The Spiral Staircase

After spending this past week busy with family and friends -- coffee with Kate (twice!), Joan of Arcadia episode fests with Mom, helping to decorate the family Christmas tree, silliness with You Tube videos with my brother and his fiancee, a blessedly full eight-hour day of conversation with Sara, Christmas at Mom's and Christmas at Dad's, plus introducing Kirk to my 30-plus-member extended family on Christmas night -- Kirk and I set off in my dad's truck this afternoon for a little bit of "us" time. Which led us promptly to our local Borders bookstore. (Of course.)

Kirk intended to pick up a few DVDs since they were having a 3-for-2 sale, but he didn't find what he was looking for. I intended to pick up the classic text on boundaries, since they've been on my mind of late and I think I'm moving into a new season of reestablishing more of them in my life. But along the way, I also picked up a book I didn't expect to find. It's called The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness, by Karen Armstrong.

I've seen Karen Armstrong's books around the bookstores for many years, and especially noticed them when I was managing a Barnes & Noble a handful of years ago. She's a guru on comparative religion, with books like A History of God and Islam: A Short History to her credit. For some reason, I have always shied away from her books, and I think this is because I have often confused her for Elaine Pagels, who writes often on the gnostic gospels and whom I therefore have not had much interest in reading.

But when I saw about seven copies of The Spiral Staircase on the shelf today, I picked it up. (As a former bookstore manager, I know seven copies of one book -- in paperback, no less -- equals something probably important, given how limited bookstore shelf space actually is.) I was intrigued by the subtitle's reference to the author's climb out of darkness, which was obviously spiritual in nature, given that the book was in the general religion section. But what specific kind of darkness, I wondered?

Then I read the back of the book, which shared that Armstrong entered a convent at age seventeen in 1962, eager to meet God . . . and left after seven years. The story contained in this book was about her journey into life once outside the convent walls, though it was a journey fraught with difficulty, disillusionment, confusion, illness, and pain. And yet, by the subtitle's promise, it was a journey out of darkness into light.

I sat down on a leather chair and began to read the preface, and I was hooked. She speaks disarmingly about her decision to enter the convent, about what she thought she would find and why she wanted to find it, and about the political tensions of the day, both within and without the Catholic church. Her words carry weight. And her willingness to share with boldness and honesty about the road she has walked, facing even the errors and the pain dead-on, sparing nothing, moved me.

Now I own the book and have just finished the preface. This feels like an important book in my life, in much the same way that Kathleen Norris's The Cloister Walk was important in my life several years ago. I am not exactly sure why this is so, but part of it may have to do with how one learns to have perspective about one's life. For instance, Armstrong shares in the preface that after writing her first book, Through the Narrow Gate, about those seven difficult years she spent as a nun, she published a second book about her first years outside the convent called Beginning the World that she now considers a mistake, saying, "It was far too soon to write about those years. . . . I was certainly not ready to see this phase of my life in perspective." The Spiral Staircase is her attempt to retell that story.

I guess what I love about finding this book is not just the chance to hear her story, which I find intensely interesting, but also how she learned to take a new perspective of her life as she grew through it, even sharing near the end of her preface that "we should probably all pause to confront our past from time to time, because it changes its meaning as our circumstances alter." Fascinating. And somehow laced with grace.