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Karen Armstrong: Steps to a Compassionate Life, Part 1

2018-12-24 | 🔗

Former Catholic nun, world-renowned religious scholar and author Karen Armstrong discusses her memoir, "The Spiral Staircase." Karen discusses the details of her fascinating spiritual journey, which began when she joined a convent at the age of 17. Hoping to forge a deep connection to God, her inspiration was met with harsh disillusionment. Karen says she was deeply unhappy as a nun and unable to pray. Seven years later, she left the convent feeling like a failure, with her future in question. Karen says she avoided all organized religion for more than a decade, but then returned to the subject years later as a writer and scholar after experiencing an "awakening" while on assignment in Jerusalem. In our “perilously divided world,” we need to live more compassionately now more than ever, she says. In her book "Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life," Karen outlines simple practices anyone can do in hopes of making a lifelong commitment to creating a more harmonious world. (Part 1 of 2)

This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
I'm over Winfrey welcome to supersede conversations the podcast. I believe that one of the most valuable gives you can give yourself is time taking time to be more fully present your journey to become more inspired and connected to the deeper world around us start right now. Current Armstrong is considered one of the most influential one of the most provocative and original thinkers on religion. Today, all words that describe exactly what we love on this show original pro Back at its current personal spiritual journey is a fascinating one that I know all of you. Super soldiers are gonna, be in three days. I was, and it's not at all what you might expect from a former catholic none
Well, we now religious scholar, car and Armstrong was born in nineteen. Forty four. She grew up Catholic in the heart of the United Kingdom. She wasn't raised in a particularly devout family, current felt drawn to the roman catholic faith, at seventeen she decided on our own to become a nun hoping to find in. Duration and wisdom, enlightenment, but life at the cons soon prove to be much different than what she expected from mental and physic. Health suffered and after Seven years, Curran hit rock bottom. She left religious life and threw herself into country doing studies at Oxford University struggling to regain her bearings in a word all that in many ways she felt had left behind Current eventually did what we all must do.
Discovered her calling as a teacher and a writer. Her first memoir through the narrow gate, was published in nineteen. Eighty two to brave review catapulted her onto a worldwide stage. She became a familiar in England, appearing frequently on television as a guest even hosted a series, she has studied the great religions of the world. More than twenty books she's becoming out spoke. And and powerful voice for religious tolerance and compassion into as an age. He was awarded the prestigious TED Prize for all of whom work thought provoking groundbreaking. She challenges our readers to see world religions from a viewpoint, connection rather than our differences, her memoirs. The spiral staircase is a deeply moving account of works Jerry Spiritual Journey and spiritual awakening. Let's start at the beginning, because this is
one of the most fascinating memoirs. I've ever encountered actually seventeen years, oh, you were in search of God, lots of people in search of God. They go to church, they have their. You know, services, they sing in the choir. They commit themselves, but you at seventeen years all decided that you wanted to be a Catholic. None that you wanted to go into the convent. Is your parents didn't weren't, encouraging it pools? There were appalled by it s. What was that? Oh, it's you know, I'm motivations are always so complicated. That was, but you know how adolescence is a time of such confusion. Yes- and I thought I would become said, a wise and serene and Buddha like almost immediately- and then we're eurasian religious family, not particularly religious. We were catholic. Yes, if we didn't take it that seriously, I may we used to go to church. Get it out of the way
on Sunday morning, so we could. But you didn't ask every Sunday we did mass every Sunday, yes, but that was that was about the size of it. We went to really devout family at all. You said in the very beginning that God would the re one of the reasons why you wanted to go in the convent so that God would no longer be a remote, shadowy reality, but a vibrant presence in my life. I would see him wherever I looked and I myself would be transfigured, because a Saint Paul had said my puny. The ego would disappear and Christ. The word of God would live in me. I would be serene joyful, inspired, inspiring, perhaps even a saint. These were your visions of what would happen in the convent, and it was quite the contrary. It didn't happen. It didn't happen at all. For one thing, I was completely unable to pray, which is a bit of a drawback for now,
you know I I can concentrate hours and hours at a time. At my work, I don't even notice the minutes passing, but when I used to go into make my meditations every morning off my mind went down every scattering kind of alley and by way- and this was a source of terrible shame- and I remember saying to myself here- I just can't do this. I can't do this meant
