Upon starting this book I flipped through the preface and the list of books Armstrong had already published. For some reason I assumed that list would only be a book or two long. It wasn’t. She’s published 14 books, not counting this one. Three autobiographies, and all the rest revolve around religion: religious history, religious figures, religious thought. Although since Armstrong was educated in a convent and joined one herself when she turned seventeen, it’s fair to say that her memoir revolves around religion as well.
Armstrong starts us off in the preface with background information on the British society of her childhood, and catches up new readers with the pertinent details from Through the Narrow Gate. Her discussion of the shifting mores of 1960s Britain, and 1960s Catholicism, is insightful and perceptive. She finds similarities between hippies and nuns, people whom you wouldn’t think could be more different. And she has compassion for everyone. That’s the most impressive part, considering what convent life put her through.
That part of the book is horrific. There are frequent times where the nuns’ disciplinary tactics verge on psychological abuse. Medical neglect and gaslighting were rampant. Issues that we recognize today as health problems (epilepsy, anyone?) were seen as moral failings, willfulness, or being “too sensitive”. Armstrong left the convent on the cusp of a major revamping of the nuns’ training programs, and I can only hope that these literally evil behaviors were completely eradicated. They were supposed to subdue the self and destroy the ego that separated woman and god, but based on the behaviors of the superiors all it did was turn them into spiteful, angry monsters. And yet, Armstrong doesn’t blame them. She empathizes with them all. It’s clear that her years of studying the world’s religions has paid off handsomely in the form of a considerable ability to put herself in another’s shoes. Hashing out her anger in some of her earlier books probably helped too, but it seems to me that her healing has gone far beyond burning out a store of anger. Her stories detail a search for transcendence and transformation, and by the end of The Spiral Staircase we can see how much Armstrong herself has been transformed. After leaving the convent, she defaults to a secular lifestyle but still feels out of place and empty. Her history means she eschews traditional religious practice, but she still finds herself longing for something more in her life and being fascinated by theology of all kinds. This draws her through a strange path from student of English literature, to high school teacher, guest speaker, tv series host, to author. Each change was unexpected and painful, and yet still turned out for the best. Thanks in no small part to Armstrong’s refusal to give up, and, eventually, a peaceful acceptance of the numerous things she couldn’t control. While readers of a more traditional religious bent may find portions of this book offensive, overall it offers humble, honest guide through the doctrinal quagmire many find themselves in. I don’t think I’ll be able to read Through the Narrow Gate, if the passages from Armstrong’s convent years are anything to go on, but I’m very interested in her other books on theology and important religious figures. Buddah, Muhammed, Saint Paul, the intersection of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, and a book about the Crusades. Armstrong wrote a biography of Muhammed not long after Salman Rushdie published his Satanic Verses. Not to expose an important prophet as a mere mortal, but to try to build bridges between Western society and the Islamic religion. She hoped that if people understood more about what Islam sprung from, the fighting springing up throughout the world would be replaced with empathy and compassion. At a time when many people were lashing out in fear she held out a hand in peace. Our world needs more people like Karen Armstrong.