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The Spiral Staircase

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We had all been reading an autobiographical book – "The Spiral Staircase" by Karen Armstrong. This was quite a change from the theological books we have read so far and one that seemed to have been very well-received. The book is the story of a life and a most unusual one. Karen became a Roman-Catholic nun as a teenager and became more and more aware that she did not fit in in her convent, having no experiences of the presence of God in any of the multifarious activities she took part in. She also experienced times of alienation and separation from all those around her, which often manifested themselves in physical symptoms that were looked on by her superiors as the results of a highly strung nature and an example of her own weakness. One of our group members was able to identify her medical condition early on in the book due to her nursing experiences and became very frustrated as doctors failed to help her.

The book traces Karen's journey out of the convent, into study at Oxford, then as a teacher of literature and as a patient of various psychologists who failed to diagnose her illness or to treat its symptoms. It was a most moving and, at times, humorous account and most of us found it gripping. However, perhaps the most significant part was her description of her spiritual journey, referred to in her title, taken from the poem "Ash Wednesday" by T.S. Eliot. She came to encounter God in her studies of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and has written widely on these subjects. Many of us were inspired to decide to read more of her writing. We enjoyed a most stimulating read and discussion.

Frankie Fisher – November 2012

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