Spiral Staircase:My Climb Out of Darkness

    In the spirit of the transcendentalists, Karen Armstrong embraces a liberated method of seeing God after being cooped up in the prison of subservience that has restricted her ability to be both authentic and inquisitive. The title is borrowed from the meaning behind T.S. Elliot’s famous poem “Ash Wednesday,”  which visually describes the  daunting task of finding one’s spiritual dimension after being forced through the torturous and disillusioning task of accepting other people’s ideas of the divine. Karen Armstrong’s other book seems to be written in the style of T.S. Elliot’s “The Waste Land,” because both of them feel spiritually bankrupt within their separate bleak spheres of existing passively within the constraining systems of  humanity that seems to have no clear idea of the shape or identity of the transcendent. Yet, it fashions systems  that feign dangerous certitude about ideas that are far beyond our scope of understanding. Within T.S. Elliot’s “The Waste Land,” this had led to incessant chaos on the part of human arrogance while within Karen Armstrong’s world this has led to feeling debased.

  In the world of the monastery, Karen Armstrong felt she had to be resigned and distant from her spiritual identity. She was educated in the ideal of strictly preening herself to be acceptable in the eyes of her superiors. Prayer had to be a repetition of prayers that were dictated and bereft of any individual alteration. Therefore in the fabric of prayer, Karen Armstrong felt disinterested because in her cloistered life, she was lost to herself and consequently distant from God.

One of the Jewish stories about Jonah shows the danger of being certain about God’s enigmatic ways. Jonah actually is argumentative with God and defies him. He refuses to see God from an intellectually humble perspective and metaphorically becomes trapped with his own ignorance or the woeful darkness of losing grasp of one’s self which provides a person with their only connection with the divine. The cavernous feeling of Jonah’s cave is similar to the darkness of Plato’s cave where Jonah never contemplates God beyond the limited scope of his strict understanding. Within Plato’s Cave, people encamped in the darkness of the cave face experience cessation in thinking of the wider world around them or the big existentialist questions. In life, they blindly follow in tandem with the superficial, unenlightened knowledge of the other occupants of the cave around them. C.S. Lewis’s Silver Chair borrows this same platonic understanding of the prison that is darkened by the hopelessness of superficial understanding. When we confine our understanding of the divine as something that just offers us complacency with ourselves, we are not truly realizing the immensity of God’s true mysterious self. We’re caved in by the pride of assuming that we know all there is about God without an existence that necessitates doubt and questioning to better understand ourselves and the unique experiences of others.

Karen Armstrong learns to appreciate God by accepting first her self then learns to truly marvel the interior mystery of others. There is no inertia when it comes to understanding the transcendent reality. When we are blindly complicit with another person’s understanding of the divine, we force ourselves into spiritual stasis where never learn to undertake the true challenges of understanding the enigma that is God within this material reality.

As a whole, Spiral Staircase never stoops to being pedantic when discussing the depth of her spiritual journey. Similar to her books about religious history, the books are written with a sense of curiosity and wonder that never infects the tone with something that resembles  being artlessly sure of the divine that we are meant to spend our entire lives knowing or understanding. This book is not meant as something exclusive for any one religion. Books like this pertain to all of us because Karen Armstrong adeptly understands that the search for the reason behind our existence is never confined to one religion or philosophy.

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