“The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness” and “Grace Notes” Reviewed*

Reviewed by Ellen McCambley

The Spiral Staircase is the latest book written by scholar and author Karen Armstrong, who presents it as a “sequel” to her earlier book, “Through the Narrow Gate,” which documents her early years in a Catholic convent. Karen is the author of several other books on religious affairs, including A History of God, The Battle for God, Islam, and Buddha.

In 1962, the year Karen Armstrong entered the convent, I attended a retreat for teachers at the Dominican Retreat House in Elkins Park, PA. The retreat was a silent retreat, which meant that during meals, rather than discussion, we had “spiritual reading.” Breakfast on Saturday morning was my all-time favorite, creamed beef on toast. The reading for the day was the life of Mother Cornelia Connelly, foundress of the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus – the congregation that Karen entered.

I can still picture myself in that sunny dining room, trying to swallow a mouthful creamed beef and toast, tears streaming down my face, listening to the story of the hardships Mother Connelly had suffered, and how her faith had sustained her.

Although admittedly humorous, this memory has great meaning for me. The story of Cornelia Connelly is one of learning one’s vocation through trial, error and great suffering. This was a timely lesson as it was during this very retreat that I decided to enter the Dominican Sisters of Elkins Park. And two years later, this is exactly what I did.

So when I was asked to write this review, I eagerly agreed, as I felt a kinship with Karen Armstrong. Although in different countries and in different orders, we had both felt drawn to religious life, entered, and then, after a period of some years, had decided to leave. And in leaving, we both had to deal with our “failure” and its consequences.

As I read The Spiral Staircase I began to wonder why it was that Karen and I appeared to have such totally different perceptions of religious life. I suppose that part of it is that Karen was 17 when she entered; I was 21. She entered immediately after graduating from high school, and I entered after teaching for three years. She appears a carefree young girl, whereas I was a battle-scarred veteran in the faith wars, having once told God, as I suffered a debilitating bone problem at age 19, that He [God] had only asked three hours of His son, whereas I’d been in pain for over three years and wanted it to stop. Shortly thereafter, it did.

While I was reading The Spiral Staircase, a friend who was visiting picked up the book and read the first few chapters, after which she exclaimed, “Oh, Ellen, I never knew you went through such a terrible time!” I replied simply, “I didn’t.” But it was this short conversation which led me to consider the book more closely. Those of us who have experience with religious life will read Karen’s story one way, and those who are “novices” so to speak, quite another. Thus, it is important that The Spiral Staircase be put in perspective – it is one woman’s story of her own unique experience. But in many ways it is more because, in presenting her story as she does, Karen makes a scathing indictment of religious life, and the Church that called this life into being.

I would have had a much easier time reviewing this book, if I thought that Karen’s two attempts to write about her early experiences had brought her some closure. But I do not find this is the case, although Karen does say of her own experience:

. . . now I could name my anger, give it a definite form and shape. This was liberating and healing, like lancing a boil . . . . [230]

As a reader, it appears to me that Karen has not been able to truly lance this boil, despite repeated literary efforts. Rather, she seems to have succeeded only in tearing off the scab – an action which causes great pain, but results in no healing, as the boil is permitted to again fester and grow. I say this because, even after writing Through the Narrow Gate, Karen still takes up over two thirds of its sequel, The Spiral Staircase, revisiting her experience. Only in the last two chapters does she appear ready to set this aside to discuss other interests.

Karen tells us The Spiral Staircase is an attempt to pick up where Through the Narrow Gate left off, and in one sense it does, as it covers her attempts to find her way in the world after leaving the convent. But she presents the story as if she were driving into the future looking at the world through the rear view mirror. Every new discovery comes with the “realization” of how much the convent, her superiors, or God had held her back. In so doing, I believe Karen loses much of the joy new discoveries bring.

I find this troubling. Reading this book from a 21st Century perspective, one could easily agree with Karen’s perspective on the past. But readers must remember that Karen [and I] entered the convent in the early 60’s, which were the best of times and the worst of times for the Roman Catholic Church. Pope John XXIII had just convened a Second Vatican Council and a new wind was blowing through the Church. Massive changes to the very structures Karen found so oppressive were at that moment in the works. But Karen’s narrative appears to miss or dismiss this perspective. For her, it was too little, too late.