tension and she said oh sister, you're, always so dramatic everybody has an update. Can you give us a bit of insight? Would you do so beautifully in the spiral staircase a bit of insight into what the daily routine was? Like? I mean I felt like well. Well we get up at half past five in the morning half past five, that you know how that hard. That is, for an adolescence yeah as you have that need for sleep in its deep hunger asleep. So you immediately you none would come to the bottom of your bed and crash bang on about who is a lesson we the Holy Jesus and we had to nip out of bed and say now and for ever more men and then we would wash in cold water by this cited the which, on our habits and utter silence, no talking at all from nine o clock the previous evening, until after Mass nine o clock, the previous
yes, until after school, the great silence and then you'd go down too to make your meditation and or rather fail to make your meditation so a nun who couldn't progress on that because There is nothing except the quality of her prayer. A my prayer was so bad. It was off the charts, so I there was a sense of great shame sort of sorrow. So what did prayer mean to you at the time versus what it now means? Well now, If you ask me to meditate, I still get jitters. I rule, then, because of that all that lovely I was lack yes, but what for me now it's, but it's my study and that's a source of great surprise that it comes back to
silence that we were doing when I'm immersed in my text. I get Smith seconds of wonder. Oh ah, your contact with all these beautiful things. People have been writing through the ages, as suddenly things fall into place and now by jewish friends, tell me I should have been a rabbi, because that's what Jews do when they study Torah and tell me They don't talk to gorgeous Christians do, but they just study, and then they will gets many seconds of enlightenment and Benedict and monks used to do the same practice. You get little seconds of what they called it rots here or prayer, he was study, but when you were none- and you would have to do this every morning- go through the meditation prayer it was, it was a ritual and it was was it because it was
to organise too, I think it must have been that I just could not do it, God Writ seemed to sort of not there at all. So what were you doing? thinking. I'm a failure, I'm a failure like all rat, but also, I believe, be worrying about things or certain distractions would come into my head that I just could you know like as worrying about what would happen to me when I was doing my knee what we ve spent. A lot of time sewing insufferable needle were only yes awful and every day we sold as young nuns, nine in the morning until half past twelve at every day would take my sewing to the assisted novice mistress and she would look at it and rip it if that was the end of it that failure that thing at my fellow novices they they were quite good at this. They could see why
I was talking to one of them just recently. If you are really suffering are we just knew the watch you a sewing was gonna be ripped apart. I, so what good it showing either. I was a little rang or sewing no say that was tat strikes against into snags. Yes, but I was told that that was what God wanted of me, but what does God have to do with needlework, because very good question. I could not really believe in my heart of hearts the God cared about this. Yes, this scheme that was created at the scene, crooked, yes, and so that there was that kind of anger too. I think I'm glad of it now, because you know when I was teaching and some kids just don't can't get it and so They seems so easy to you to understand. I remain
but what it was like not to be able to do something. So what was the purpose of that? You know indoctrination that training. What is that to make you to make? You lose us pride and eco, but if it was a waste of time for me because you were so intent on yourself and your failures, doing is thinking about your embedded in the eco. Yours very me, yes, tried to transcend so it ice had the old system at its very last gas, because while we were going through that as young nuns, the Vatican Council was meeting in Rome and that completely reformed the trading of young nuns, so the help was at hand
but I had that this list this had they own system, because I think of the last two years the opera show. I was introduced to the dominican sisters of Mary who are up in Michigan and there were the happiest nuns I've ever seen. They may that they were talkative and laughing and full of a sense of well being. It appeared to be s so this fifth felt like when I was reading what happened to you, but like an old order, an old way of doing it was sealed way of doing things. But you know there were one or two sisters who were remarkable. And I will never ever forget this. We had once area, where we have this time, we will be further on we made up. First version has of studies. We were training restarting of studies for University in college. And she was dying of cancer. She was
all the yes, she was in paying that she wouldn't take any painkillers because she said I'm I've got to be alert, but these young people she was one of the kindest people. I've ever known, and when she was actually dying. We went in all of us to say goodbye to her. She was going to be taken to another house today and she is. She was very matter of fact about it that she would be looking it down from us from Heaven and- and she called me back- and I know it too knelt beside the bed and she said sister. I want to tell you something. She said when you came here, I was told you are going to be a problem. I want you to know that I have never found you difficulty at all you're you're, a good girl sister and don't forget, I told you, sir, and I've I've never, for I have never forgotten it and sometimes when they
