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Check It Out

Courier Article by David Locker
Sunday, April 11, 2004

Former Nun's Spiritual Journey Has Signposts for All

Recently I heard an interview with author Karen Armstrong on NPR's "Fresh Air." She is one of the world's foremost experts on comparative religion.

She was saying how during her seven years as a nun and seven years after leaving the convent, she had suffered from epileptic attacks that were incorrectly diagnosed as nervous hysteria. Finally getting the right diagnosis and medication had been a liberating experience for her.I was intrigued and immediately checked out her new book, The Spiral Staircase, from the library.

The Spiral Staircase: My Climb out of Darkness by Karen Armstrong (Knopf, 2004).

This is one of the best books that I have read in a long time. Armstrong's sequel to her first autobiographical book about her years as an enclosed nun is not only clearly and beautifully written, it is also important.

Armstrong did not escape from the convent unscathed. She was broken and damaged by the experience. Somehow she managed to excel academically at Oxford while suffering from anorexia and undiagnosed epilepsy. Just as she had submitted to the authority of her superiors in the convent, she put her life in the hands of psychiatrists who did nothing to help her.

One of the few bright spots during these years was her duty as a caretaker to an autistic boy and her interaction with his family. She lived in his house with his parents, who were both Oxford professors. Not only did she absorb affection from this household, she also picked up their disdainful attitude toward religion. They thought religious people were bonkers. But that did not stop them from allowing their autistic son to be baptized. They could see that religion worked for him.

After leaving Oxford, Armstrong taught high school English for six years and then discovered she had a gift for narrating television documentaries. Because she was an ex-nun, she found herself working on religious programming. Her work in religious media and later publishing reawakened her thirst for the intense spiritual experiences of her youth, and it became part of her search for God.

Through the Narrow Gate: A Memoir of Spiritual Discovery by Karen Armstrong (St. Martin's, 1981).

In her first book, the only spiritual discovery Armstrong made was that God did not seem to care about her at all. Yet the author does not allow bitterness to invade her book. She allows us to experience the joys and intensity of convent life alongside her. She did not want to stop being a nun but was forced to by her health. Being a nun was bad for her.

Armstrong had entered the convent just before the reforms of Vatican II, and her superiors were slow to adopt the new ways. Her superiors come across as sadistic and cold, which was the whole problem with the convent. No one was allowed any personal feelings.

A History of God by Karen Armstrong (Knopf, 1993).

Armstrong has written many books on religion, but this one is probably the best. She began the book as an atheist and ended it a mystic.

The big insight of the book is that faith is not a set of intellectual beliefs but is a set of practices that work. Faith enhances one's life and changes you into a compassionate person. Only with faith can one become fully human. To undertake the spiritual journey, one must take his own path, acknowledge his own pain, and feel compassionate for the pain of others.

For Armstrong, Muhammad, Jesus and the prophets are icons of fulfilled being. God is the mysterious and awesome source of reality, beyond the comprehension of the human mind. She demonstrates that all three monotheistic religions have startling similarities. Armstrong's gift is assimilating and presenting vast amounts of information in a readable and interesting fashion.

Armstrong continues to live alone with her books and writing. She has come to realize that she will always be a nun after all.

David Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.