A scene from one of my favorite movies, “The African Queen,” comes to mind. There is a scene late in the movie where the two main characters, Rose and Charlie, lie exhausted in the bottom of their boat. Despite repeated efforts, having failed to dislodge the boat from the thick mud and sludge of the swampy river, the boat remains firmly stuck. However, what we, the audience can see – as the camera pulls away, is first the boat, and then the boat and the river, and finally, from a farther distance, the boat, river, and the surrounding territory. The boat is at a turn in the river, just inches away from their destination: the ocean. We also see that, as the rain continues to fall, the boat is slowly rising and beginning to move, unbeknownst to the sleeping heroine and hero.

And thus I see Karen’s narrative. When she reflects on her past, I find her mired in past hurt and disappointment. She appears not to see her experience as a microcosm of the whole picture. I can’t fault 17-year-old Karen for this, but I do wish 50-plus Karen could gain some perspective.

I find that even in those moments when Karen is reflecting on her past, she still puts a 17-year-old’s spin on it. For example, while relating the story of the paper she wrote for Mother Greta’s class, she states:

As I stared wordlessly back at Mother Greta, I knew that, if it had been up to her, she would have scrapped this course in apologetics and introduced us to a more fruitful study of the New Testament. But, like any nun, she was bound by the orders of her superiors. . . . It was a sobering moment . . . the older nun mentally tired and demoralized, while the postulant gazed at her blankly, both of us deliberately turning our minds away from the light [33].

This story has great Hollywood appeal, but is it the whole truth? Or is it as the great philosopher Ashleigh Brilliant once conjectured, that: “Some of the things that will live longest in my memory never really happened…”

I never met Mother Greta, but I knew a great many teachers like her. Perhaps it wasn’t demoralization that Karen saw on her face. Perhaps it was the frustration that many teachers feel in trying to teach bright, intelligent, and young [i.e. unseasoned] students: those who are bright enough to intellectually grasp an idea, but too inexperienced to see all the other factors involved.

Once, while I was preparing a class of elementary school children for the Sacrament of Penance [confession], I complained to a friend that the curriculum for preparing these children seemed designed to teach them 2000 ways to commit sin. Therefore, I can relate to Mother Greta’s dilemma. At that time, I chose to teach in a way I thought more appropriate, following the spirit, not the letter, of the law.

Nor was I alone in this; many thinking people did the same. For example, prior to Vatican Council II, there were many good, intelligent, faithful men and women who had studied scripture and tradition, and knew things had to change. But there were also those who, feeling threatened, and having power, effectively silenced these voices. But not for long. Pope John Paul and Vatican II changed this, and in so doing, allowed the rest of us to finally hear the voices of Hans Kung, Gregory Baum, Edward Schillebeeckx, Yves Congar, Karl Rahner and Bernard Haring, to name just a few. These theologians may have been “silenced,” but they were not silent. They continued to write and discuss and think – and when the day came that the doors were finally opened to them, they were ready.

During my graduate studies at Fordham, I was fortunate to have Father Bernard Haring as a professor. One day in class, a Priest/student asked him, in great frustration, “Father Haring, you refer to the Church as ‘holy’. How can you call a Church holy when it has wreaked so much havoc on innocent men and women over the years with its antiquated and repressed rules and regulations concerning marriage?”

All 40 students became very still as we, many of whom had been asking the same question, stared silently at this obviously holy man, awaiting his response to this challenge. Father Haring paused for a minute or two, considering, and then he replied simply, “Because with all the sinners, I have also been privileged to know many of the saints.”

I would appreciate such a balanced view from Karen Armstrong. For example, I would have found it helpful if Karen could have also applied her comment regarding Islam: “we cannot judge the faith of ½ billion Muslims by the extremists” [304] to Christian theologians as well as all who influenced her early religious life.

