Karen Armstrong: The Spiral Staircase

Karen Armstrong was a nun. She was in the convent as a novice for seven years or so. And then, she left. No, that makes it sound like it was an easy decision. It wasn’t. It was no easier than leaving any other institutional occupation that you’ve believed in and invested your whole life into, by giving up the life you knew before joining the institution.

Institutions like “the Church” and let’s say, the military, work very hard to make you disassociate its “converts” from their old communities. And ultimately, when one decides to leave, one leaves the “new” community and is thrust back into the community said person was isolated from – with absolutely no guidance, and no real consideration for the difficulty one might have trying to ‘get it together’.

The Spiral Staircase, though a very old book, reprinted in 2007, tells of Armstrong’s journey back to being a functional human being in the world outside of the church. This book is her second try at trying to explain it all – the first attempts being Beginning the World (1983), published two years after her 1981 memoir Through the Narrow Gate” which told of her frustrating and lonely existence in cloistered life and her decision to renounce her vows. In the forward of The Spiral Staircase, Armstrong explains that though she had a lot to say in “Beginning the World” it wasn’t fully processed thoughts and feelings of life in the “new” world, and that finally after so much time, she’s able to really look back and process the experience with a more mature, analytical eye than she had when she was in her late 20s.

Her story is fascinating, and though this all happened in her life when I was but a wee child, every single bit of it spoke to me. At this stage in my life, I am finally processing my military experience. Her descriptions of the practice of psychological breaking you from your old community and welcoming you into your new one were similar, the loss of faith, and even the feeling of total isolation when you left the institution for not just a year or so after but for YEARS was something I also experienced.

There are important events in the 90s that I have no knowledge of at all – because I was segregated from the rest of the world. And, sometimes, even now, 20 years after I first entered the military, I sit on the sofa when someone brings up one of those events and wants to discuss how maybe it affected the world and I can only look at them, shake my head and say, “I’m sorry, I wasn’t around for that, I can’t have input.” Its stunning. In my mind, the dotcom crash didn’t make sense, because I hadn’t been around for the bubble; Princess Diana just died; and little happened in the world outside of the Persian Gulf War I, and really, the economy must have been good because Bill Clinton gave the military a raise. I was a Generation X-er that didn’t really fit into that label at all.

While being a nun and being in the military seem to be on opposite ends of the spectrum, in a lot of ways, they appeared to be similar as I read this book. If not for the actual physical experiences, then for the psychological impact on one’s life – particular if said person left either institutions. And frankly, let’s be honest, in the military, one’s faith is questioned – if you join the military, you have to know there’s a possibility that you will have to kill someone…and how do you justify a heaven/hell existence when you are probably going to hell due to the pre-meditative nature of joining an institution where murder is a possibility (though, of course, society tries to help that conundrum by calling it war and not murder).

I loved this book; and truly, it’s one of the first to move my psyche in a way that I cried because I’d felt I’d been there and knew her loneliness and pain. Her book inspired me to fully delve into my own experience and gave me hope that when I come out on the other side, I’d finally be whole.

I think this book could and should be recommended for veterans who are in therapy or maybe are thinking about it because they feel something is a little off; or just want to begin contemplating their military experience and how it may have, and probably has, affected the rest of their life.

And, thank you, Karen Armstrong for having the courage to write this and all your other books!


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