we're really really dire after I left, I had many dark years I remembered that that you said that you I was a good girl. I thought there she was. She was dying. She was in pain and She saw some pages you she's, she didn't see, I think cheesy, like I see great this in you, my job and just you're, a good girl, and she took the time and the trouble to speak to me. Ten minutes later. She d forgotten all about it, but I've never forgotten, and it was a lesson to me. We can all do somebody everyday. Yet that is a great lesson We do we will- I don't even remember yes, words with calls. It little unremembered acts of kindness and of love that you just lightened somebody's load and you may not even realise what they ve set at I'm and what a gift to be able to lighten somebody's load. Even when you don't know you're able to do it. Yes,
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Code, super soul to get twenty percent off your card purchase. Tell me why you decided to leave. I I start wasn't working. Did you know immediately? It wasn't working no ice, I once thought I had a strong vacation. We were always unless you asked to go home stay because that's what vote once its people were asked to go home, but I was so I stuck it out at the thought of leaving, was so terrifying. Why? Oh recur seventeen. We have the right to say she. I thought this. What I wanted, but it really isn't. I didn't you see. We were told that unless we finding it unbearably hard we when trying hard enough. So that's a part of you know it's part of the whole idea- that it has to be unbearably s heart because you have meant you're trying to get rid of ego at that is a hard struggle and nobody gets lonely and terrible luminous. I think that was a hard thing, because we are not allowed to make friends
You'll get kettles the old order you weren't even allowed to have friends it was speak to them. One of the things it struck me is in the spiral staircase you talk about hearing each other's cries. Night, but never being allowed to even ask in in the morning in the light of mourning, what was wrong that have. Never you ok, because to talk about yourself would mean, will also you got your depending on people instead of on God, but let's get to the fainting spells you started to have fainting spells, while you were at the Comtesse. I'd just crash out. Losing consciousness is at an end and the mother Superior says you're trying to draw attention to yes- and this is weakness of will and so of course, that I looked its operator responsibility really, because if someone is losing consciousness, this is a serious matter.
Yes, I was a minor two zero, but I agreed that that's probably what it was and then and again we're trying to draw attention to yourself by failing that. I just thought you was weakness of will weaknesses that I was getting to upset about things that I started. Having knows bleeds an vomiting does, though my body was say, get out get out, there was one incident at the at the very end when I was being driven to the station is getting a train to spend the subvert another comment and I had started one of these terrible those bleeds. So I said to the sisters, I got detention. Look this box of tissues here. Take this action.
Those who still can't take these because they belong to the community. I said I certainly went ballistic, I said: are you crazy? I said You always worried that we give scandal when we go out with you look out, if I arrive inherit this evening covered in blood in my habit, it's crazy I've taking it tat was the beginning something snapped. I thought this is. This is not the will of God. This is this is stupid it he, then it was later that supper we would just to go into retreat collapsed at I started to cry out. I cried for three days. I just kept not say I cant do
I was having a breakdown anything and they could not have been kinder once you decided to leave yes, but they could have, though, what they could have put pressure on me and they could have made me, feel bad about it. They were sorry and that they take. It was harder in a way because they were being so kind. Then, if they gonna being awful- and I couldn't you at the moment- they realise that you were not going to be able to make its they set. They realise that I was so distressed that this is what this was not working, were you major feel guilty that that you didn't love God enough? If not when you left low, they just said you are too young and that's true. It was my own fault. I was to PIG headed, yes, not to take advice and to go it later. When I had room maturity, I knew what I was
but the accepted you it so they did and they said no, we never will accept people as young as that again that makes sense what in the victorian period you see. That would have been perfectly ok, because you didn't have much choice about things teen there was that such thing as a teenage years or trying to find yourself and young people it was the nineteen sixty is youth. I did know anything about this, of course, but youth was coming into its own, you win and in nineteen sixty two to the convent came out and nineteen sixteen. I yes and happened to be at a party one evening, and you hear this music and you ask, who is that group I've, never heard of them. You ve never heard of idle ever heard all of your. There are then Bryn, thought the we're like what exactly they they. I never heard of Vietnam, which was the great seen for students at that time. Demonstrations I've never heard of it. I did
The prime minister was show in the seven years that you were in you do didn't read a newspaper. You didn't listen to radio and certainly not turn on. I didn't have a television like seven years going into a tomb and then coming out. Well, I suppose it was. You ve been to die to yourself said I yourself, and thus we shouldn't be. We shouldn't be so too concerned with things in the world and in all but time you went into fine God, you never found no found it no- and I never had a transcended moment- you never experienced what you wrote about. No, I didn't. I never did so when I left that God just drift away God and always seems to be on the periphery of my life, and I just thought: that's it.