In addition to a balanced view, I would also like more scholarly research. I had to smile when she contradicted over 2000 years of Biblical scholarship by broadly asserting that St. Paul, not Jesus Christ, founded Christianity [232]. I agree with Karen that this was indeed “startling information.” I also believe that revisionist history does not lend credibility to her ideas.

Karen tells us that, in beginning her study of Islam, she had to dismantle her old positions, which she saw to be “ignorant, prejudiced, and deeply conditioned by her culture” [257]. In truth, I find that “ignorant, prejudiced and deeply conditioned by culture” aptly describes Karen’s views regarding God in general, and Christianity in particular. As one who comes from this tradition, I found some of her rhetoric rather tedious.

I do not mean to diminish Karen’s suffering, but it must be kept in the perspective of the times, and the times were 1964, not 2004. If Karen cannot gain this perspective, she risks falling into the trap described by theologian Bernard Haring:

Theologians will become useless and inauthentic not only through cowardice, but also if they allow themselves to become embittered and–instead of proclaiming the good news–struggle for their cause out of resentment and with bitterness. A theologian can likewise betray the Church and truth when he denies his conviction of the truth “out of obedience,” just as when he goes his own lonely way in rebellious disobedience and battles embittered (even when such a battle is necessary). . .

Avoiding this trap is critical because Karen Armstrong is one of the few subject matter experts on the subject of Islam. As such, both before and after September 11, 2001, she has been able to help many come to a better understanding of Islam and its relationship to the two other Abrahamic faiths. Such expertise is critically important, as we live in a world where much misery is brought about in the name of God and religion. This is true not just in Iraq and Iran, but in Northern Ireland, Israel/Palestine, Africa and in our own United States, where we have the red [god fearing] and blue [godless] states.

Karen is correct in asserting that the study of other people’s religious beliefs is now no longer merely desirable, but necessary for our very survival [304]. And this study requires that we find credible teachers. Karen’s experience and knowledge of the three Abrahamic faiths and her ability to so expertly discuss these is invaluable in today’s world. But if she allows personal experience to blind her to her own traditions and the wealth of information and experience they contain, this would be a true loss, not only to Karen, but to her listeners as well.

Heidi Hart is a poet, singer and voice teacher. After reading Grace Notes, I’d have to add that she is also a gifted storyteller. She brings to her life story a rich blend of music, spirituality and groundedness, possessing that most special of gifts, the storyteller’s ability to take simple everyday events and make them come alive for the listener.

Like Karen Armstrong, Heidi Hart also came upon the road less traveled in her spiritual journey, and took it. But, unlike Karen, Heidi does not affix blame for her condition. Yes, she does remark on some of the teachings the Mormon Church in which she was brought up, and explains in some detail the rituals that are performed during various ceremonies. But I do not find in her the burning resentment I found in Karen Armstrong, or the need to prove herself right by proving others wrong.

Like many young women of her generation, and in particular, many young Mormon women, Heidi Hart believed that she was meant to grow up, marry and to become the “Angel in the House” – a perfect wife, mother and helpmeet to her husband. And, like many young woman, she discovered this was just not enough.

Luckily for Heidi, she and her husband Kent were able to grow together as they faced life’s challenges. Kent, when he left family and job to travel with Heidi across country to Connecticut so that she might attend graduate school, and Heidi when, three years later, she returned to Salt Lake with Kent so that he might have the support of his family and faith community.

Interwoven in the story of this marriage is not just the story of a girl and the woman she became, her growth as wife and mother, but also how this growth was facilitated by the support and love she received from her family, her friends and her faith community.

Each chapter in Grace Notes follows the same format: diary, nine openings [from the 13th century poet Rumi who compared the human body, with its nine openings, to a reed flute torn from the reed bed; it sings out its longing for home], chant, passaggio [transitions], conversation, and silence. The chapters do not follow a strict chronology, and I find this delightful. Rather, Heidi relates events as they occur to her.

