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The Spiral Staircase: My Climb out of Darkness

The Spiral Staircase: My Climb out of Darkness

4.3 24
by Karen Armstrong

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Gripping, revelatory, and inspirational, The Spiral Staircase is an extraordinary account of an astonishing spiritual journey. In 1962, at age seventeen, Karen Armstrong entered a convent, eager to meet God. After seven brutally unhappy years as a nun, she left her order to pursue English literature at Oxford. But convent life had profoundly altered her, and


Gripping, revelatory, and inspirational, The Spiral Staircase is an extraordinary account of an astonishing spiritual journey. In 1962, at age seventeen, Karen Armstrong entered a convent, eager to meet God. After seven brutally unhappy years as a nun, she left her order to pursue English literature at Oxford. But convent life had profoundly altered her, and coping with the outside world and her expiring faith proved to be excruciating. Her deep solitude and a terrifying illness–diagnosed only years later as epilepsy—marked her forever as an outsider. In her own mind she was a complete failure: as a nun, as an academic, and as a normal woman capable of intimacy. Her future seemed very much in question until she stumbled into comparative theology. What she found, in learning, thinking, and writing about other religions, was the ecstasy and transcendence she had never felt as a nun.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Enjoyable and deeply interesting. . . . Very rewarding.” –San Francisco Chronicle

“A story about becoming human, being recognized, finally recognizing oneself. . . . It fills the reader with hope.” –The Washington Post Book World

“Riveting. . . . It’s a pleasure to read simply because it’s honest and hopeful. . . . Armstrong is such an evocative writer.” –Newsday

“I loved this powerful and moving account, and read it nonstop.” –Elaine Pagels, author of Beyond Belief

“In . . . Armstrong’s memoir there lurks wisdom about the making and remaking of a life . . . from which all of us could learn.” –The New York Times Book Review

“A powerful memoir. . . . Buoyed by keen intelligence and unflinching self-awareness and honesty. . . . Armstrong is an engaging, energetic writer.” –The Christian Science Monitor

“Candid and compelling, and the sentences are flawless.” –The Dallas Morning News

