Ascents and Descents

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"Other people seemed to progress much more smoothly through life... but...I kept getting derailed, ejected from one job, one lifestyle after another," writes Karen Armstrong in The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness. For more than a decade, Armstrong has been the author of indispensable books that have mapped the common ground between Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and, more recently, Buddhism.

Before that, however, she was a pre-Vatican II nun who left her order, a student and teacher of English literature who was refused an advanced degree by Oxford University, a television writer and personality, and a sufferer of temporal lobe epilepsy, which went undiagnosed until she was in her 30s. In her new book, Armstrong relies on the image of the spiral staircase, used by T.S. Eliot in his poem "Ash Wednesday," to describe both the repeated stripping away of her hopes and her gradual ascent to a fulfillment she had not expected.

Billed as "the story of her spiritual journey," The Spiral Staircase is memoir rather than autobiography. Armstrong provides not a linear, exhaustive account of what has happened to her but reflections on where key events and decisions have led her. She reaches back occasionally into the convent experiences she covered in her first book, Through the Narrow Gate, published more than 20 years ago, but concentrates on the circuitous route she has taken from there to her current calling - studying the sacred texts of many faiths and writing such books as A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

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Sojourners Magazine August 2004
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