Karen Armstrong, one of the world’s leading scholars on world religions, sat down with Oprah on yesterday’s Super Soul Sunday.
She started on a linear path, entering the convent at age seventeen. While her family was not particularly devout, Karen hoped to experience transcendent moments as God became less of a remote and shadowy reality.
The reality was very different.
Up at 5:30 for morning prayers and meditation, Karen discovered that she was completely unable to pray and could not wrap her mind around meditation. From 9:30 to 12:30, she sat with the other novices doing “insufferable needlework.” Each day, her stitches were examined and ripped apart. Upset and angry, Karen found it hard to believe that God really cared about crooked seams. These daily rituals were there to keep pride and ego in check, but it was a complete waste of time for Karen. Overly concerned with her perceived failures, she was deeply embedded in ego.
More shocking was the lack of emotional comfort in pre-Vatican convents. The nuns were not allowed to befriend or comfort each other. When Karen started to have fainting spells, she was told the spells were a sign of weakness and that she was using them to draw attention to herself. On a road trip to a summer retreat, Karen developed severe nose bleeds. When she asked for a tissue, the request was denied because the box belonged to the community.
After seven stressful years (1962-1969) cut off from the world, she left the convent. Anorexic and suicidal, Karen actually believed she would end up in a locked ward. The fainting and nose bleeds continued. She had a Grand Mal seizure in 1976 and finally received a diagnosis: epilepsy.
In spite of the many hardships endured, Karen did recall several kind nuns and one positive conversation that sustained her through many dark years. While dying, a very kind Mother Superior said, “You’re a good girl, Sister, and don’t forget I told you so.”
She was anti-religious for thirteen years. God became real to her again while writing the book, A History of God. Her book, The Spiral Staircase, is a moving and revealing look at her extraordinary life.
Little, unrelated acts of kindness can lighten someone’s load.
The biblical God is a starter kit.
There is no religion without action.
God is that which cannot be expressed.