Became really anti religion for about thirteen years anti religious. Where was I I just wanted nothing to do with religious ever again at I'd failed at it. I saw people reading a religious book on the tray on a train. You aren't you know of and little did. I ever think I'd be writing these things. I've mentioned the spiral staircase several times. Tell me why you called it that well, it's that image of Ash Wednesday Plenteous Eddie, it's poet. Would you used to be? and the the image that runs through all those poems in Ash Wednesday is of winding staircase aspire that case will it goes round and round and round, but you're going always up. You may
he'll, that you're going round in circles, but you are actually moving up towards the night at that's what my life seemed to have been like. I seem to be going we'll be going round in circles not getting anywhere and yet all the time I was moving up moving forward and so that that was that Well, what then, was I'm going going to page to fourteen where you ride my years of the convent had changed before I might have lost my faith. I could no longer believe in God or the doctrines of the church, but I still law for the sense of heightened intensity and and sentence of the convent had promised to give me what was it about? your seventeen year old self and even Years later that you were looking for, that sense of transcendence
I think it. How did you know that that was that even existed, you'd get? I get glimmers of it when I was reading, poetry or listening to music. We all have these moments in our lives as our minds so constructed that we have experiences that go beyond what we can explain. Guess it's a peculiar characteristic of the human mind and we look out for these moments when it's the great attempting to everybody, we have it in all kinds of wings. We have it's not just in religion, but when we listen to music, where we watch a sunset I remember you later, when we, I was in Israel driving down one morning early in the morning, guide to the dead sea, down that road down to the heart of the will, the lowest point in the world, and we had Mendelson violent Concerto on They re on the radio and the sun was coming up.
This is a round you and you would just there. In that moment, everything came together. You felt sure inhabiting your humanity more fully than than usual. I've had those moments. We all had those where we ve all heard those moments. Those moments where everything feels like. First of all, there is a one this with everything in every few thing feels like it's all right all will be well, yes, all will be well, it's just that it doesn't last, but you can remember them and you can. You can put yourself back into that meant moment of time when things
came together. That's what I was looking for. You talk about really what so many thought, leaders who sat in that same chair until Brussels, Andy of also talked about when you stopped pushing against things when you stop pushing the against it is when you are able to relax into the now. Yes- and I was an eta- varies very low point because I was having these terrible experiences. You are passing out, you were smelly, idle and having moments of absolute terror, terror, absolute terror. When the world is unrecognizable that it's a state that they call Jamais view the opposite evasion of you, because you ve never seen it before you forget how to go down the flight of stairs, you forget what a glass of water is. All the world becomes absent.
Agriculture must have thought you were losing your my eye. I was only you did, think you are losing. I was, and I was in and out of mental hospital, so I went to a fleet of psychologists also thought I was neurotic and finally, I had a girl MEL attack in the UN's in the in the investigation I was taken to hospital. They said you had an epileptic. This is after years this was after years I was. I was in my that is by this time, which working nineteen, seventy six and, as you describe in the small circles, is yours sitting there and the doctor says: have there been lap just as we did you have. Smell of this. Did you over and you are in awe, because all the things you ve been experiencing for years and years use this doctors now saying them? Yes, I was witnessed. It was one of the happiest moments, my life to be diagnosis, an epileptic yes, because I knew not what it was, and he said you know this is a classic case, and he said why did know nobody spotted it. This is textbook
Yes, this is the way my brain is dostoevsky. Had this we think mango habit, you can see it in some of his paintings whether the always Emerson, hadn't Tennyson had it who I was studying for all those years. I was probably drawn his boat because president, because of that First time you had your first grandma seizure on when you're on your way to the station. Just before Are you went into the seizure space? You had a what you thought was a glimpse of God. Can you describe? It was just sort of blinding moment where ever you suddenly saw everything as as the essence of things and that it is. You fill this sort of joy and wonder, and at last this is it and then out, but I never thought that was God. I always thought there was some just as I'd, never thought that my dreadful fear or and
the bad stuff I was experiencing was the devil or anything of tat sort. I knew there was something the matter with my mind with my brain and indeed there were what is shocking to me is that you also kept this from your parents for such a long ties it, and I was so sick. You know when I then they religious life. I was anorexic and suicide. Oh, I am so sorry because my parents, I thought I was finished. They thought I was over, you know, I've gotten was ruined in some way at the convent I was six years in this state of sorrow, even attempted to take your life, but didn't really remember doing it. There was a conscious. Can you read the exports? I think it's on one twenty ply: hey yeah yeah: it's not that
