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Karen Armstrong took years to undo the conditioning of those years in the convent and even then probably will never be able to do so completely. An intellectual but not really suited to academia, she eventually finds her place studying the great religious and spiritual practices looking for common threads, she's less interested in differences than in commonalities. As she researches and learns how to use empathy and compassion to inhabit the minds of those she seeks to understands, she comes closer to a spiritual experience than anything she experienced as a Christian. She has let go of God as objective fact and of belief as being a necessity, discovering instead 'practice' and compassion to be the one significant practice of all the faiths that succeeds in managing the ego sufficiently to create peace and harmony.

I enjoyed her honest, though often self deprecating account of this period in her life and particularly loved what she experienced when she visited Jerusalem, the cross cultural encounters and being told to drop the small talk and niceties: "Karen! You are not in England now. There is no need to be a polite English lady here in Israel.

We are not formal people. There is no point to speak if there is nothing to say. If you think I am unreasonable, tell me to get lost, to shut up- whatever you like!

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His response is excellent, he is proud of her! The other amusing experience in reading my copy of this book, was the presence of the previous reader in the margins, who not happy to have merely marked up the pages, but had to share her thoughts more vociferously and she clearly wasn't nearly as impressed as I was with the work and seemed to want to have a bit of a rant and share her own experiences, which were mostly entertaining but sometimes annoying, especially her conclusion! Here are some of her comments, since no one else is going to have this same reading experience, I have a unique copy!

What was the point of feeding my body, when my mind and heart had been irreparably broken?

Review of Spiral Staircase

The first book I read that helped me realize that I was not alone in my experience of post-seminary difficulty. Armstrong's account of leaving the convent was so powerfully analogous to my own experiences that I nearly wept as I read something I only do on very rare occasions , both with remembered pain and grief and with joy that there was nothing peculiarly wrong with me or my experience as a refugee from a life of professional holiness. View 1 comment. Jul 19, Jana rated it it was amazing Shelves: memoir , spirituality. The timing of my read of this memoir about a nun who left the church to pursue graduate work at Oxford only to leave academia and make her way "Theology is — or should be — a species of poetry, which read quickly or encountered in a hubbub of noise makes no sense.

The timing of my read of this memoir about a nun who left the church to pursue graduate work at Oxford only to leave academia and make her way as an agnostic writing about religion between these two trips was significant in molding my opinion of the book as were the circumstances and motivations that got it into my hands in the first place. During the visit with our aunt and uncle, Frank and I shared that we'd joined a radically inclusive and diverse inner-city Episcopal Church, and what a remarkable experience it had been for us. The aunt and uncle who'd always been so unwaveringly supportive of us through our educational and artistic success and struggles In fact, they were quite appalled that we had joined what they considered a "blood cult" and that we had done something that seemed "so out of character for both of you.

Neither aunt nor uncle were much for religion, especially Christianity. And then our aunt told me I should read one of Karen Armstrong's books because it recorded how she had gone through a similar religious phase, even to the point of becoming a nun at 17, but eventually "cured" herself of the debilitating religious condition. Though somehow I'd missed even knowing who Armstrong was, I was excited to be exposed to her books Christian or Buddhist or whatever variety I really wanted to get even a tiny glimpse into how different monastic communities lived.

I had so many mundane and practical questions, not to mention the scholarly and spiritual ones. Anyway, the aunt had a copy of the book, so I dove right into reading it while we were still on our visit. I've been there and felt that baffled confusion as I tried to make sense of other people's religious belief. But eventually not unlike Karen Armstrong though her life experiences were superficially different than my own, what we'd experienced on a structural level was remarkably similar , I too had come to realize that faith is not about belief, but about practice.

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Spiritual practice is something else quite entirely, and while some practices are solitary and others have the support of a religious community, practice is essentially about ritual, repetition, movements of the body, states of the mind and compassionate action. As Armstrong says, "Religion is not about accepting twenty impossible propositions before breakfast, but about doing things that change you.

It is a moral aesthetic, an ethical alchemy. If you behave in a certain way, you will be transformed.

The Spiral Staircase: My Climb out of Darkness by Karen Armstrong - The Book Brothel

The myths and laws of religion are not true because they conform to some metaphysical, scientific, or historical reality but because they are life enhancing. I particularly enjoyed reading about her stay with an academic couple from Oxford while caring for the couple's autistic son. The glimpses into the functioning of that household and the life of this child were quite strange and beautiful. And though Armstrong didn't answer most of my curiosity about monastic life, she did afford glimpses into other ways of living and, surprisingly, mirror my own evolving spirituality. And at this point, I would have to disagree with our aunt who said Armstrong was somehow "cured" from religion.

Seemed to me that Armstrong only became more conscious and thoughtful about religious practice.

Jan 17, Wendelle So rated it it was amazing Shelves: great. From leaving the familiar environment of the nunnery, unfairly 'failing' her graduate dissertation, discovering her epileptic condition, spending years of her working life in a high school teaching job that failed to challenge or interest her, and crying nightly over her jobless and purposeless state-- Karen Armstrong courageously relates the trials that had seemed to wholly compose her life. I am thankful for it.

Although I am not sure how to react to her almost uncritical paean to Mohammedanis From leaving the familiar environment of the nunnery, unfairly 'failing' her graduate dissertation, discovering her epileptic condition, spending years of her working life in a high school teaching job that failed to challenge or interest her, and crying nightly over her jobless and purposeless state-- Karen Armstrong courageously relates the trials that had seemed to wholly compose her life. Although I am not sure how to react to her almost uncritical paean to Mohammedanism when the religion poses a lot of the same problems that previously drove her away from Christianity, I am grateful for her message at the end of the book-- a passionate call to compassion and empathy as our only attitude in dealing with every person, no matter how different or difficult.

