This is actually Karen Armstrong's third memoir. The first, Through the Narrow Gate, was written shortly after she left both her convent and Catholicism as a whole, and focused on that experience. The second, Beginning the World, was about her attempts to enter into secular life in England in the 1970s and 80s. Somewhere along the line she felt dissatisfied with both, partly because they didn't leave enough room for the serious crisis Armstrong experienced long after she left her nun's Habit behind. That crisis is partly the despair of a person who comes to realize that, in a way she will always be a nun, and partly her long struggle with a mental illness that finally becomes manifest (after 10 years of failed psycho-therapy) as epilepsy.
For me, the most interesting parts in the book are the accounts of her evolving relationship with English literature, particularly 19th century poetry, as well as T.S. Eliot. It's Eliot's Ash Wednesday -- written while Eliot himself was undergoing a crisis of faith (but in reverse) -- that gives Armstrong the title of her book and many of her best insights.
I was surprised to discover that, not only did she major in English at Oxford, Armstrong wrote a Ph.D. (or D.Phil.) dissertation on the subject of Tennyson's poetry. Oxford failed to grant her a doctorate, and the ejection from academia that followed led her down what turned out to be a very profitable track. Armstrong first taught in a private high school for a few years, then started writing books and television series on religious issues. Over a period of years, she got over her anger with the Catholic Church (especially for its treatment of women, and for the failures of the Convent system she experienced first-hand), and developed a fresh curiosity and moderated respect for the Abrahamic religions, whose study would become her life's work. (In recent years, Armstrong has become one of the foremost western interpreters of Islam; see her books Islam, or A History of God)
I'll share a couple of passages relating to literature; the passages expressing her growing awareness of the nature of religion are also fascinating, but too numerous to quote:
Writing years before Darwin had published his Origin of Species, Tennyson had been one of the first people to realize the impace that modern biology and geology would have on religion, and his great poem In Memoriam plangently explored the ambiguities of doubt and faith in a way that reflected my own perplexities.
But at a deeper level, there was a mood in Tennyson's poetry that I immediately recognized. So many of his characters seemed walled up in an invincible but menacing solitude, as I was. They too seemed to see the world at one remove, as if from a great distance. Mariana was trapped in her lonely moated grange, where old faces glimmered at the windows and mice shrieked in the wainscot. The Lady of Shalott was imprisoned in a tower, confined there by some unexplained curse, because she could not confront external, objective reality. When she finally did fall in love and ventured into the outside world, it killed her immediately. All this resonated with the hallucinatory visitations that kept me imprisoned in my own inner world. Like so many of Tennyson's people, I too longed to join in the vibrant life that was going on all around me, but found myself compelled to withdraw by forces that I did not understand. Like me, Tennyson seemed sucked into a horror of his own.
Armstrong relates to Tennyson quite personally, in two ways. He's a guidepost to her in her exit from the segregated life and into the modern, material world, but she also derives some kind of solace from his characters' experience of radical isolation. (In her own case, that isolation had a good deal to do with her struggle with mental illness.)
Armstrong has a similar, deeply personal connection to T.S. Eliot's Ash Wednesday, and movingly interprets passages like the following:
Becaue I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice
These are actually not Eliot's most elegant lines, in my view. But Armstrong responds to their extreme directness and unmediated qualities, which are actually quite rare in Eliot's work (where one typically finds a great deal of dramatic tension and narratorial restraint). Eliot becomes a kind of secular Guru to Armstrong, particularly after she hears a lecture from Dame Helen Gardner at Oxford:
In some of the poems of Ash Wednesday, the Dame pointed out that February morning, the experience of spiritual progress and illumination was represented by the symbol of a spiral staircase. This was, perhaps, reminiscent of Dante's Purgatorio, where the souls who are climbing to the beatific vision of God toil around the twisting cornices of Mount Purgatory, each of which constitutes a further stage in their purification. In the very first poem of the sequence [quoted above] . . .the verse constantly turns upon itself in repetitions of word, image, and sound. Repeatedly the poet tells us, "I do not hope to turn again," and yet throughout the poem, he is doing just that, slowly ascending to one new insight after another. And even though he insists that he has abandoned hope, I felt paradoxically encouraged.
. . . But what thrills me most about Eliot's poem were the words "because" and "consequently." There was nothing depressing about this deliberate acceptance of reduced possibilities. It was precisely "because" the poet had learned the limitations of the "actual" that he could say: "I rejoice that things are as they are." [Armstrong then quotes the passage I cited above] The sudden clumsiness of the syntax and language showed that this was no easy solution. It was not something that came naturally. The new joy demanded effort. . . . It would be a lifelong task, requiring alert attention to the smallest detail, dedication, and unremitting effort; but as I listened to Dame Helen that day, I knew that it could be done.
It's interesting to see the way she finds space to hope in one of T.S. Eliot's bleakest poems. It's also remarkable that she interprets it the way she does: a life without God can be rendered coherent and whole through the "unremitting effort" of introspection. But most interesting of all is the almost ritual function of T.S. Eliot in this book (and in Armstrong's life) -- he is a focus for her ritual energy, while paradoxically serving as a figure of the fall from faith. The further paradox is that he later reversed, and defined himself as a believer, while Armstrong has never turned back.