The New York Times
It is a courageous thing to tell a life story in which you sometimes look unglued, and even more so to rewrite a memoir you've already published. What has changed between Armstrong's first stab at narrating these years, and this new account, is the governing metaphor. She no longer imagines that in leaving the convent she was boldly, cleanly ''beginning the world,'' but rather tracing circles upward on a spiral staircase, an image she takes from Eliot's ''Ash Wednesday,'' which begins, ''Because I do not hope to turn again / Because I do not hope / Because I do not hope to turn.'' It is a fitting epigraph for this book. Eliot's poem, Armstrong explains, proceeds with ''the twisting sentences of the verse, which often revolves upon itself, repeating the same words and phrases, apparently making little headway, but pushing steadily forward nevertheless.'' In both Eliot's poem and Armstrong's memoir there lurks wisdom about the making and remaking of a life, the retracing of steps and the relentless pushing forward, from which all of us could learn. — Lauren F. Winner
The Washington Post
The Spiral Staircase at once combines memoir, theology, philosophy. It's a story about becoming human, being recognized, finally recognizing oneself. And it's written with self-respect but not egomania, compassion that never turns into self-pity. More than anything, it fills the reader with hope -- not the sappy, uplifting kind but the sort that comes from the very best fairy tales. — Carolyn See
Library Journal
In 1962, at the age of 17, Armstrong decided to devote her life to the Catholic Church, entering the convent during a time of great change (pre-Vatican II). The nine months she spent as a postulant were "the old regime at its best." She was allowed to enter Oxford University and found great stimulation in the study of English literature and her preparation to be a teacher. Eventually she applied the critical-analytical skills she was learning to her life as a novice. Finding her vocation as a "natural student," she asked to be allowed to leave the convent. Twelve years later, Armstrong felt the need to write about her depression, her anxiety, and her inexplicable seizures. After having built a life and giving herself some distance from her earlier experiences, she is able to look at her younger self with great tenderness, humor, and objectivity. A lovely rite of passage, this program is recommended for all public and academic libraries with large audio and spiritual collections. Pam Kingsbury, Univ. of North Alabama, Florence Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-This fascinating narrative is the story of Armstrong's personal spiritual quest, which led her at age 17 to join a convent. However, she found that her own skeptical nature and the physical constraints of convent life crippled her intellectually and spiritually. An undiagnosed form of epilepsy, which caused delusions and disorientation, further complicated her adjustment and was dismissed by the nuns as teenage melodrama. After seven years, Armstrong left the convent. The account of her difficult reentry into the "world" is heart wrenching, from her failure to pass her academic exams to the loss of her teaching post to the discomfort of television appearances. Slowly, with the help of a doctor who was able to diagnose and treat her epilepsy and good friends who supported her choices, the author began an academic journey that resulted not only in intellectual fulfillment, but spiritual commitment as well. Along the way, as Armstrong questions her own Catholicism, she delves deeply into other religions and achieves a greater appreciation not only of Christianity but also of Judaism and Islam. Introspective readers who have felt themselves to be outsiders and those who have questioned the values they have been taught will empathize with the author's struggle. Students interested in comparative religion will learn a great deal from her clear, objective descriptions, and her quest to find meaning in religion will inspire lively discussion.-Jackie Gropman, Chantilly Regional Library, VA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An introspective, decidedly un-cheery work that seeks to set the author's record straight. After Armstrong wrote an account of her seven years as a Catholic nun (Through the Narrow Gate, 1981), she followed it up with a cheery but admittedly untruthful memoir depicting her new life outside the convent (Beginning the World, 1983). Now, to describe the turnings her life took as she struggled to find her way in a secular world, Armstrong (Islam, 2000, etc.) adopts the image of a spiral staircase as a symbol of spiritual progress in T.S. Eliot's Ash-Wednesday. First as a student at Oxford, where she earned a B.A. and M. Litt., but failed to obtain a doctorate, and then as a teacher in a private girls' school in London, a position from which she was dismissed after a few years, she was what can best be described as an emotional wreck. Fainting spells while still in the convent progressed to episodes of amnesia and panic attacks, which led to years of useless sessions with psychiatrists, anorexia, even a suicide attempt and hospitalizations. Finally, in 1976, a physician recognized her epileptic seizures for what they were and put her on appropriate medication. At a loss as to how to make a living after losing her teaching job, Armstrong was in despair when publicity surrounding her first book brought her TV work. An early disastrous appearance convinced her that she could not make a career out of being an ex-nun, and when a chance to write a low-budget documentary on the early Christians came along, she grabbed it. By 1983 she was in Israel researching her subject. Exposure to Judaism and Islam while in the Middle East set her on a new course: writing about the historical development of thethree great Abrahamic faiths, and in doing so examining her own ideas about religion, spirituality, and God. From her teenage search for God in a convent and her subsequent attempts to debunk religion, Armstrong struggled to clarify her own beliefs. What matters, she concludes at last, is not dogma, or right belief, but right action-in a nutshell, the Golden Rule. Well-written and relentlessly self-aware. First printing of 60,000. Agent: Curtis Brown

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)
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Read an Excerpt

1. Ash Wednesday

I was late. That in itself was a novelty. It was a dark, gusty evening in February 1969, only a few weeks after I had left the religious life, where we had practiced the most stringent punctuality. At the first sound of the convent bell announcing the next meal or a period of meditation in the chapel, we had to lay down our work immediately, stopping a conversation in the middle of a word or leaving the sentence we were writing half finished. The rule which governed our lives down to the smallest detail taught us that the bell should be regarded as the voice of God, calling each one of us to a fresh encounter, no matter how trivial or menial the task in hand. Each moment of our day was therefore a sacrament, because it was ordained by the religious order, which was in turn sanctioned by the church, the Body of Christ on Earth. So for years it had become second nature for me to jump to attention whenever the bell tolled, because it really was tolling for me. If I obeyed the rule of punctuality, I kept telling myself, one day I would develop an interior attitude of waiting permanently on God, perpetually conscious of his loving presence. But that had never happened to me.

