Karen Armstrong's path to light
After falling away, she fell in love with religion again
As tensions have flared among Christians, Muslims, and Jews in recent years, Karen Armstrong has become familiar to many in the three faiths as a voice of clarity and uncommon understanding. The author of a string of bestselling books on religion, she has also received an award from American Muslims. She teaches Christianity at a Jewish college for rabbis in London and is pursued on both sides of the Atlantic as a conference speaker and media maven.
Her latest book, "The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness," is a powerful memoir that reveals how unlikely and hard-won that pursuit has been. A former nun who left an English convent in disillusionment without discovering God, she experienced years of isolation, failure, and disorienting illness, feeling separated from the rest of humanity as if "behind a sheet of glass."
A tale of daunting struggle, this sequel to a 1981 memoir of her convent experience, is buoyed by keen intelligence and unflinching self-awareness and honesty. A graduate in literature of Oxford University, Armstrong is an engaging, energetic writer. The title metaphor of the spiral staircase as spiritual progress that seems to go in circles while, in fact, moving upward into the light comes from T.S. Eliot's poem, "Ash Wednesday." This poem became a touchstone amid her search for meaning in the face of continuing reversals.
Armstrong left the convent in 1969 to attend Oxford, in despair over her failure to find God amid the strictures and emotional frigidity of cloistered life. "My brain had been bound as tightly as the feet of a Chinese woman," she writes.
Exhilarated by the challenge of academic life, she was also intimidated by a new world of protest and sexual liberation - she hadn't heard of the Beatles or the Vietnam War. Her dreams of a life in academia were dashed when her doctoral thesis was rejected, and even a stint teaching at a girls' school ended due to health problems. Fainting spells began to include hallucinatory moments that made her question her mental health, and led to her seeking psychiatric help for several years, unsuccessfully.
But this is above all a portrait of resilience and an unswerving search for individual purpose. After a diagnosis of epilepsy finally resolved the issue of her mental health, her first memoir was a success and led her into the world of TV documentaries, where she "became the chief weapon in [the] antireligion arsenal" of a local channel. While Armstrong found debunking religion cathartic, writing her memoir reawakened her yearning for the transcendent.
A six-part TV project on St. Paul that took her to Jerusalem, though iconoclastic, was transforming. There she encountered Judaism and Islam - faiths not structured around a set of doctrinal beliefs but on daily practices designed to bring one into the presence of God. And she saw firsthand the hostilities of the region.
Research for a TV series and book on the Crusades brought sobering awareness of Western misperceptions. "The Crusades had been the first cooperative act of the new Europe as she began to recover from the Dark Ages ... [and] helped to weld Europeans together, but at a terrible cost," she writes. "The Crusaders had slaughtered thousands of Jews and Muslims with the cry 'God wills it!' on their lips."
That study taught her that "stridently parochial certainty could be lethal," she says. And it made her "determined always to try to listen to the other side and at least understand where the enemy was coming from." In a defining moment, she decided to write "A History of God," which would explore what the three monotheistic faiths held in common.
When the Salman Rushdie affair incited a British backlash against the Muslim faith in 1989, Armstrong began writing what would become the first biography of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, written for a Western audience.
That attempt to penetrate another culture and experience finally brought her, she says, the long-sought sense of transcendence. "What I now realize, from my study of the different religious traditions, is that a disciplined attempt to go beyond the ego brings about a state of ecstasy."
She found herself "falling in love again with religion," not with a particular set of beliefs but with what she has called "a freelance monotheism," rooted in the recognition that "the one and only test of a valid religious idea ... was that it must lead directly to practical compassion.
"If your understanding of the divine made you kinder ... and impelled you to express this sympathy in concrete acts of loving-kindness, this was good theology," she writes. "But if your notion of God made you unkind, belligerent, cruel, or self-righteous, or if it led you to kill in God's name, it was bad theology."
Armstrong has found, in a life of fruitful solitude, writing, and public speaking, her fulfilling place and purpose. But, she says, "I tremble for our world, where, in the smallest ways, we find it impossible ... to find room for 'the other' in our minds."
• Jane Lampman writes about religion and ethics for the Monitor.