Monday, June 06, 2005

The Spiral Staircase

In a recent blog I wrote of the importance of "telling our story". The most nurturing books that I've read are what I call confessions: the story of the writer. Notable among these are Memories, Dreams and Reflections by Carl Jung and Surprised by Joy by C.S.Lewis, worthy successors of the Confessions of St. Augustine and the journals of George Fox and John Wesley. They all revealed intimate details of the writer's life, especially the inner life, the sort of thing we carefully avoid in ordinary conversation.

Now I've found another of these wonderful stories. Soon after I started studying Karen Armstrong's History of God, I decided that it would be one of my foremost sources for the History of the Church.

Then along came Karen's principal confessional work leading Marcus Borg to describe her (on the jacket) as "religion's foremost public intellectual". I have found the Spiral Staircase (2004) to be fully as significant (to me at least) as the works of Jung and Lewis.

Karen's parents appear to have been at most nominal Catholics, but they sent her and her sister to a Catholic girls' school. At 17, much to their surprise (and dismay?) she entered the convent associated with the school. 7 years later she got an 'honorable discharge', near the beginning of a general exodus of young nuns from Catholic institutions. It was 1969 and the 2nd Vatican Council, like a breath of fresh air had enlivened and fundamentally changed the convent atmosphere. She said that she was "just ahead of a massive exodus of religious who left their convents and monasteries like flocks of migratory birds" (p. xii).

(One might say that her story [thus far] is quite archetyal. How many reading this recall their own disillusionment with conventional religion in their teens or [if backward like Karen] twenties? Once again according to Nels Feree 'converted to God at 9, converted to truth at 18'.

In retrospect we may see that the convent [and monastery as well] acts as a sifting process, training the obedient young people and rejecting those who prefer to think for themselves. This is largely true of most training schools, religious or secular.)

Karen is a good writer as her publishing history amply attests; one cannot publish 15 books without learning a good bit about writing. She is also a careful and thorough researcher. Her Spiral Staircase fully traces, with candor and honesty, a spiritual path (a Way) that embraces a lesson for those with religious interests. Her experiences show how a person with concern and integrity may learn to enfold followers of many faiths in an inclusive love.

Karen entered the convent with high spirits and great expectations. Unfortunately her habit of independent thought did not conform to the training in obedience practiced by the nuns. After seven years she had suffered a great disillusionment with a pronounced psychological deflation. She concluded that God was a closed book for her. Her props had been knocked out; she left the convent with great trepidation and attempted (without much success) to enter the main stream. For example she found the modern music (the Beatles) completely mystifying.

Some pronounced neurological disorders exacerbated her precarious psyche. Her account suggests that it had all convinced her that she was pretty worthless. Her faith was all gone.

For reasons of economy she began living with a couple of atheistic Oxford professors and assumed the occasional care of an autistic boy; he proved to be an epileptic. Surprisingly the boy's parents asked her to take him to mass; he enjoyed the liturgical and other paraphernalia of the church.

In due time they asked her to be godfather at his first communion. She went through the form with the priest although both knew she had no faith.

The strange neurological events continued and were uniformly diagnosed by the psychiatrists
as psychosomatic events. Finally she woke up in a general hospital after a grand mal event and the doctor made the correct diagnosis.

This came as a great relief to Karen. She had decided that she was crazy; epilepsy is much better than that. From that point her life took a turn for the better. Though she may not have realized it, her positive relationship with the autistic boy led to a level of sensitivity to the pain and suffering of others and she came to see that such suffering led to joy (cf James 1:2).

(My own experience in that respect was quite similar. It wasn't until I came to understand that I was not as sick as half the population that I began to find myself reaching out in love to others. )

Years earlier Karen had published two volumes trying to explain her convent experiences and trying to be 'regular'. This earned her a certain notoriety. The BBC employed her to give talks on religion. Then they sent her to Israel for a two year preparation of a six point documentary on St. Paul. During this period she really made friends with St. Paul and, even more significantly came to have strongly positive feelings about 1st century Judaism as well as Islam. Things were coming into place for Karen.

During this period she published (among others) books on St. Paul and Muhammad. It was of course A History of God that made her famous and led to her acceptance as a leading interpreter of advanced biblical and church history scholarship.

What shall we make of these strange adventures that befell Karen and that she has shared with us. I must conclude that her integrity exceeded that of the nuns under whose care she had been placed. IMO God rubbed out her childish faith, much as he perhaps did to you and to me. Then he taught her to love the Jewish rabbis, then to love Mohammed, then to love Buddha.

Then he led her to share this with us perhaps to make some of us fully human in the sense Jung spoke of and that the Lord Jesus Christ lived.

The healing process goes on. In the fullness of time God may teach her to love Christ; perhaps she already does.


Amanda said...

Larry, I recently read this book, and blogged about it, too, along with the TS Eliot poem from which she drew her title. While my "fall" from the Catholic faith was also traumatic and heartbreaking, in time I have indeed come to see it as God "rubbing out" my childish faith. I'm so glad you loved this book, too.

Larry said...

Thank you, Amanda. I had about decided no one was going to read this post.

I can tell you Karen A. is near the top of my list for Bible students, and reading The Spiral Staircase put her near the same place as a human being.

Theologically she is right where I have become after lo these many years.

Re 'belief': I had figured that out some time back. When Jesus said 'believe, believe, believe', he was exhorting his disciples to trust to the Way he outlined with his words and actions. Somehow the church got this confused with the necessity to conform to a set of intellectual propositions.

Jesus' little story about The Two Sons (not the one about the Prodigal), makes that pretty clear: it's not your protestations, but your behaviour that reflects your true faith.

Somehow I managed to miss your May post about Eliot, Armstrong, and Amanda. Dear girl, you have a wonderful gift for telling your story (which we all need to do and to hear from others). Beside that you have already progressed largely to the place(s) Karen and I arrived at after many years of struggle.

I thank God for you and hope to be able to follow your Christian journey with great interest and rejoicing.

Jon said...

Great post, Larry.

I have way to much to read (and a knowing that what I want isn't in books, anyway!) This digest was very helpful.

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