Monday, September 1, 2014

The Sprial Staircase - Karen Armstrong

sub-title: My Climb Out of Darkness

I picked this book up at Goodwill (my new favorite used book store) because I had read the author's book, A History of God, some time ago.  This is an auto-biography that tells her story of joining a convent at 17, leaving seven years later, and her journey to becoming a comparative theologian. She was accused of hysteria and did not find out for many years that she actually had a form of epilepsy.  She became a journalist post WWII in England and went on to research, write and speak on Christian, Jewish and Islamic beliefs.

She uses the T.S. Eliot poem, Ash Wednesday, where he describes his ascent heavenward through turning and turning, as if on a spiral staircase, as a metaphor for her own life changes.

"But what thrilled me most about Eliot's poem were the words 'because' and 'consequently'. There was nothing depressing about this deliberate acceptance of reduced possibilities.  It was precisely 'because' the poet had learned the limitations of the 'actual' that he could say: 'I rejoice that things are as they are.'"
I liked this quote and interpretation of Eliot's verse; it endorses an acceptance of life as it is.

More quotes:

"The nuns, I knew, were good women, and it must be almost unbearably painful for them to realize that they had damaged us.  It is always difficult to forgive people we have harmed".
I thought this was an interesting perspective to say that we need to forgive those we have harmed.

[The story of Rabbi Hillel, one of the leading Pharisees in Jesus' time] "Some pagans came to Hillel and told him that they would convert to this faith if he could recite the whole of Jewish teaching while he stood on one leg.  So Hillel obligingly stood on one leg like a stork and said: 'Do not do unto other as you would not have done unto you.  That is the Torah.  The rest in commentary.  Go and learn it.'".
The author points out that, "it takes more discipline to refrain from doing harm to others.  It's easier to be a do-gooder and project your needs and desire onto other people"...."He told me that in most traditions, faith was not about belief but about practice".  Religion is about ..."doing things that change you".

"All the world faiths put suffering at the top of their agenda, because it is an inescapable fact of human life, and unless you see things as they really are, you cannot live correctly."

"The one and only test of a valid religious idea, doctrinal statement, spiritual experience, or devotional practice was that it must lead directly to practical compassion.If your understanding of the divine made you kinder, more empathetic, and impelled you to express this sympathy in concrete acts of loving kindness, this was good theology."

"Compassion has been advocated by all the great faiths because it has been found to be the safest and surest means of attaining enlightenment. It dethrones the ego from the center of our lives and puts others there..."

And one I particularly felt was meaningful in today's contentious "us vs. them" society:
"If we cannot accommodate a viewpoint in a friend without resorting to unkindness, how can we hope to heal the terrible problems of our planet?  I no longer think that any principle or opinion is worth anything it it makes you unkind or intolerant".

[Speaking of the inability to sense of the presence of God] "And yet the very absence I felt so acutely was paradoxically a presence in my life.  When you miss somebody very intensely, they are, in a sense, with you all the time."

A very thought provoking, intelligent and deeply felt book.

Published:  2004   Read: August 2014  Genre: auto-biography

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