Friday, February 5, 2010

Karen Armstrong

I have only read one of Karen Armstrong’s books on religious topics: The Bible: A Biography. I found the book to be dense and difficult, the product of much thought and much research, some parts of which I am still trying to understand. I made notes (or at least copied sections) while I was reading The Bible and have referred to them on occasion since; looking at what I have copied frankly makes me dread reading other books by this author—but that’s not about her; it’s about me.

On the other hand, I have just finished reading Ms Armstrong’s two memoirs*, Through the Narrow Gate: A Memoir of Life in and out of the Convent and The Spiral Staircase: My Climb out of Darkness, both for the second time. These are two of my favorite books, and I am certain that I will read them many more times before I die.

Through the Narrow Gate first tells the story of the young Karen’s decision to pursue a vocation as a nun and the reaction to that decision of her family and of the headmistress of her school, Mother Katherine. The main focus of the book, however, is the process of formation and training that Armstrong underwent at the convent and how she responded to that process. As she entered the convent in 1962, the changes to religious life prompted by the Second Vatican Council had not yet taken place. Becoming a nun was still a very rigorous, self-destroying journey, especially for a young woman of great talent and sensitivity like Karen Armstrong; talent and sensitivity were in fact anathema to the Order’s view of what a good nun should be. The postulant and the novice were expected to empty their hearts of all self-indulgent tendencies—like the desire for human friendship and love, the desire for self-expression, the desire for personal intellectual development. This emptying was effected by relentless self-examination, mind-numbingly repetitive and useless tasks, constant scathing criticism by the nuns in charge of training, and humiliating punishments. Karen entered the convent expecting to find God, to welcome him into her heart, and to serve him joyfully for the rest of her life. Instead, her youthful and hopeful heart withered, even as she eventually became Sister Martha. And God never made an appearance despite seven years of prayer and sacrifice. Of course, there were moments of joy and warmth during her years in the convent but these were as rare as words of praise or encouragement from her superiors.

In early January 1969, Sister Martha left the Order and was suddenly once again Karen Armstrong. She now faced an entirely different journey, one which is chronicled in the second volume of her memoirs, The Spiral Staircase. Because Armstrong had been cut off from healthy human interaction and from the cultural upheavals of the 1960s, returning to the secular world and finding her place was not easy. Moreover, while she was in the convent she began to suffer from bewildering and frightening attacks that involved light flashing at an ever-increasing rate, a terrible sulphuric stench, and finally blackout. Her superiors attributed these episodes to hysteria, “pure nerves, and attention seeking.” The attacks continued and were ultimately a significant factor in Sister Martha’s decision to leave the religious life. She was confident that once she returned to the secular world they would stop, but in fact they did not, and she was to live with them for years to come, all along doubting her own sanity, until she was finally diagnosed as epileptic and given proper medication to control the seizures.

Meanwhile life in the world presented other challenges. Armstrong had been accepted to Oxford while still a nun and had shown promise as a scholar; she felt that academia was the key to success and stability in her life and pursued a doctoral degree in literary criticism. But her dissertation was failed by the external examiner and her career as a university scholar was over. She also had a short-lived career as a high school English teacher and department head. During this period she lost her belief in God and ceased being a Roman Catholic.

When Through the Narrow Gate was issued in paperback in 1983, Armstrong was asked to do a pilot for a planned television series called Opinion. She was required to speak extemporaneously on a religious topic in front of a camera for twenty minutes. This exercise was turning point in the life of the former nun. Not only was she able to speak without hesitation but what she said in those twenty minutes came for the first time wholly from her own creative mind. Later she was asked to host a six-part series on St. Paul. It was the travel and research for this project that launched her journey into studying and writing about the world’s religions, especially the three Abrahamic faiths. She has since become a renowned religious historian with several books under her belt.

And since then, Armstrong has in a way come full circle in her search for God. Once she recognized and accepted the unique path she had chosen for herself, she also realized that she was “gradually, imperceptibly being transformed.” Through her understanding of her own pain and suffering she discovered compassion for others; through her need to immerse herself in other cultures and societies in other times, she learned the ecstasy that results from going outside of self, “beyond the ego.” Karen remained single (she jokingly calls herself a “failed heterosexual”) and to this day lives alone in a house in London. The long hours of research and writing in silence in her study began to have a profound effect on her:

I discovered that I felt at home and alive in the silence, which compelled me to enter my interior world and walk around there. Without the distraction of constant conversation, the words on the page began to speak directly to my inner self. They were no longer expressing ideas that were simply interesting intellectually but were talking directly to my own yearning and perplexity. I was no longer just grabbing concepts and facts from my books, using them as fodder for the next interview, but learning to listen to the deeper meaning that lay quietly and ineffably beyond them. Silence itself had become my teacher.

Finally, Armstrong came to the understanding that “to believe or not to believe” was not the religious question.

