…is The Spiral Staircase, by Karen Armstrong. Well, er, I haven’t finished it yet, but it’s too good not to share rightnow.
Ostensibly a spiritual memoir, it’s also a harrowing account of the British mental health system in the 1960’s, an ode to the life-leading power of literature, and a powerful rumination on eating disorders. Armstrong joined a convent at age 17 and left just before the Church modernized, immersing herself in the Church at its worst, most traditional form. It’s impossible to know whether Armstrong would find herself drawn to the Church now that it’s taken a more progressive face. But her experience of it– likely shocking to those of us unfamiliar with Catholic history– as austerely, oppressively anti-human and anti-secular, forever colored her views on God.
Armstrong left the order because, in her words, she could not pray. She had never experienced consolation; she could not find God. There were little other spiritual paths available to her after such a totalizing experience of alienation, and she turned to scholarship to occupy her fragmented inner life. While reading English at St. Anne’s college and then Oxford as a graduate student, Armstrong came to understand she had never really believed in God. She describes her newfound secularism in gentle, matter-of-fact language: her slide from faith seems inevitable and almost reassuring, as though she had finally been released from its punishingly nonsensical grip. But a new reality quickly replaced it: her undiagnosed epilepsy, descriptions of which glide in and out of snippets of literary analysis and records of relational woes, cased frightening hallucinations and lapses in consciousness that made her feel as though she was living as a shadow.
I’m currently at the part where it seems her life might take an upswing: Armstrong is able to recognize herself and her ghost world in the poem “Ash Wednesday” by T. S. Eliot.
“Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?
Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again”
That image of turning again, even against oneself, forms the spiral staircase Armstrong envisions herself climbing toward wholeness. I keep comparing my own journey through and away from and back to faith to hers, and I can’t wait to see where her next step brings us both.