sort of thing that happens with this disease. You do things, I mean you'd go somewhere and you didn't and you couldn't remember being there. Yes, ok, Bavaria, what I was Unc hunch really trying to do. That night was to make clear the depths of my desperation. I did not know how to live any longer and nobody seemed to realise just how frightened I was. Nobody was willing to listen. I had expire. By fear and despair, and I could do no more. I had come to the end had given up hope, and there was a certain piece in that. I just people saying oh you're, doing fine, you great, and I knew I wasn't fine. I was just I thought I would end my life in a locked ward
you're going crazy. Of course you would, but knowing now that I could trust my mind. Yes, that I wasn't crazy, that's that that there was a future. That was when everything changed. So it's been fifty years. It's a convent! Now, do you consider yourself a religious person, yes or spiritual person or, but I would say both a bet. I also say when people say what how'd you sub yourself up, I say convalescent. I feel that a recovery. From a bad experience when I was young still do so. The convent real! Well, if you know we all of it that we all have broken this in and we all have Bowman's of failure and hurt and sorrow, that's one of the few things that calls all human beings together right, no sorrow, we more have those broken this. We all have things we have to recover from and that sort of vulnerability, and so yes, I have been wrecked, but I must tell icons
Any one of these states is superior to any of the others I see each of them has. Leading to the ultimate God and each has its own insight and genius window. Really, would you say, discover God? When did God become real free? You I think he was well. I was writing there, look history of got. Yes, why did you want to write the history of God? Well, I thought it was going to be such a sceptical book at first then I'd as duchess the way theologians over the years and reject the idea. What I began to discover was that all the faith said that what we say about God isn't gonna too, that the biblical God we have is the spartacus it really. I love that a biblical God is a starter care that you you, you ve got to work with it and we often hear about God for the first time we're with learning about Santa Claus, you're
right and idea of Santa Claus develops and changes in matures overtime. Yes, but God we tend to think it still in an inn. Tat way? Alas, all idea of what they were all saying: if I get that when we say God, we don't know what we're talking about this is because God can be described as company described so suddenly I began to o k this is what all the texts tell us, what all of the great world religions? They even say you can't even say God exists, because our notion of existence is too limited. We only know beings that have limited existence, all all of us finish and die, and this time we weren't here we get sick and old, but God is being itself and we have no conception of what we mean by that now. This was
an eye opener to me, that was was that your first big aha, it was a huge because then I began to realize that hey this is personalized, well, that I couldn't work with it, but once you say that's just to start you off on a journey into transcendence, which means you are going beyond what can be said or thought or understood, so from your perspective, having studied and being the scholar be noted, scholar in the world on all the religions. Would you say that All religion is, a path is starter. Kit is, is point you're in the direction of that which is God s of which cannot be spoken about, which can be spoken. Buddha, for example, would never described it. He would always say it is not possible to describe no, you have to do you have to do it and that's the thing that was the
message do that they were all saying God it's that religion is something you do. Religious knowledge is a practical form of knowledge like driving or swimming You can't learn to swim or to dance. By reading a book you ve gotta, get into the water, learn to float. So there is no religion without action. Action is essential that that certain practices, like men patient or kindness and compassion which, day by day, a hour by hour, take you out of yourself towards another person and that, as you try and do that day, today, our by you leave yourself behind, and will you literally
do what the nuns we're trying to teach you in that old order. You lose yourself and give yourself over to something else. You think about the other. You think about the other is the definition of compassion. Is it not appeal with the other person to feel with the, and they also that was another harbor, but they all the religions say this is the way to the divine that by all religions have the common thread of compassion, yes and all religions in one form or another say do unto others never treat others as he would not like to be treated you that's the thread, that's the thread. Confucius said it was the central thread that pulled all his teaching together and we have to do it all day and every day, not just as it is. Sometimes we say. Well, that's my good deed. For the day and then going back, you have to leave it to all
putting yourself in the place of the other, all the time, all the time so went before. We leave, though, tell me what is God to you? Now, God is that which cannot be expressed, and that is very important to me that that we cannot know what God is, but God is that which takes us continually beyond what we can know beyond what we see. Want and is constantly drawing as food to something greater.
Do you see God as the life force? God is the life force, not God is being itself gaudy everything you wear it. Wherever use look, look at the beauty of nature. You look into the eyes of an animal. You can see the divine that something absolutely sacred, just keep your mind open and look for God. I like to look for God in other people, in other things, rather than thinking of a being up there That was beautiful current. Thank you. Thank you operate. Our conversation will continue in the next episode. You can listen, by downloading part too, I'm over Winfrey You ve been listening to supersede conversations podcast you can follow Super soul on Instagram, twitter and Facebook. If you haven't yet go to apple podcast, unsubscribe rate and review of this planet
join me next week for another supersede conversation? Thank you for listening.
Transcript generated on 2020-01-15.