When I had received the papers from the Vatican which dispensed me from my vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, I was halfway through my undergraduate degree. I could, therefore, simply move into my college and carry on with my studies as though nothing had happened. The very next day, I was working on my weekly essay like any other Oxford student. I was study- ing English literature, and though I had been at university for nearly eighteen months, to be able to plunge heart and soul into a book was still an unbelievable luxury. Some of my superiors had regarded poetry and novels with suspicion, and saw literature as a form of self-indulgence, but now I could read anything I wanted; and during those first confusing weeks of my return to secular life, study was a source of delight and a real consolation for all that I had lost.

So that evening, when at 7:20 p.m., I heard the college bell summoning the students to dinner, I did not lay down my pen, close my books neatly, and walk obediently to the dining hall. My essay had to be finished in time for my tutorial the following morn- ing, and I was working on a crucial paragraph. There seemed no point in breaking my train of thought. This bell was not the voice of God, but simply a convenience. It was not inviting me to a meeting with God. Indeed, God was no longer calling me to anything at all — if he ever had. This time last year, even the smallest, most mundane job had had sacred significance. Now all that was over. Instead of each duty being a momentous occasion, nothing seemed to matter very much at all.

As I hurried across the college garden to the dining hall, I realized with a certain wry amusement that my little gesture of defiance had occurred on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. That morning, the nuns had knelt at the altar rail to receive their smudge of ash, as the priest muttered: “Remember, man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.” This memento mori began a period of religious observance that was even more intense than usual. Right now, in the convent refectory, the nuns would be lining up to perform special public penances in reparation for their faults. The sense of effort and determination to achieve a greater level of perfection than ever before would be almost tangible, and this was the day on which I had deliberately opted to be late for dinner!

As I pushed back the heavy glass door, I was confronted with a very different scene from the one I had just been imagining. The noise alone was an assault, as the unrestrained, babbling roar of four hundred students slapped me in the face. To encourage constant prayer and recollection, our rule had stipulated that we refrain from speech all day; talking was permitted only for an hour after lunch and after dinner, when the community gathered for sewing and general recreation. We were trained to walk quietly, to open and close doors as silently as possible, to laugh in a restrained trill, and if speech was unavoidable in the course of our duties, to speak only “a few words in a low voice.” Lent was an especially silent time. But there was no Lenten atmosphere in college tonight. Students hailed one another noisily across the room, yelled greetings to friends, and argued vigorously, with wild, exaggerated gestures. Instead of the monochrome convent scene — black-and-white habits, muffled, apologetic clinking of cutlery, and the calm, expressionless voice of the reader — there was a riot of color, bursts of exuberant laughter, and shouts of protest. But whether I liked it or not, this was my world now.

I am not quite sure of the reason for what happened next. It may have been that part of my mind was absent, still grappling with my essay, or that I was disoriented by the contrast between the convent scene I had been envisaging and the cheerful profanity of the spectacle in front of me. But instead of bowing briefly to the principal in mute apology for my lateness, as college etiquette demanded, I found to my horror that I had knelt down and kissed the floor.

This was the scene with which I opened Beginning the World, my first attempt to tell the story of my return to secular life. I realize that it presents me in a ridiculous and undignified light, but it still seems a good place to start, because it was a stark illustration of my plight. Outwardly I probably looked like any other student in the late 1960s, but I continued to behave like a nun. Unless I exerted constant vigilance, my mind, heart, and body betrayed me. Without giving it a second’s thought, I had instinctively knelt in the customary attitude of contrition and abasement. We always kissed the floor when we entered a room late and disturbed a community duty. This had seemed strange at first, but after a few weeks it had become second nature. Yet a quick glance at the girls seated at the tables next to the door, who were staring at me incredulously, reminded me that what was normal behavior in the convent was little short of deranged out here. As I rose to my feet, cold with embarrassment, I realized that my reactions were entirely different from those of most of my contemporaries in this strange new world. Perhaps they always would be.

