The Spiral Staircase, A Memoir by Karen Armstrong

Before I went to visit and spend two months in Bethlehem, Palestine some years ago, I wanted to read something about the history of the area, not a religious book, but something historical that went beyond the recent familiar history since the British abandoned those residing in these lands to their fate. I wanted to understand the wider context of how people came to be living here and what they’d had to endure to survive.

I chose to read Karen Armstrong’s A History of Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths and read it while in situ. It was a history of multitudes of power shifts and massacres and when I finished it, I said to my husband (born in Bethlehem), somewhat in awe, “Congratulations, you survived,” and I wondered who these people really were, who had survived such a long, brutal history and come to be living in these towns of Jerusalem and Bethlehem today. One thing was for sure, they were survivors and most likely had traces of every people who had ever passed along the pilgrim trail within them.

Recently I was recommended a couple more Karen Armstrong books A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and The Great Transformation as background to the conditioning that underpins much of humanity’s belief system of the past millenia, however I decided to add to this collection by first reading her memoir The Spiral Staircase, about her life after leaving the convent, where she spent seven years leading up to her becoming the well renowned author she is today.

I wasn’t interested in her life as a nun, or the details of her leaving the convent, I was interested in how she had used what she learned in rejecting her faith to inspire her towards immersing herself in the history and identifying that catalyst of humanity’s desire to embrace organised religion.

This memoir thus starts as she is trying to finish her university education and doctoral thesis, then her foray into becoming the partial carer of an autistic child, her teaching, her involvement with Channel 4 and the BBC in producing a series of programs on St Paul and then the crusades, and finally launching herself into a writing career when it appeared all other options were closed to her.

Every venture she went into, except the writing career, followed a similar trajectory, where she did the thing she’d convinced herself was what she should be doing, only to eventually lose hope, which became the turning point, or the spiral in the staircase, where she changed direction, it always seemed dramatic and quite often was, however my perspective on those turning points is that they were a course correction, she went along a path for as long at it had something to teach her and then she’d be literally thrown out of it – this kind of thing usually happens when we know we need to change a circumstance but we do nothing, and seven years in the convent had conditioned her to ignore any kind of inner guidance or intuition, making these changes when they did occur seem more dramatic than they might have been, had she transitioned earlier.

Boarding School

I loved reading about her journey and couldn’t help but remember the nuns from my secondary school education, apart from a couple who taught they were elusive figures on the periphery of our lives, we lived on the same premises, for us a boarding school, for them in a separate wing, it was more like a retirement home, they were very, very old and the only time we saw them was in the chapel on Sundays.

They were shadows of whoever they had been and we had no real interaction with them, except the ancient, tough 90 something Sister Conway who still worked in the scullery plunging her gnarled, arthritic hands into boiling hot water as if it were tepid, while we waited for the cutlery to cool before lifting it to dry.

Karen Armstrong took years to undo the conditioning of seven years in the convent and even then likely will never do so completely. An intellectual unsuited 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.”

It becomes even more humorous when she is invited to do the same:

“Do not be a polite English lady. If you think I am unreasonable, tell me to get lost, to shut up- whatever you like!”

at which she surprises herself in doing after a particularly charged day when tensions were high and Joel had snapped at her rudely. His response is excellent, he is proud of her!

The other amusing experience in reading my second hand copy of this book, was the presence of the previous reader in the margins, who not happy to have merely marked up the pages, shared her thoughts more vociferously, clearly not nearly as impressed as I was with the work, deciding to rant and share snippets of her own experiences, which were mostly entertaining, often annoying, and ultimately unwelcome! Here are some of them, since no one else will have had this reading experience!

page 123 After speaking about how her years as a nun had broken something in her, and affected her eating habits, Karen Armstrong writes:

“And I did not want to nourish myself. What was the point of feeding my body, when my mind and heart had been irreparably broken?”

