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on 31 May 2008
I recently gave my copy of this book away, I was reluctant to but seeing the pain and confusion in my recipients life I thought it would help him as he struggles to discover an essential spirituality after losing his faith in Christianity. I am delighted to see that it has, which led me to want to once again have this book as part of my library. Looking on Amazon I was sad and surprised to see that it didn't have straight 5 star reviews. I guess we all have different tastes. I have read the final chapter several times it is engaging and lucid in outlining the nature of the spiritual life. It is really the final chapter that I would like to have not as part of my library but part of my consciousness. Karen doesn't set out to write definitions but her open heartedness and clear intelligence facilitates an understanding of what is essential to the true spiritual life as opposed to a religious life. I will include a short quote which I hope gives you a sense of her writing.
"Hyam Maccoby had given me a clue six years earlier, when we sat together, eating egg and tomato sandwiches in the little café near Finchley Central tube station. He had told me that in most traditions, faith was not about belief but about practice. Religion is not about accepting twenty impossible propositions before breakfast, but about doing things that change you. It is a moral aesthetic, an ethical alchemy. If you behave in a certain way, you will be transformed. The myths and laws of religion are not true because they conform to some metaphysical, scientific or historical reality but because they are life-enhancing. They tell you how human nature functions, but you will not discover their truth unless you apply these myths and doctrines to your own life and put them into practice. The myths of the hero, for example, are not meant to give us historical information about Prometheus or Achilles - or for that matter Jesus or the Buddha. Their purpose is to compel us to act in such a way that we reveal our own heroic potential."
(Karen Armstrong, Spiral Staircase pg 304.)
I hope this review has been helpful.
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on 3 October 2004
Karen Armstrong's books seem to be getting better and better.
The first hundred pages of The Spiral Staircase are interesting, the next very interesting - but the final section is deeply moving and important. After intense study of the sacred texts of the world's major religions, Karen Armstrong re-states with great clarity and understanding a truth discovered by other mystics over the ages - true religious practice does not consist of belief in one creed or another, but in living a compasionate and thoughtful life.
I am reminded of Tolsoy's The Wisdom of Humankind, which comes to similar conclusions.
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VINE VOICEon 25 May 2004
This is the story of a woman who left the religious life at the end of the 1960s and how she coped with life in the secular world. Karen Armstrong entered the convent in 1962 at the age of 17 and left seven years later at the end of the Swinging Sixties. Armstrong wrote an account of her convent years called Through the Narrow Gate, and The Spiral Staircase begins as Karen leaves the convent to resume her studies at Oxford. She was hampered by what she felt was the conditioning she had undergone in the convent, where she was seen as a hopeless hysteric who dramatised every problem. She was left with feelings of worthlessness and failure that it took many years to overcome. She was also suffering from the misdiagnosis of physical symptoms that only increased her feelings of isolation in the modern world. This is a fascinating account of the journey of a woman to find her own inner peace after many years of struggle to find her own place in the world.
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on 17 April 2006
In this third volume of Karen Armstrong's biography, she traces her life journey from the time she left the convent and her life as a nun to the present day. She writes of her initial rejection of God and all things religious. She wrote and presented television programmes that promoted a secular view. Her life was marred for a long time by undiagnosed epilepsy, which resulted in the feeling (regrettably supported by her psychologist) that she had serious mental illness. Eventually she returned to religion but not to the conventional God of Western religion. She started to view religions as adherence to certain practices which took one out of oneself. Good religion is that which promotes compassion - feeling what others feel and not treating them in ways in which one would not like to be treated. Bad religion is that which promotes intolerance and hatred. This is a very well-written book that explores one person's search for meaning. It is worth reading by those who are religious, irreligious or just not sure. For me there remained one unanswered question - How can belief and practice be divorced? Whether one adheres to a religious view or not, our beliefs influence our practices but our practices also affect our beliefs.
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on 26 April 2005
Having read both 'Through the Narrow Gate' and Beginning the World, I was intrigued to find out how Ms Armstrong would handle a further book covering the same period without being repetitive. Indeed, there are some episodes in the book which had been covered previously, but taken this time from a different perspective and I generally did not have a feeling of 'deja vu'. Ms Armstrong did refer to her previous book at times, mainly in a negative light. I did feel that this was perhaps oversensitive of her, as it is inevitable that she would view these episodes differently after a further 20 year gap. However, it was sensitively written and it would be difficult for the reader not to empathise with the difficulties she has encountered in her life. I found the spiritual content excellent and well presented, with well thought out arguments, whether or not I agreed with her conclusions.
Overall, this is an excellent book for anybody with a spiritual turn of mind and I look forward to reading her next book
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on 13 August 2004
Karen Armstrong's book is both an autobiography and a very intimate record of a remarkable spiritual journey.Like many other pilgrims her quest takes her through several stages of development as she survives such personal catastrophes as a debilitating illness and a succession of failures in a Roman Catholic convent, a doctoral program at Oxford and even in secondary school teaching. Above all THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE contains a message of hope as it describes how one intrepid wayfarer can endure continual hardships and setbacks.
Armstrong has a scholarly background and she certainly is a gifted writer but her academic training is in neither theology nor biblical studies. She is really an amateur in those fields and consequently approaches her subject with refreshing eagerness. Much of what she knows seems to be the result of her research for A HISTORY OF GOD and her other books. The most interesting part of THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE for me appears toward the end of the text when she gives a glimpse into her present state of mind regarding God and religion. In discussing the three Abrahamic traditions she tends to emphasize their similarities instead of their differences.
I highly recommend THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE to anyone who feels drawn to the lure of the pilgrimmage. Religious fundamentalists, however, will probably not enjoy this book.
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on 26 April 2015
The Spiral Staircase is honestly one of the best books that I have ever read. I is funny, heart-breaking, informative, and everything in-between. Karen's story of her life in the convent and then when she went out into the outside world is amazing. So interesting and I can honestly say that I really didn't want to put the book down. The insight the reader gets regarding how life was in a convent when she lived there, and then later when she visited the nuns is thought provoking to say the least. What happened to her and some of the other nuns is almost too sad to bare. But then to also see how they coped afterwards brings more hope. I would love Karen to write a book about what happened next. It would b on pre-order for me! Many thanks Karen for giving us a really enjoyable and interesting read.
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VINE VOICEon 3 June 2008
There are some unduly negative reviews of this book, based mainly on ignorance of the reality of epilepsy. Weird sensations, as I know well, are only the beginning. Without diagnosis, fear for one's sanity is natural. However, after diagnosis, senseless ignorance and prejudice commonly result. I had Ms Armstrong's own experience, dismissed without warning from a successful teaching post, with the loss of my home and marriage (and my ex-wife's sanity). Epilepsy isn't normally the classical convulsive collapse. Temporal lobe attacks are indescribable, driving one to question reality. I applaud Ms Armstrong's work, in bringing this subject to our attention - and in stressing the capacity to succeed regardless (as did Dostoevsky). Navel-gazing this is not. When no information is available (how many titles are there on the subject in bookshops?), you are thrown on your own inner resources. Don't underrate the problem. The UK has around 300,000 people with epilepsy, the US around 2.5 million. Yet we never hear of it, for it's become a socially unmentionable condition, subject to religious idiocy and superstition - quite apart from employment difficulties (I was once dismissed from successful employment as suspected likely to bite colleagues! No, not the Middle Ages, but 1990) So, before accusations of undue introspection, think of those in Ms Armstrong's position, and mine and those of the millions worldwide plagued by stupidity over one simple word: Epilepsy. So to her I say, congratulations for letting the reading public know - and for her success in the often senseless world.

