I discovered that it was common for a Sufi to claim that she was equally at home in a synagogue, mosque, temple or a church, and was neither a Jew, not Christian nor Muslim, because once you have glimpsed the divine, you have left these limited human distinctions behind.

While I was sitting at my desk, I would find that I had moments when I felt deeply touched within and lifted momentarily beyond myself. I felt that I inhabited my humanity more fully than usual. Was this God? If so, what was God? But then I remembered that if I thought I could answer this question, I would miss the whole point. So, my study has become my prayer. It is similar to the "divine study" that Benedictine monks do each day; they immerse themselves in a text and get a mini-second of oratio or "prayer."

It seems odd to finish my quest by realizing how little I know. But that is the way human beings experience the world. No matter how much we know, something always eludes us. If we can just let go of our desire to know it all and be in control—which brings us so much anxiety—we experience great freedom. The world is no longer cut down to suit our tiny minds; instead, we see fresh possibility and mystery in every thing and everybody around us. Unknowing is built into the human condition. At the beginning of the 20th century, people thought that there were just a few outstanding questions left in the system discovered in the 17th century by Isaac Newton, and that soon our understanding of the universe would be complete. Then, 20 years later, Albert Einstein brought us quantum physics and presented us with an indeterminate, incomprehensible universe. Yet this was not frustrating, but a source of great joy. This is how Einstein explained the experience:

The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical. It is the sower of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself to us as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling, is at the centre of all true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong to the ranks of devoutly religious men.

The Spiral Staircase Karen Armstrong is the author of The Spiral Staircase, A History of God and Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.

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