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Karen Armstrong's path to light

After falling away, she fell in love with religion again

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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.

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