THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE: MY CLIMB OUT OF DARKNESS, by Karen Armstrong; Alfred A. Knopf; 306 pages. $24.

Karen Armstrong wrote her first autobiography in 1981, about a decade after she left the convent where she'd been a nun for seven years. Armstrong had entered the convent when she was 17. So she was still fairly young when she wrote her life story for the first time.

But now Armstrong has lived awhile. She's nearly 60. Now she has a better perspective on the convent and on the rest of her life, including the years she spent studying at Oxford and then teaching. In the past decade she's been able to support herself through her writing, but only because she's come back to religion — as a topic, not a calling.

Armstrong has felt like a failure for most of her life. So this new autobiography, called "The Spiral Staircase," is not exactly upbeat. But it is great. Armstrong is a marvelous writer and her subject matter is meaty. Her subject is the meaning of life.

Several of Armstrong's previous books have been successful, including her biographies of Buddha and of Muhammad and her "A History of God." Of course, her "Battle for God" (a study of fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam) was also a best seller. After Sept. 11, Armstrong appeared on many talk shows as an expert on Islam.

As you read "The Spiral Staircase," you see Armstrong leave the convent, then give up on Catholicism and eventually give up on God. She'd prayed and prayed and never felt his presence.

She almost gave up on her fellow humans as well. That's because Armstrong has epilepsy that went undiagnosed for years. (Her epilepsy didn't cause seizures, but Armstrong would often faint. She'd also occasionally find herself in strange places and not know how she got there.)

Before she started taking epilepsy medicine, Armstrong felt she was looking at life through a thick lens. She tried to connect with people, but it was almost impossible.

And yet Armstrong is a smart woman. She couldn't stop herself from studying and writing and trying to find her place in the universe.

So what are her conclusions? Why are we humans put on earth?

It has something to do with compassion. Vaguely. And maybe even God. But don't use that word.

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Toward the end of her new book, Armstrong writes, "Rational analysis is indispensable for mathematics, medicine, or science, but useless for God." So don't expect rationality from this book. Don't expect too much in the way of conclusions, either. Armstrong hates the word "certainty." Do expect a lovely meditation on a poem by T.S. Eliot.

The poem is called "Ash-Wednesday." Reading it is like walking up a spiral staircase. You come back on the same words from a slightly different angle, as you move from the earthly realm to the spiritual realm.

The poem begins, "Because I do not hope to turn again, Because I do not hope . . . " (And certainly a huge part of Armstrong's life was lived without much hope.) The poem ends like this, "Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death, Pray for us now and at the hour of our death."


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