The Spiral Staircase: Spiritual Memoir the Second and Third Time Around

Karen Armstrong’s life story illustrates the hero’s journey described in my previous post.  Her memoir’s title follows the traditional pattern of separation and hints at the initiation and return that happens within the pages of the book: The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness. Armstong builds her book on the scaffolding provided by T. S. Eliot’s poem “Ash Wednesday.”

With an archetypal pattern embedded in both her life and in the poem, Armstrong launches the story of her double voyage–leaving home to go to the convent and leaving the convent to enter the world.  What makes her story fascinating, and inspiring, is that she speaks frankly of the two failures that launched her into her true vocation. She wanted to be a nun and had to leave the convent in order to save her life.  She wanted to be a professor and was denied access to that profession by her examination committee.

The failure to become a nun occupies the first three chapters of the book and evidently retraces some of the story Armstrong has already told in two previous memoirs:  Through the Narrow Gate and Beginning the World.  Armstrong’s first two books were memoirs written in comparative youth.  The latter book is no longer in print, a fact which gladdens the heart of the author because she now considers that story to have been told prematurely.  In fact, The Spiral Staircase is a deliberate rewriting of that second book, a way to retell the story of her newly secular life.

Her failure to become an academic seems quixotically sad, equal in many ways to the tragi-comedy of her seven years in a convent.  Though she excelled in her work in English literature at Oxford, Armstrong had the misfortune of having a hostile examiner with enough political power in the university to fail her on her doctoral exams, even after she had completed a dissertation on Tennyson.

Very few people with two career failures, a suicide attempt and several visits to a mental hospital go on to find a vocation which has a place for all those experiences built right into it.  But that is exactly what Karen Armstrong did.

Before she could become the bestselling author, media maven, and public speaker she is today, she needed two things:  to hit bottom spiritually and academically and to have her first gran mal epileptic seizure in the Baker Street Tube Station.  The failure to pass her Oxford doctoral exam led her to a new love of reading for its own sake and new depth of perception in what she read.  The seizure, at the age of 31, finally led her to a neurologist, the kind of doctor she had needed all along.

Once she lost her fear of losing her mind, she gained not only her mind but also her heart and spirit.  Eventually, she became a student of religion instead of a devotee.  She found God in the Many as well as in the One.  She fulfilled her vocation by helping herself and others probe the mysteries of the spiritual life within the religious traditions of the world.

Armstrong’s story has all the drama of a fairy tale–terrors, villains, struggles, as well as magic–fairy godmothers in the form of colleagues who tell her she is a writer, introduce her to editors, and even one who buys her a typewriter and then leaves her alone with instructions to write the first two pages of her book.  Similarly magical synchronicities lead her into her first television programs and later into writing books on world religions.

Through the Narrow Gate, her first book, published in 1981, before the word “memoir” was all the rage in the literary world,  became the portal through which a new Karen Armstrong began to climb the spiral staircase to her new vocation of public intellectual and spiritual guide.

The author admits in her conclusion that the spiral form is actually a circle.  That admission brought to my mind another T.S. Eliot poem even more famous than “Ash Wednesday.”  At the end of the Burnt Norton cycle, is the poem “Little Gidding.”  Below is the whole last section, including the very oft-quoted first lines but also the conclusion:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

Through the Narrow Gate was first an “unremembered gate” which became remembered through the power of language in Armstrong’s first memoir.  This sequel, as the author calls The Spiral Staircase in her introduction, comes close to achieving “a condition of complete simplicity” in many places.  But it leaves me with one question.

What will happen in another 20 years?  Armstrong’s first memoir was written when she was 31, this one when she was 59.  Will she tell the whole story again when she is 80?  I hope so!

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

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About Shirley Hershey Showalter

Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.
This entry was posted in My Reviews, Spiritual Memoir and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The Spiral Staircase: Spiritual Memoir the Second and Third Time Around

  1. Chelsea says:

    So glad you liked it! I really loved this book too. I appreciated how she acknowledged her weaknesses and turned them into part of a stronger whole.

  2. You have done a remarkable job of describing Armstrong's journey and the bumps along the way. It is a tale that moved me enormously when I read it a few years ago. I continue to be intrigued by the role of suffering in the process of growth towards wisdom. How much suffering allows growth and how much is so overwhelming that growth becomes impossible? And then what are the traits and temperament of some individuals that enable them to take the growth path, which also can be known as the path to wisdom. The interaction between nature and nurture seems to flower into a journey when there is some solitude. Whatever the struggles of the convent, there is solitude in it. Some might literally go mad in that setting, but some use that mental space to grow. I am intrigued by the nun's study (Aging with Grace by David Snowdon) which indicated that those who lived mentally intact and satisfied into their old age were those whose essays upon application to the convent were more complex, both in ideas and in writing. I’m not at all sure of what to make of this—only that we differ from an early age. Many wise people I have encountered had periods of solitude in their lives, either built in because of quite summers of time alone to read and think or force on them, as with a long hospitalization and recovery. Those times of solitude seem to have combined with life’s struggles to allow growth—even when the person was unaware of it at the time. I will add these thoughts to my blog as well.

  3. shirleyhs says:

    Susan, these thoughts are so true. What can we do to build resilience in children so that they will be able to live with the daunting challenges of their lifetimes–and turn them into wisdom?

  4. shirleyhs says:

    Thank you, Chelsea, for the gift of this book. And for the second gift of adding these comments. You know how much fun it is to find these. 🙂

  5. shirleyhs says:

    Susan, these thoughts are so true. What can we do to build resilience in children so that they will be able to live with the daunting challenges of their lifetimes–and turn them into wisdom?

  6. shirleyhs says:

    Thank you, Chelsea, for the gift of this book. And for the second gift of adding these comments. You know how much fun it is to find these. 🙂

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