The Spiral Staircase

Publisher: Vintage Canada
The moving story of her own search for God by the highly-acclaimed author of the bestselling A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam; The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism; and Islam: A Short History.

In 1969, after seven years as a Roman Catholic nun -- hoping, but ultimately failing, to find God -- Armstrong left her convent. She knew almost nothing of the changed world she was entering, and she was tormented by panic attacks and inexplicable seizures. Her struggle against despair was fueled by a string of discouragements -- failed spirituality, doctorate and jobs, fruitless dealings with psychiatrists -- but finally, in 1976, she was diagnosed with epilepsy and given proper treatment. She then began the writing career that would become her true calling, and as she focused on the sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, her own true inner story began to emerge. She would come to experience brief moments of transcendence through her work -- the profound fulfillment that she had not found in the long hours of prayer as a young nun.

Powerfully engaging, often heart-breaking, but lit with bursts of humour, The Spiral Staircase is an extraordinary history of self.

From the Hardcover edition.


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...
Read More


1. Of convent life, Armstrong writes, “We lived together in community, cheek by jowl, but were so lonely that we might as well have been living in solitary confinement” [p. 26]. She notes as well “the emotional frigidity of our lives” and the fact that “friendship was frowned upon” [p...

Read More


"[G]ripping tale…. Measured against the current crop of new releases about the sins of the Catholic Church, Armstrong’s latest book is surprisingly uplifting. … [H]er strength in moving ahead, not blaming the past, creates an utterly compelling voice. Like the poet, she sees her climb as an upward spiral: ‘I hope, toward the light.’"
The Edmonton Journal

"Armstrong’s attitude toward doctrine means that she can draw on the spiritual wisdom traditions of the West as well as Buddhism. Consequently, this book will appeal to spiritually minded seekers whether or not they are engaged in a religious community. In fact, non-believers can read this book and learn from its practical and psychological wisdom. This is a book for those who believe that, to be authentically ourselves, we must live for others."
The Ottawa Citizen

"If it were simply a narrative of a life resolving itself into extraordinary achievement, The Spiral Staircase would be enough. But it also portrays lyrically the tender relationship with her young autistic friend, Jacob; her adventures in the Holy Land; and her discovery at last, while writing A History of God, that theology could speak to her, as poetry does, in silence…. Armstrong’s own understanding of God, with which she concludes, may not be for everyone. But those who believe the world needs “not belief, not certainty, but compassionate action,” will find here words to live by.”
The United Church Observer

“…compelling, awe-inspiring, and uplifting…. The Sprial Staircase is a beautifully written account of a journey filled with obstacles…but it’s far from depressing or difficult to read. Armstrong’s sense of humour about her self and her life is uplifting.”
University of Toronto Bookstore Review

“I loved this powerful and moving account, and read it nonstop.”
—Elaine Pagels, author of Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas

“An engaging story of her own spiritual journey by contemporary religion’s foremost public intellectual. Armstrong’s narrative is candid, witty, insightful, and moving. A book that teaches as it entertains.”
—Marcus J. Borg, author of The Heart of Christianity

“Opening this book is like sitting down for coffee on a first date with someone who is interesting and odd. Your conversation becomes unexpectedly intimate: painful tales of bafflement and illness, gleaming crystals of self-discovery and joy. By the time you get up from the table, you have fallen in love.”
—Rabbi Arthur Waskow, author of Godwrestling–Round 2: Ancient Wisdom, Future Paths

“Karen Armstrong, chronicler of the human search for God, writes here with exquisite authenticity of one person relentlessly searching for the necessary self. A deeply moving account of a serious and large-hearted life. The book rings like the stroke of a bell — that clear, true tone. And it summons every reader to do the same.”
—James Carroll, author of Constantine’s Sword

“The world of religious autobiography is now singularly enriched by the remarkable story of the remarkable Karen Armstrong as told by her good self. We who have taken great profit from her insight into the life and faith of others now see here in this book her insights on her self. She really is light in darkness.”
—Peter J. Gomes, author of Strength for the Journey: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living

All rising is by a winding stair. In her most personal work to date, Armstrong takes us behind the scenes in the life of a free-lance monotheist. Like Jacob, she climbs toward Transcendence."
—Michael Wolfe, author of The Hadj: An American’s Pilgrimage to Mecca

“Charming and eloquent, intimate and illuminating, The Spiral Staircase tells the remarkable tale of the spiritual odyssey of an exceptionally gifted thinker and teacher. Readers who turn to Karen Armstrong for her insights on God and the great religions will thrill at the opportunity to witness her own intimate struggle toward truth, health, and wholeness.”
—Jonathan Kirsch, author of God Against the Gods

Praise for Karen Armstrong:

“Karen Armstrong is a genius.”
—A. N. Wilson, author of Paul: The Mind of the Apostle

“Armstrong can simplify complex ideas, but she is never simplistic.”
The New York Times Book Review

From the Hardcover edition.