' The Cloister Walk is a beautiful (nonfiction) meditation on how she, as a laywoman, became a part of monastic life, and how that experience changed her.

In one of my favorite parts of the book, Armstrong describes her first real encounter with Judaism -- a lunch date with a man named Hyam Maccoby. She shares his encapsulation of Hillel's famous quip about Torah study, and then brings us into this conversation about theology:

"No official theology?" I repeated stupidly. "None at all? How can you be religious without a set of ideas -- about God, salvation, and so on -- as a basis?"

"We have orthopraxy instead of orthodoxy," Hyam replied calmly, wiping his mouth and brushing a few crumbs off the table. "'Right practice' rather than 'right belief.' That's all. You Christians make such a fuss about theology, but it's not important in the way you think. It's just poetry, really, ways of talking about the inexpressible."

Until this point, I'd been following Armstrong's adventures with a sense of "yes, but...!" Obviously what she's writing is true to her own experiences with religion, some of which are little short of dreadful, but I kept wanting to point out that it is entirely possible to be deeply religious in altogether other ways. I found the book more comfortable once Armstrong had visibly made that realization.

By the same token, I applauded when Armstrong came to recognize -- after spending some time in Israel working on a documentary about Paul -- that:

Judaism was not the superseded faith of my blinkered meditations. It had a life and dynamism of its own, and was as multifarious as Christianity...This truly was a religion of doing rather than believing, and the discipline of living according to the Law was, I could see, very similar to our observance of the Rule in the convent. Or rather, in both cases, the ideal was the same...No activity, no matter how mundane, was without religious potential. Each was what Christians called a sacrament: it was an opportunity to encounter the divine, moment by moment.

She sees in a flash that the "scribes and Pharisees" who had questioned Jesus in the Temple weren't simply trying to trap him in argumentation -- "[t]hey were like these modern Jews in the yeshivas. Their argumentation was a form of worship."

In Judaism, she writes, the process of study is as important as the content of the study, and is itself transformative. "[T]he heated arguments, the intensive interaction with a teacher, the question-and-answer methodology all propelled students into a heightened awareness of the divine presence." It's always nice to see my own tradition wisely-represented in a religious book written by someone from outside my community, so this section of the book pleased me a great deal.

Toward the end of the book, as Armstrong begins to assimilate her life's experiences into a kind of synthesis, she writes about places where different traditions intersect, and especially about the importance of compassion:

You must first live in a certain way, and then you would encounter within a sacred presence that which monotheists call God, but which others have called the Tao, Brahman, or Nirvana...[and] 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.

Theory isn't sufficient; it must also be married with practice. She describes the habit of the late Canadian scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith, who when teaching Islamic studies at McGill University required his students to pray five times a day, prostrating themselves in the direction of Mecca, to observe the fasts, and to give alms.

"Why? Because, Cantwell Smith believed, you could not understand the truth of a religion by simply reading about its beliefs. The tradition became alive only when you lived it and observed those rituals that were designed to open a window on transcendence." I think of Reb Zalman's insistence that in order to understand the unique beauty of another religion's teachings, one must find a way to stand in the other believer's shoes -- to see the stained glass of the church windows from inside, as it were -- and I smile.

So where is Armstrong on her religious journey -- where has the spiral staircase taken her? She does not consider herself an adherent of a religious faith, or a member of a religious community; she does not believe in God as the term is traditionally understood; she has rejected the tradition of her young adulthood and chosen a secular path. Then again, she writes:

Insofar as I spend my life immersed in sacred writings, living with some of the best and wisest insights that human beings have achieved, constantly moved and stirred by them, I am indeed in constant contact with holiness...

[T]he very absence I felt so acutely was paradoxically a presence in my life. When you miss somebody very intensely, they are, in a sense, with you all the time. They often fill your mind and heart more than when they are physically present.

In this sense, though God is absent from her life, that absence is a presence which shapes her days. And in the years since September of 2001, she has worked toward trying to share her understanding of fundamentalism and of Islam -- and calls that, in this book, her ministry. Is Armstrong religious? The question may be facile. She lives in a way that places compassion at the center of things; maybe that's what matters most. One way or another, this is a memoir both "religious" and "secular" folks might enjoy.

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