M.Igoe M.A. (hons), M.Litt, PGCE (but classed as unemployable in the UK)
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on 10 April 2009
One of the reviewers on here refers to Karen Armstrong's book as "a memoir of her journey from nowhere to nowhere along a path of self pity". I could not disagree more. Any autobiography might be considered self-indulgent in its tacit assumption that the author's life might be of interest to others but, frankly, it might very well be. And in Karen Armstrong's case this and her previous book, 'Through the Narrow Gate' (which I would recommend people to read first), provides a fascinating insight both into the brain-washing that nuns were expected to endure in the 1960s and the impact that had on a young vulnerable individual trying her level best to come closer to the concept of God with which she had been indoctrinated. The idea that she is some kind of whining egotist, after many years of undergoing mental suffering in which she steadfastly refused to blame anyone else other than herself for failing to achieve her goal, is one I find impossible to accept. On top of that she had to cope with the extreme indifference shown to her manifestations of illness while struggling to build her life anew once she knew that her life as a nun could not continue. And anyone who has read her other books can see that, far from ending up nowhere, she has gained huge insights into some of the most profound problems that religion poses for the world today. Of course, I would not deny that in writing her book, Ms Armstrong probably gained some huge emotional benefit in terms of her own self-understanding, but I feel highly privileged and grateful that she has chosen to share her journey with us. I would thoroughly recommend it.
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on 23 February 2010
Having read several of Karen Armstrong's books, starting with "Through the Narrow Gate" many years ago, I was intrigued to read this autobiography. She has come a long way since her days of entering the convent at the age of 17. From beginning a life of austerity as a Christian nun, she has gradually embarked on a search for the truth apparent in every great world religion.

From unbelief after her time in the convent to belief in the sacred is an interesting adventure and one which Karen Armstrong is able to take the reader along with very competently. As she says, "if conventional beliefs make you compassionate, kind and respectful of the sacred rights of others, this is good religion."

She considers the similarities, rather than the differences between Judaism, Christianity and Islam. All the great world leaders have taught the Golden Rule: 'Do not do to others as you would not have done unto you.' It is the bedrock of Buddha's teachings, also of Jesus, and is too the bedrock of the Koran.

The more we study the world faiths, the more it is possible to see the profound, underlying similarities. It would be good if the author were to research and investigate the Bahá'í Faith next since it is the fourth monotheistic religion in the Holy Land and throws new light on the whole understanding of the progressive nature of religion - a subject about which, it seems, too few people know much about.
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