But there may have been another reason why I kissed the ground that evening. Ever since my dispensation had come through, many of my fellow students and tutors had made a point of congratulating me. “You must be so relieved to be out of all that!” one of them had said. “It never seemed quite right for you.” “How exciting!” others had exclaimed. “You can start all over again! You can do anything, be anything you want to be! Everything is ahead of you!” It was true, in a sense: now I could fall in love, wear beautiful clothes, travel, make a lot of money — all the things that, most people presumed, I had been yearning to do for the past seven years. But I didn’t feel excited or relieved. I didn’t want to do any of the things that people expected. I had no sense of boundless opportunity. Instead I felt, quite simply, sad, and was constantly wracked by a very great regret. When I pictured that dedicated Lenten scene in the convent, it seemed unbearably poignant because it was now closed to me forever. I mourned the loss of an ideal and the absence of dedication from my new life, and I also had a nagging suspicion that if only I had tried just a little bit harder, I would not have had to leave. There had been something missing in me. I had failed to make a gift of myself to God. And so I felt like a penitent, and perhaps, when I kissed the floor that night, I had unconsciously wanted — just once — to appear in my true colors to the rest of the world.

In Beginning the World I described how I had threaded my way through the tables, flinching from the curious gaze of the other students, until I was rescued by a group who had become my friends and who had kept a kindly but tactful eye on me during the past difficult weeks. There was Rosemary, a cheerful extrovert, who was reading modern languages; Fiona, a gentler, more thoughtful girl; her constant companion, Pat, who had been a pupil at one of the boarding schools run by my order; and finally Jane, who was also reading English. All were Catholics. All had some experience of nuns. Jane retained a great fondness for the kindly semienclosed sisters at her rather exclusive school. Pat had actually known me as a nun, since I had been sent to help out at her school in Harrogate. There were other people at the table for whom Catholicism and convents were alien territory and who clearly intended to keep it that way. In Beginning the World I made them all tease me good-naturedly about my gaffe, question me about convent life, and express shock and horror at such customs as kissing the floor, confessing faults in public, and performing elaborate penances in the refectory. Maybe there was some discussion along these lines; certainly people were curious, up to a point. But I doubt that anybody was really very interested.

These young women had been quite wonderful to me. It had been Rosemary, Fiona, and Pat who had marched me down to Marks & Spencer a couple of hours after my dispensation had come through and helped me to buy my first secular clothes. Rosemary had cut and styled my hair, and all three had escorted me to dinner, my first public appearance as a defrocked nun. But they were probably wary of prying too closely into the reasons for what they could see had been a traumatic decision. I certainly had no desire to discuss the matter with them. In the convent we had been carefully trained never to tell our troubles to one another and it would never have occurred to me to unburden myself to my peers. And these girls had their own concerns. They too had essays to write; they were falling in love, and trying to juggle the demands of concentrated academic work with those of an absorbing social life. They were making their own journeys into adulthood, and now that the drama of my exodus was over, they almost certainly assumed that I was happily reveling in my new freedom, and were content to leave well alone.

I also knew that they could not begin to imagine my convent existence. Occasionally one of them would express astonishment if I inadvertently let something slip. “My nuns weren’t a bit like that!” Jane would insist stoutly. “Your lot must have been abnormally strict.” Pat would look even more bewildered, because she and I had lived with exactly the same community, but her perspective, as a secular, was different. “They were so modern and up-to-date, even sophisticated!” she would protest. “They drove cars, were starting to go to the cinema again, and were changing the habit!” Both girls would look at me reproachfully, because I was spoiling a cherished memory. Nobody likes to be told that things were not as they imagined. But I was quite certain that my own order had not been particularly austere, and agreed with Pat that it had been far more enlightened than many. Most nuns had observed these arcane rituals, had kissed the ground, confessed their external faults to one another, and were forbidden to have what were known as “particular friendships,” since all love must be given to God. That was why the reforms of the Second Vatican Council were so necessary.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Karen Armstrong is the author of numerous other books on religious affairs—including A History of God, The Battle for God, Holy War, The Case for God, Islam, Buddha, and The Great Transformation—and two memoirs, Through the Narrow Gate and The Spiral Staircase. Her work has been translated into forty-five languages. She has addressed members of the U.S. Congress on three occasions; lectured to policy makers at the U.S. State Department; participated in the World Economic Forum in New York, Jordan, and Davos; addressed the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington and New York; is increasingly invited to speak in Muslim countries; and is now an ambassador for the UN Alliance of Civilizations. In February 2008 she was awarded the TED Prize and recently launched with TED a Charter for Compassion, created online by the general public and crafted by leading thinkers in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion. She lives in London.