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I have thought about it a lot and I hope only that this is indeed what I will come to do Nov 24, Lynne King rated it it was amazing Shelves: religion , books-to-read , memoirs. This book is excellent and a joy to read. Extremely uplifting too. I may try and write a review on it. Nov 07, K rated it really liked it Shelves: memoirs , spiritualityreligion. Although this was more of a three in some ways, I'm giving it a four because of the way it spoke to me. Aside from offering an intriguing description of a nun's life in the '60s Armstrong lets us know on several occasions that it's probably much different now with the changes of Vatican II , I found that I related to it personally as a religious person a Although this was more of a three in some ways, I'm giving it a four because of the way it spoke to me.

Aside from offering an intriguing description of a nun's life in the '60s Armstrong lets us know on several occasions that it's probably much different now with the changes of Vatican II , I found that I related to it personally as a religious person and graduate of religious institutions. Certainly my experiences were not nearly as oppressive as some of the stories Armstrong tells; at the same time, I definitely connected with a lot of it. In The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness , Armstrong continues her story and recounts her slow adjustment to secular life after the convent, an adjustment which was severely hampered by unanticipated setbacks like undiagnosed physical illness and career disappointments.

Initially I found myself fascinated by Armstrong's descriptions of needing to relearn how to think for herself after years of teaching herself to submit to others and how to feel compassion after years of being criticized for her undue "sensitivity. Perhaps I was ultimately less interested in the details of Armstrong's life once it was no longer convent-based and bore a stronger resemblance to my day-to-day routines; I don't know. I also felt like the story gradually degenerated into "and then I wrote this book So I guess it really was more of a three, but I'm still giving it a four because it did speak to me on many levels and I think Karen's post-convent adjustment is as worthy a topic as her life in the convent.

View all 7 comments. Oct 19, Paul rated it it was amazing. Every once in a while, I get around to reading a book that surprises me because the author has put into words things that I have felt the urge to say, but not had the words for, nor had ever seen in print.


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If a soul could be said to have emotional strings, then Karen's book resonated with those frequencies in mine, and this made the book a breeze to read. It had sat on my shelf for several years befo Every once in a while, I get around to reading a book that surprises me because the author has put into words things that I have felt the urge to say, but not had the words for, nor had ever seen in print. It had sat on my shelf for several years before that. I had feared an intellectual treatise on religion and someone's struggles with obscure doctrines that I ought to know something about or might be curious about in a tangential way.

What I got instead, from the very first chapter, and continuing almost without interruption to the conclusion, was a very personal account of the inner workings of a mind and a heart that struggled passionately through great confusion and frustration to deal with such mundane problems as eating enough, finding a job to support herself financially, and alongside that, defining a personal spirituality and discovering a mission in life.

She concludes by sharing her experience of awakening to meaning in religious stories and rituals, an experience whose potential had been nearly beaten out of her by the harshness and inattention of those whom she turned to for answers, guidance, and help, though ultimately her understanding transcended any one particular religion and become a faith in the practice of compassion itself.

She recounts with a depth of understanding seldom shared publicly, how each door was closed to her in life, despite her hard work and persistent efforts to do the right thing by conventional standards and describes how she strangely met a much bigger success by defying convention and dedicating herself to an unpopular project that she knew was right for her to complete.

And how the success in itself was not as important as getting a message out that she feared was not being heard. Having experienced not being heard many times by what seemed to be responsible people, Karen, a true "wounded healer," can hear what is going on in our world and our inner lives and offers a uniquely human perspective, which is flawed at times and deeply perceptive and deeply healing at others, like humans are in real life.

One reviewer wrote how people familiar with therapeutic frameworks might think it were pretty standard stuff to read of Karen's discovery that "her frugality was a subconscious manifestation of her belief that she didn't have a future, that she was not going to be able to earn her own living. Karen Armstrong's memoir encourages us all to find our personal path in life, the one that might lead to a mission that influences people on a global scale, or just make us a better person in our own lives.


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Jun 23, Debbie "DJ" rated it it was amazing Shelves: non-fiction , favorites , memoir. Received through Goodreads First Reads. Karen Armstrong is nothing less than a master of the written word. While this is a memoir of her life, it is also a powerful look into religious theology and personal transformation. I had previously read her outstanding book "A History of God", and was captivated by this read describing how she came to write such a book.

The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness

Starting out as a catholic nun who later leaves the church and religious life behind, only to come full circle to a place of s Received through Goodreads First Reads. Starting out as a catholic nun who later leaves the church and religious life behind, only to come full circle to a place of spiritual transformation which she describes as "The spirituality of empathy". She describes her feeling of being forever on the outside as an important part of her journey.


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After reading this book, I no longer look at failure in the same light. For it is only through her failures that life taught her exactly what was needed to reach a higher level of growth. I also learned that trying to find God through my rational thought is useless, as God transcends any kind of rational analysis. She takes us to the core of all religious beliefs for which there are no words, which go beyond words, and believes the litmus test for all religion, theology, etc. I believe this is an essential read for people of all faiths, for as she clearly states "what our world needs now is not belief, not certainty, but compassionate action and practically expressed respect for the sacred value of all human beings, even our enemies.

Shelves: book-group-picks , spirituality , memoir , read-in I enjoyed this book more and more the deeper I got into it. Karen Armstrong is such an appealingly intelligent and slightly odd person.