The Spiral Staircase
306 pages; Anchor Books
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We should probably all pause to confront our past from time to time, because it changes its meaning as our circumstances alter. Reviewing my own story has made me marvel at the way it all turned out. I am now glad that after all I did not simply “begin the world.” Something more interesting happened instead—at least, I think so. T. S. Eliot’s Ash-Wednesday, a sequence of six poems that traces the process of spiritual recovery, has been central to my journey. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. Catholics have ashes smeared on their foreheads to remind them of their mortality, because it is only when we have become fully aware of the frailty that is inherent in our very nature that we can begin our quest. During Lent, Christians embark on six weeks of penitence and reflection that lead to the rebirth of Easter—a life that we could not possibly have imagined at the outset.

In Eliot’s Ash-Wednesday, we watch the poet painfully climbing a spiral staircase. This image is reflected in the twisting sentences of the verse, which often revolves upon itself, repeating the same words and phrases, apparently making little headway, but pushing steadily forward nevertheless. My own life has progressed in the same way. For years it seemed a hard, Lenten journey, but without the prospect of Easter. I toiled round and round in pointless circles, covering the same ground, repeating the same mistakes, quite unable to see where I was going. Yet all the time, without realizing it, I was slowly climbing out of the darkness. In mythology, stairs frequently symbolize a breakthrough to a new level of consciousness. For a long time I assumed that I had finished with religion forever, yet in the end, the strange and seemingly arbitrary revolutions of my life led me to the kind of transformation that—I now believe—was what I was seeking all those years ago, when I packed my suitcase, entered my convent, and set off to find God.*

* Some of the characters in this memoir have their own names. Those who prefer anonymity have pseudonyms.

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 the chapel, we had to lay down our work immediately, stopping a conversation in the middle of a word or leaving the sentence we were writing half finished. The rule which governed our lives down to the smallest detail taught us that the bell should be regarded as the voice of God, calling each one of us to a fresh encounter, no matter how trivial or menial the task in hand. Each moment of our day was therefore a sacrament, because it was ordained by the religious order, which was in turn sanctioned by the church, the Body of Christ on earth. So for years it had become second nature for me to jump to attention whenever the bell tolled, because it really was tolling for me. If I obeyed the rule of punctuality, I kept telling myself, one day I would develop an interior attitude of waiting permanently on God, perpetually conscious of his loving presence. But that had never happened to me.

When I had received the papers from the Vatican which dispensed me from my vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, I was halfway through my undergraduate degree. I could, therefore, simply move into my college and carry on with my studies as though nothing had happened. The very next day, I was working on my weekly essay like any other Oxford student. I was studying English literature, and though I had been at university for nearly eighteen months, to be able to plunge heart and soul into a book was still an unbelievable luxury. Some of my superiors had regarded poetry and novels with suspicion, and saw literature as a form of self-indulgence, but now I could read anything I wanted; and during those first confusing weeks of my return to secular life, study was a source of delight and a real consolation for all that I had lost. So that evening, when at 7:20 p.m. I heard the college bell summoning the students to dinner, I did not lay down my pen, close my books neatly, and walk obediently to the dining hall. My essay had to be finished in time for my tutorial the following morning, and I was working on a crucial paragraph. There seemed no point in breaking my train of thought. This bell was not the voice of God, but simply a convenience. It was not inviting me to a meeting with God. Indeed, God was no longer calling me to anything at all—if he ever had. This time last year, even the smallest, most mundane job had had sacred significance. Now all that was over. Instead of each duty being a momentous occasion, nothing seemed to matter very much at all.