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Spiral Staircase 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 24 reviews.
1_grammie More than 1 year ago
I have to say how disappointed I am at the other reviewers' comments! How critical they were of Ms Armstrong's sincerest endeavor to find herself? This memoir is her own, and who are we as readers to judge her for that. Since reading this memoir several years ago, I have not stopped recommending it to others. What inspired me the most was that she learns and grows into the person she is today not by adopting religious beliefs in a "one size fits all manner", but by questioning and listening to all philosophies and beliefs open-mindedly. This is truly the way to unity and peace in the world. Americans could gain spiritual benefit by adopting more accepting views of other religions and cultures. Thank you, Karen Armstrong!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Karen Armstrong's The Spiral Staircase is a spiritual autobiography of her inspiring journey of faith. Her story covers a variety of extraordinary experiences, from life as a nun, to severe epilepsy, to a career as an internationally-acclaimed author. Armstrong presents her story through the metaphor of a spiral staircase, frequently referencing and quoting the T.S. Eliot poem Ash Wednesday. It is Armstrong's honesty and compassion in weaving her spiraling journey of faith, that ultimately inspires her readers to greater faith of their own. Armstrong's story begins and ends with her religious aspiration. Fueled by a desire to devote herself to god, she entered a Catholic convent at the age of seventeen. Unaware that she had epilepsy, she poured herself in to the religious life for seven years, enduring inexplicably harsh treatment. Led to a breakdown of faith and physical well-being, she eventually entered the bewildering process of leaving the church and beginning life anew in the secular world. In the world of academia, her life entered a new phase.This crossroads is illustrated in a poignant image of the first time Armstrong enters Oxford. Opening the doors to the main hall, full of noisy and talkative students, she is horrified to find that she “knelt down and kissed the floor”. (Armstrong, 2005) It is a symbolic gesture, marking not only her gratitude to be free, but the profoundly automatic behaviors ingrained in her as a nun. Although she then threw herself in to the academic world, she was ultimately turned down in her quest for a doctorate at Oxford. Throughout all of this, she struggled with a severe and undefined illness, only to finally be diagnosed with epilepsy. In every failure, Armstrong reveals her weaknesses with honesty, and her frustrations without blame. Such compassion both for herself and others reveals each crisis to be not an ending, but merely a step in the spiral staircase of life. At long last, she discovers comparative religion, and becomes an internationally respected writer in the world of religious studies. Through this, she finds that her path has wound her back to the consideration of God that she truly yearned for all her life. It is Armstrong's ability to forgive that gives her story its ultimate redemption. Her story compels us to look at the workings of the Catholic church with a wary eye, yet she has also forgiven her treatment and cultivated her own respect for Christianity. Although she suffered immense hardships and abuses, she comes to terms with that, while also learning valuable lessons about the human condition. Ultimately, she finds her faith restored by considering and writing about the universal truths in all religions. The Spiral Staircase reminds us all that life is not a straight path. We cannot predict where it will fall, and where it will turn. Yet Armstrong proves to us that the human spirit is stronger. The human spirit can understand, discriminate, and learn from even the most extreme of experiences. She has lived a religious, academic, personal, and professional life, and in doing so passes on lessons from which we can all learn.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was entirely unfamiliar with Ms. Armstrong until I heard an interview with her recently on NPR's 'Speaking of Faith'. Her intelligence and ability to articulate precisely what she wanted to convey led me to purchase this book. What an poignant and brutally honest memoir this is. Armstrong's striking self-awareness is amazing and inspiring given her early experience in a convent and her undiagnosed epilepsy, which contributed to her failure at several endeavors following her re-entry into secular life. As a person who has struggled with clinical depression for most of my 41 years, and having been raised as a Roman Catholic myself, her story is a hopeful beacon. Ms. Armstrong writes with clarity and conviction - having heard her speak (on the radio), I can only say that meeting her in person would be a great treat. As she states, T.S. Eliot's poem 'Ash Wednesday' is the 'spine' of this book - by which she means that its structure and message mirror the book's and her own journey. A fascinating and enlightening book that I recommend highly.