For example, a memory about a neighborhood oddball [the mad trumpeter] has her recalling the times she gave voice to her own primal anger. She weaves into this story memories about the silence of her mother and grandmother in the face of their husbands’ deadly depression, her own similar experiences with Kent, and lastly, the times when she angrily vents her anger and rage. And in this weaving she shares what she learns:

The screamer in the gully, in all his pain and craziness, is in me, and in my children . . . .There are times when I don’t care if I ravage my vocal cords. But my liberation from appropriateness has shown me what lies at the other end of the spectrum: the flash of frightened hurt in my sons’ eyes when I whirl around and holler. Maybe I’ll get myself a trumpet, haul it into the backyard, and blare at the stars. [p 124]

Heidi’s fate could have been the same as her mother and the other women in her family, who, though they bore their lot in life stoically, suffered physical ailments as a result. Heidi managed to break this cycle, and she did so with the help of her husband. She reflects:

If it’s true that people find partners who expose the work they must do in order to grow, I found someone whose silences asked me, though I didn’t know it at first, to learn to break them. [p 60].

And later:

Now, in those rare moments when the old silence rises in our house, I fight the temptation to cower and tiptoe. Recently, after I told Kent his silent treatment was unacceptable behavior, he thanked me. “You don’t know how it helps me when you speak up,” he said. I told him it had taken me my whole life to learn how. [p. 65]

As one whose life is music, it is interesting that Heidi’s faith journey from the Mormon tradition led her to the Society of Friends, and unprogrammed friends at that: a group who worships in silence, without hymns, music or a minister.

Yet it seems to be this very silence that leads her to deeper reflection, and opens her to the beauty of other traditions. For example, during one of their weekly “family home evening” with her sons, she used the Jewish concept of Tikkun to help them understand their place in the universe.

Giving them a clear glass she and Kent had received for a wedding present, she asked them to drop it into a deep bowl, whereupon it shattered with a great noise. As the boys delightedly looked upon their handiwork Heidi asked them to

Imagine these broken pieces are all we can see of God in this world. Imagine your job is to find these pieces, no matter how small, and gather them up, and put them back together. [p 134].

Perhaps it is because Karen Armstrong writes from England, that cold, damp land of the reformation, while Heidi Hart writes from Salt Lake City, Utah, the sunny, hot land of the Latter Day Saints, that I note such heaviness in the one and lightness in the other. But in both I see the story of a woman struggling to find her own unique voice. And as such, both Karen and Heidi are models for all who are struggling to put their “shattered pieces” back together again.

This, in a nutshell, is Heidi’s story. She is able to go back to each of the “Shattered moments” of her life and to “forgive” those involved, including herself, for being all too human. In doing so, she finally finds her own voice.

Rather, she sees her life as a progression and, as she later learns to call it, a leading.

I can ask questions: A change in the weather? A Leading? I can try to answer . . . . I can look at the results in time and space: Three weeks after our arrival in Salt Lake, Kent was offered the job I’d seen in his bar journal. My sons were able to know their great-grandparents before they died. My mother and I have gone into therapy together. Kent and I have embarked on an interfaith marriage, joining hands across our differences. With Kate beside me at the piano, I’ve continued to find music to sing and people who want to hear it. And had I not moved back home, I might never have begun, with many fearful pauses, to find words for my own history . . . .

I did what Quakers have advised each other for centuries, though I didn’t know this saying at the time: “Proceed as Way opens.” It opened, and I have not been diminished. [pp. 206-207]

Nor have we. It is my hope that Heidi will continue to share with us her stories of faith and family. The world has need of such tales.

Works Cited

  • Armstrong, Karen. Through The Narrow Gate, St. Martin’s Press, NY 1981.
  • Brilliant, Ashleigh, Pot-Shot #722.
  • Haring, Bernard C.SS.R. and Swidler, Leonard J.
    My Witness For The Church, Paulist Press, NY 1992.
  • McLuhan, Marshall and Fiore, Quentin
    The Medium Is the Massage, Random House (1967).

*The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness
by Karen Armstrong. Alfred A. Knopf, New York: 306 pages.

*Grace Notes
by Heidi Hart. University of Utah Press, Utah: 230 pages

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