As a young woman growing up in England, Karen Armstrong had such a strong religious faith that she joined a convent in 1962, when she was only 17, and stayed there until doubts about her own worthiness led her to leave seven years later. Now an acclaimed scholar of comparative religion, Armstrong explores the implications of her personal experience in The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness.
Armstrong's interest in the world's religions has yielded a series of widely read books, among them The Gospel According To Woman, Holy War: The Crusades And Their Impact On Today's World and A History Of God. While her connection to religion has changed radically over the years from Catholic orthodoxy to a sort of patchwork spirituality it remains tenacious.
After recounting the pleasures and absurdities of monastic life, Armstrong plunges into the next phase of her life: her colorful, bewildering years as a student at Oxford University. It was not, she stresses, an easy transition. She enjoys the intellectual ferment and quirky students and professors, but continues to measure herself against what she might be and consistently finds herself falling short. When the examiner for Oxford rejects her doctoral thesis, Armstrong abandons her plans for an academic career and turns to teaching at a private girls' school in London. Later, while researching St. Paul for a television documentary, she resumes her sympathetic fascination with religious thought and soon broadens it to embrace Judaism and Islam.
Viewed as a diary of dreads and yearnings there are few instances of unalloyed joy The Spiral Staircase demonstrates that Armstrong has never veered sharply from her search for a larger meaning, even at her most secular moments.