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have read several of Karen Armstrong's books on religion and have been impressed with the organized, reasoned content of her scholarship. Finding out that she had been a nun but was nevertheless able to maintain a non-judgemental perspective in subjects that for a Roman Catholic would be difficult, if not impossible, made her interesting in her own right. This marvelously open, sensitive and informative book is compelling in allowing the reader access to the mind and heart of a scholar on a pilgrimage to get past what is spoon-fed to us by the relgious establishment and learn the truth, warts and all. Armstrong simply wants to know and understand how and why God affects our world. Her search becomes our search and she teaches us to question the authority of our own religious educations and not accept at face value conventional wisdom about the world's religions and its founders. If this is the first Karen Armstrong book you read, it's a wonderful introduction to her others.
ShutterbugSue66 More than 1 year ago
exceptional lady am buying her book on the1st.. Her insite is amazing,i listened to her on Ophra's SuperSoul Sunday.. so inspireing.. Religion is what we do,Spiritual,is who we are." i dodn't have that quite right but that was as Oprah says an AHHA Moment.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Awesome... What an appropriate title. I had never heard of her until reading some online reviews; searching for a book that would touch my heart. I certainly found one and would recommend it highly.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is a must read for those of us who are seeking to find and who are trying to live a meaningful life. It is both mentally and emotionally stimulating.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Karen Armstrong speaks to the seekers - seekers of truth, seekers of wisdom, and those who are engaged in a search for God. It's a given that we learn from the lives of others. Yet few have experienced this author's profound spiritual journey and been able to share it so articulately. It is not that her powerful story needs added luster for it stands alone. Yet, hearing this reading in her voice does very much enrich the listener's experience. In addition, it is well worth replaying - a journey one would wish to hear related again and again. For those not familiar with her best-selling hardcover book, Ms. Armstrong spent 7 years in a Roman Catholic convent. She left that protected place in 1969, deeply disappointed that she had not found God there. The world she reentered was vastly changed, and she fell prey to panic attacks and inexplicable seizures - enough to terrify the bravest soul. She turned to psychiatry for help but that was a dead-end; her search for work was fruitless. At last, in 1976, it was found that she had epilepsy and she received appropriate care. Next, she turned to writing and an exploration of faiths other than Christianity, much to the benefit of a world anxious for words of reassurance. She is not only a role model but a splendid teacher as well. All who listen to her words are her beneficiaries.
Guest More than 1 year ago
For those of us who have been on the receiving end of an abusive or dysfunctional relationship with the Catholic Church, and now find ourselves faithless, Armstrong offers hope for the future. This is not a memoir for those in denial about the serious questions raised by thoughtful analysis of Christianity - or any religion for that matter.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I empathize with the experiences of the Author in her experience in cold, dead religion. But as for Chris+ Himself, He is raised. I relate to her in her journey of comparative studies this process will only strengthen a person¿s faith as they see how Jesus stands head and shoulders above the rest. I too have been through this process, which has strengthened my own faith and versed me well in apologetics. May the Author continue to seek she will in the process come back to where she started with a conviction of how religion and the traditions of men have watered down the Good News of the Bible and whom Jesus really is. God the Son who became flesh
Guest More than 1 year ago
Ms. Armstrong is to be commended for her honesty: this memoir bristles with heart-felt angst and spiritual questioning. Her prose is concise. However, I found this narrative to be a bit unsettling. I feel sympathy for the hardships Ms. Armstrong endured, both as a Catholic religious and as a lay person. But by the end of the book, I was dismayed as Ms. Armstrong reconfigured a god and spirituality to fit her own whims. Granted, she studied a multitude of religious and historical texts. I admire her academic zeal. But in the end, when she devises her own notion of God, all I could think was, 'Hey, let's make a god to fit our fancy.' Ultimately, I think this is a very sad narrative.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I expected somenthing more spiritual from that book.