This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

July 14, 2005 - the Spiral Staircase

There was a time in my life -- early adolescence -- when I loved biographies. I suppose I was trying to get a feel for the rhythm of lives. I hoped that by reading the lives of exceptional people I admired, I might get a clue how to live an exceptional life myself.

Gradually, my reading tastes changed. But I just finished, almost at one sitting, a gripping biography of an altogether unique mind.

The name of the book is "The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness." The author is Karen Armstrong, probably best known for her surprise bestseller, "A History of God."

The story begins with the result of a life choice made by a 17 year old. Armstrong had decided to become a nun. Seven years later, with the full consent of her superiors, she broke her vows and left the convent, a self-described broken and damaged woman.

The reason she'd become a nun was to seek transcendence, an encounter with God. Instead, the disciplines of the Carmelite order, designed to build strong women with iron control of their bodies, minds and spirits, left her intellectually repressed and spiritually desolate.

Moreover, a series of fainting spells, accompanied by the smell of sulphur and vivid hallucinations, had left her in doubt of her own sanity.

In essence, Armstrong, whom I consider one of the wisest and most insightful writers in the English-speaking world on the divisive topic of religion, tells the story of her spiritual development. It closely follows the metaphor of one of my favorite poems: T. S. Eliot's "Ash Wednesday," in which Eliot must turn, and turn again, without hope, as he climbs a spiral staircase to the light.

Armstrong describes her panic at reentering the secular world via a scholarship to Oxford. Next to come was a new disorder: a condition known as jamais vu. She would find herself somewhere without any memory of how she had arrived.

She had, along with another former nun, a bout of anorexia. She sought psychiatric assistance, without success.

Through petty injustice, she was denied the advanced academic degree she had earned. Then, she settled for a career she knew did not suit her: teaching English at a girl's boarding school. Her growing illness -- more fainting spells, deepening jamais vu -- ended that career as well.

Then she had a true seizure, and at last discovered what three years of psychiatric visits had never fathomed: she had temporal lobe epilepsy.

With this condition at last diagnosed and treated, other changes happened. A gifted intellect and writer, Armstrong was drawn to religious topics. There isn't much of a market for that in England, by the way, where only 6% of the population attends church.

No matter. Armstrong ignored her agent's and publisher's advice and explored potentially explosive topics. Among them was the true meaning of Islam. Based on her research, she believed that the West was making a profound mistake, reframing the Islamic world in terms straight out of the Crusades. She feared a devastating conflict.

Then came September 11.

Since then, Armstrong has contributed much to our understanding of fundamentalism (see "The Battle for God").

After spending so much time with religious scripts and history, she has concluded that the core truth of religion -- whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or Taoist -- is the same. Its essential message is Compassion. To meet evil with good. To live by the Golden Rule. To love thy neighbor as thyself.

Yet consider our everyday news. The sons of Abraham slaughter each other in the Middle East. Christian evangelical groups rattle their political sabers here at home.

It is impossible not to be impressed by Armstrong's journey.

And it is impossible, once reading it, not to wonder how so many so-called believers get it so wrong.

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