And my interlocutor writes:

“as I was after the divorce”

Armstrong mentions that she isn’t going to write about her failed love relationships, seeing no reason to dwell on episodes that didn’t develop into anything significant and writes:

“Just as I was prevented from becoming an academic, so too I have never been able to achieve a normal domestic existence, and this, like my epilepsy, had also ensured that I remained an outsider in a society in which coupledom is the norm”

to which my interlocutor responds:

“oh do stop feeling sorry for yourself!”

and even adds later on

“perhaps you are just unloveable”

which is a mild example of the kind of comportment (at different levels of societal power clearly) that nevertheless can lead to disharmony, conflict, war even, for if there is a conclusion to what Karen Armstrong has learned, it is a lesson she gifts to her readers, known as Hillel’s Golden Rule that all great leaders have taught, Confucius proclaimed it 500 years before him, Buddha and Jesus taught it, it is the bedrock of the Koran:

“Do not do to others as you would not have done unto you”

As one of her advisors Hyam Maccoby said

“It takes more discipline to refrain from doing/saying harm to others than to be a do-gooder and project your needs and desires onto other people.”

Advertisements

Other People’s Stories

Recently someone asked as I live in France, was I reading any French authors, which prompted me to look on my shelves and reflect on this question. There were the two Irène Némirovsky books, ‘All Our Worldly Goods’ and ‘Fire in the Blood’ I read earlier this year and after discovering one of my French students was reading Dostoevsky’s ‘The Idiot’, one of my favourite classics and an excellent study of character, we exchanged books, he lending me Stefan Zweig’s ‘le voyage dans le passé’ (in French and an Austrian author so translated from German) while I gave him Paul Durcan’s epic poem ‘Christmas Day’.

Manger Square, Bethlehem, Nativity Church beyond

I have read a couple of Amélie Nothomb books, ‘Fear and Trembling’ a factional account of her year spent in Japan, which was very funny in an excruciating way and I adored Gustave Flaubert’s ‘Madame Bovary’, a book I’d put off reading for years and finally read it during a two month visit to Bethlehem, a welcome reward following Karen Armstrong’s
excellent but gruelling ‘A History of Jerusalem’
– One City, Three Faiths after which I had a feeling of absolute awe that there were ANY people left living in that part of the world, having endured one crusade after another as successive peoples carried out their quest to occupy that Holy Land. I also became more wide awake as to how this current generation of people carry the blue eyed gene.

I digress. Back with contemporary literature, my book buddy had mentioned Emmanuel Carrère’s ‘lives other than my own’ to me a few times and her creative writing class are about to be introduced to it, so I found a window of opportunity to read it this week. And what an extraordinary thing it is. Familiar with the phrase ‘truth can be stranger than fiction’; here I am left with the feeling that ‘truth can be as compelling as fiction’.

Emmanuel Carrère was on holiday in Sri Lanka with his girlfriend when the tsunami struck, they had been considering separating and then found themselves in a whirlwind period where the relative significance of these reflections was crushed by that incoming wave and the devastation it wreaked on others.

“Everything that has happened in those five days and was ending then, at that precise moment washed over us. A dam opened, releasing a flood of sorrow, relief, love, all mixed together.

I hugged Hélène and told her, I don’t want to break up anymore, not ever.

She said, I don’t want to break up anymore either.”

The couple return to France only to learn that Hélène’s sister is on a downward spiral with the return of a cancer that she had thought she was rid of when she was a teenager. Juliette, now in her thirties, is a juge d’instance (a judge of small claims and grievances) and has three girls, the youngest only fifteen months old. Through Juliette, Carrère meets her colleague Etienne, a cancer survivor, who shares with the author an insight into both the world of being a cancer survivor and their realm as judges in the small town of Vienne, where they strive and indeed succeed to make a difference.

What makes this recount all the more extraordinary is the sense of the author’s narcissism, long time chronicler of the tormented self, he readily admits this and while I wouldn’t say that being witness to these events resulted in an absolute cure, it certainly lead him, as the book title suggests, to explore and find some empathy in lives other than his own.

While on the French theme, I would like to mention Patricia Sands, author of ‘The Bridge Club’, another story inspired by the lives of others, Patricia is an advocate of the premise that everyone has a story to tell and she does this not only through her novel but via her blog. Each Friday she posts about France and this week, she has very kindly written a post about this blog, which you can view here. So thank you Patricia and do check out her book.