Review – The Spiral Staircase (Karen Armstrong)

The Spiral Staircase

The Spiral Staircase

The Spiral Staircase, by Karen Armstrong is an autobiography of her life, detailing how she left a Catholic convent and her life afterwards. This is written from a highly introspective point of view and gives an insight into how Karen lost and eventually regained her faith but in a different form.

The accounts of her life in the convent are rather sad. The regime obviously did not suit her and she was forced to follow the various rituals blindly. In addition to this Karen suffered from epilepsy, which had a physical cause and was later successfully treated with medication. Unfortunately the nuns of her religious order did not recognise this, and put what they assumed to be “fainting spells” down to attention seeking.

As a Hindu it is interesting to look at whether the same kind of failure could happen if someone entered the Hindu monastic life.I think there areseveral things that would make it less likely to happen. Firstly in Hinduism the direction of Sadhus or monks should always be under the guidence of an enlightened guru. The Christian monastic orders follow regeims set out centuries ago by their founders, and are imposed by senior monks and nuns of the order, who are really administrators. These are unlikely to notice when a method does not suite a novice. Secondly whereas each Christian order has basically one path to progress. The bhakti based practice of the order Karen belonged to failed to engage her. Hinduism has various paths, bhakti (devotion) , karma (dedicated work), jnana (knowledge) – and the guru will find the balance of elements that is right for the seeker. Later in the book it becomes clear that Karen Armstrong excelled in the  jnana path:

When I am sitting at my desk, absorbed in a sacred text, I will sometimes feel deeply touched within and lifted momentarily beyond myself, moved as if by a wonderful piece of music or a poem. This has indeed been part of the Jewish tradition. Jews tell me that this is what they experience when following the Torah and Talmund.

Whereas I believe that a Hindu under the guidance of a genuine guru would be more likely to advance spiritually, I cannot say that there would be a greater chance of recognising the undiagnosed epilepsy as a physical problem. Indeed Karen was also let down by the medical profession, seeing many consultants who attributed it to a psychological problem. I think that orders of all religions should be alert for any physical problems, and should not delay at referring anyone to a doctor if unsure.

It is surprising how many insights Karen discovers that are also part of Hindu teachings; a practical application of compassion as a means of spiritual enhancement; suppression of the ego – I could go on, but I will mention just one more. Karen says:

… And I would like to get away from the idea of ‘toleration’ of other traditions. This is far too grudging and limited; we need to develop an appreciation of other faiths and traditions in our perilously divided world.

I see this appreciation within Hinduism. The Vishnava appreciates the traditions of the Shaiva and vica versa. I also see it between Hinduism and other liberal faiths, Sikhs and Buddhists in particular are appreciated and accepted. This shows the hope, if other faiths can also become accepting of those of other beliefs then perhaps the world can move towards Karen’s dream of mutual appreciation.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone of any faith. Karen’s introspection and open description of spiritual insights is extremely thought provoking. On top of that it is an enjoyable read.

3 responses to “Review – The Spiral Staircase (Karen Armstrong)

  1. There seems to be lots of food for thought here! In my opinion, truth focuses on peace and compassion, not self and power. Your review has inspired me to check this book out!


  2. I am afraid I cannot commend Karen Armstrong for her mendacity when writing on Islam.

  3. Really interesting! Armstrong’s particular theory comes through in her introduction to A Case for God. In my view, she comes very close to reducing religion to ethics, which is something liberal Protestantism has been criticized for doing. Take, for example, “God is love.” I interpret this as teaching that love is the source or basis of existence. Even though our acts of love (and feelings!…which Armstrong also discounts relative to conduct) involve “God is love” being actualized, there is also the sense irrespective of one’s conduct that existence itself is love. I take the transcendent wisdom of the latter to be just as important as conduct in religious terms. I’ve just posted a critique (

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