To my great surprise, I was discovering that some of the most eminent Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians and mystics insisted that God was not an objective fact, was not another being, and was not an unseen reality like the atom, whose existence could be empirically demonstrated….The reality that we call God is transcendent—that is, it goes beyond any human orthodoxy—yet God is also the ground of all being and can be experienced almost as a presence in the depths of the psyche. All traditions went out of their way to emphasize that any idea we had of God bore no absolute relationship to the reality itself, which went beyond it. Our notion of a personal God is one symbolic way of speaking about the divine, but it cannot contain the far more elusive reality.

In the Preface to The Spiral Staircase, Armstrong says:

…I have never managed to integrate fully with “the world,” although I have certainly tried to do so. Despite my best endeavours, I have in several important ways remained an outsider. I was much closer to the truth at the end of Through the Narrow Gate, when I predicted that I would in some sense be a nun all my life. Of course, it is true that in superficial ways, my present life is light years away from my convent experience. I have dear friends, a pretty house, and money. I travel, have a lot of fun, and enjoy the good things of life. Nothing nunnish about any of this. But although I tried a number of different careers, doors automatically slammed in my face until I settled down to my present solitary existence, writing, thinking, and talking almost all day and every day about God, religion, and spirituality….For a long time I assumed that I had finished with religion forever, yet in the end, the strange and seemingly arbitrary revolutions of my life led me to the kind of transformation that—I now believe—I was seeking all those years ago, when I packed my suitcase, entered my convent, and set off to find God.

There are a number of reasons why I like these memoirs so much. The first is simply that they are beautifully written. Armstrong has a gift for narrative. In Through the Narrow Gate, rather than having to endure a dull litany of the indignities and deprivations she faced in the convent, I was transfixed by an unfolding psychodrama whose outcome I was dying to see revealed. Would Karen find God? Would she discover the source of those mysterious attacks? How would she ultimately break with the Order?

Armstrong says that she is able to remember verbatim conversations from years long past. This may be true, although one suspects that a certain measure of imagination also went into the reconstruction of scenes and dialogue. Regardless, the characters in both books and what they say never appear less than real. As an amateur screenwriter, when I first read these memoirs, I instantly recognized their cinematic potential and began writing a movie script. Writing a film adaptation of a book is essentially selecting which scenes to put into the script and writing dialogue that faithfully tells the story on screen. In writing the screenplay for these two books, I found that my only task was selecting scenes; the dialogue could not be improved upon.

Armstrong also writes with great poignancy without indulging in sentimentality. The passage in Through the Narrow Gate in which the school-aged Karen and her parents visit her secretly gin-drinking grandmother is both touching and hilarious. In The Spiral Staircase, the story of her caring for the autistic and epileptic son of an Oxford professor in exchange for a room in the eccentric academic’s family home—while Karen herself is unknowingly suffering from epilepsy—is heartbreaking and fascinating. The passage in which Armstrong describes the boy’s baptism is worth quoting in full:

Later that year, I traveled up to Oxford one afternoon and walked through the city streets to Blackfriars to meet Jenifer Hart. She wanted Jacob to be baptized. “But why?” I had asked. “You don’t believe in any of it! Why do this?”

Jenifer had sighed. “I want him to have the whole thing” was all she could say. “I want him to do it properly.” Jacob wouldn’t understand the theology of baptism, of course, but maybe the rite could speak to him at some other level. The Dominicans, who were no fools, had agreed to do the christening, and the ceremony was to be held that afternoon. As a final twist in this strange story, I was to be Jacob’s godmother. I was the person who had brought him into this world of religion, even though I had done it at a time when I was losing my own faith. Jacob seemed doubly my alter ego. I had now discovered that we were also bound together by an illness that could make our environment appear demonic, and was grateful that the experience of looking after him had prepared me for my own diagnosis. Now he was taking my place in the church.

Geoffrey Preston had decided to perform the ceremony in a small chapel upstairs. Jenifer was already waiting there, tense, hands clasped tightly in her lap, and clearly ill at ease. But Jacob was sitting quietly, his head to one side in a listening posture, his face thoughtful. “This is a special occasion, isn’t it, Karen?” he hissed as I went and sat beside him. Nobody else was present. We made a strange quartet of belief, unbelief and—for Jacob—something else that had nothing to do with theological conviction. “Jacob,” Geoffrey said, “would you like some incense for your baptism?”

His eyes lit up. “Oh, Geoffrey,” he breathed, “can I make it?” I smiled at Geoffrey. We both knew that this was a long-cherished dream.

“Come over here.” With his hands on his knees, Jacob bent low over the thurible, his blond head close to Geoffrey’s tow-colored one. “Snap, crackle, and pop!” he whispered gleefully as the charcoal spluttered. “Karen, watch this! Just watch me now!” He carefully spooned incense onto the glowing pellet, and a cloud of fragrance rose up and filled the small room. I glanced warily at Jenifer, fearful that this popish flummery might be one step too far. But she was watching Jacob, as he swung the thurible to and fro, with a rather sad smile, acknowledging that he had gone to a place where she could not follow. His face was transfigured, his head flung back as he snuffed histrionically.

“Right,” Geoffrey nodded, and Jacob instantly replaced the thurible on the stand. “Did you see me, Karen? Mummy, did you see me?”

Geoffrey cut the ceremony to a minimum. There was no complicated creed for me to recite on Jacob’s behalf, an affirmation of faith that, as Geoffrey knew, I could not honestly make and which had no relevance in Jacob’s case. The exorcisms were omitted: Jacob was not to be frightened by the idea of a demon trapped inside him. Instead, we had just the bare essentials. I stood behind Jacob and made the responses; Jacob knelt on a prie-dieu, bolt upright, his hands joined and his eyes fixed sternly ahead.

“What do you ask of the church of God?” Geoffrey asked.

“Faith!” I replied in Jacob’s stead, catching Geoffrey’s eye for a moment. He smiled at me, kindly, accepting the irony. What did faith really mean? If you could leave out the creed as we had just done, could faith be liberated from belief? Could it mean that we sought the kind of trust and confidence we feel when we say that we have faith in a person or an ideal? Maybe the church could give Jacob this kind of faith—I looked at his rapt face—but it had signally failed with me.

“What does faith bring to you?” Geoffrey continued.

“Life everlasting,” I replied. No, I couldn’t believe in the prospect of immortality. But could faith not simply bring an enhanced life, here and now? A more abundant life, as Jesus had promised, even though my so-called faith had seemed to have diminished my own mind and heart?

“If, then, you desire to enter into life,” Geoffrey went on, “keep the commandments. You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, and with your whole soul, and with your whole mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”

Put like that, it sounded so simple. Why [in the convent] had we tied ourselves up in such knots, sewing at needleless machines, performing archaic penances, and treating one another so coldly? And how could we have loved our neighbors and sisters in religion, when we had been taught to despise ourselves? At each phrase, Jacob nodded to himself. There was poignancy in the phrase “with your whole mind,” but Jacob did know how to love, and Blackfriars had welcomed him lovingly. He approached Geoffrey slowly and stood quite still, while Geoffrey made the sign of the cross on his forehead and breast. I quailed slightly when he put a few grains of salt on Jacob’s tongue: at any other time, he would have spat it out with scant ceremony, but now he swallowed it gravely, while Geoffrey said the prescribed words: “Grant, we pray you, Lord, that your servant who tastes the savor of salt may no longer hunger but be filled with heavenly nourishment.”

Jenifer had been right. Jacob did hunger for something that he could never have put into words. And I too had once had a similar hunger. I had wanted to be filled with God, transformed by a holiness that would bring me a fuller and more satisfying existence. But instead I had starved my mind and my heart, and that hunger had atrophied, died, and been replaced by a malaise with all things religious. Yet when I looked at Jacob, I felt nostalgia for what I had once been. Jacob did find something at Blackfriars, though none of us could explain what that was. His face was clear and peaceful; he was enjoying a little respite from the demons that plagued us both.

“Now bend forward, Jacob,” Geoffrey said gently. Sprinkling a few drops of water on Jacob’s head, he raised his voice, which filled the little chapel triumphantly: “Jacob, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Jacob gave a long, audible sigh of satisfaction, while Jenifer and I, excluded from the source of this peace for very different reasons, exchanged glances and smiled slightly.

Through the Narrow Gate and The Spiral Staircase are unfailingly honest revelations of Armstrong’s weaknesses and follies, and of her struggles—with faith, with bad health, with failure. At no point in either book did I feel that her plight was over-dramatized or exaggerated; in fact, for the most part she looks at herself and her journey with a clear and critical eye as well as with humour. There is in the end a sense of wonder that her journey could have bought her the depth of understanding that researching and writing such books as Muhammad and A History of God provided.

I am no Karen Armstrong, but reading her memoirs led me to reflect on the similarities between her life and mine—apparent vocations to religious life, doors closing in chosen careers, and finally arriving in one’s own myth—and thus to be inspired not so much by what she has accomplished but more by what she has learned, about herself, about the world, and about God.

I set aside unfinished the screenplay I was writing from these two books, but I hope some day to complete it and to send it to Ms Armstrong. Perhaps she will like what she and I have written and will agree to a film version of her fascinating and inspiring journey.

*Armstrong wrote another memoir, Beginning the World, shortly after Through the Narrow Gate was published. Of this work she says: “It is the worst book I have ever written and I am thankful to say that it has long been out of print. As the title suggests, this second volume attempted to tell the story of my return to secular life. But it was far too soon to write about those years, which had been extremely painful, even traumatic. I had scarcely begun to recover and was certainly not ready to see this phase of my life in perspective.”

1 comment:

  1. I'm not usually "into" memoirs, but I love "the Spiral Staircase." I'm trying to get through Armstrong's works, slowly. I'm currently reading her work on myth.