I just finished reading Karen Armstrong’s, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb out of Darkness. I’ve been impressed at videos I’ve seen of Armstrong speaking and have a number of her other books on my bookshelves. In the process of writing my own book about my conversion from Catholicism to Buddhism and back to Catholicism, I was particularly interested in this book, the story of her difficult adjustment to lay life after leaving a Catholic convent and what she learned about God and herself through her exploration of comparative theology.
One of the things that caused me some hesitance when I started training as a spiritual director and began giving retreats was my lack of formal theological education. I had read a lot on my own, but, apart from the basic theology courses I took as an undergraduate at Georgetown, I had not studied theology as an academic discipline. Those who were mentoring me kept assuring me that I had much to offer and that what I was being called to offer people was not academic theology, but aiding them in deepening their relationship with God.
Thus, I was interested in what Armstrong had to say about her own lack of formal theological training, given the subject of her books. She writes
I think I was lucky not to have studied theology or comparative religion at university, where I would have had to write clever papers and sit examinations, get high marks, and aim for a good degree. The rhythm of study would have been wrong – at least for me. In theology, I am entirely self-taught, and if that makes me an amateur, that need not necessarily be all bad. After all, an amateur is, literally, “one who loves,” and I was, day by solitary day, hour by silent hour, falling in love with my subject….Occasionally…I would experience miniseconds of transcendence, awe, and wonder that gave me some sense of what had been going on in the mind of the theologian or mystic I was studying. At such a time I would feel stirred deeply within, and taken beyond myself…
I was, moreover, discovering that many of the great theologians and mystics whose work I was studying would have found the idea of a purely academic degree in theology rather odd.
She goes on to explain that in both Islam and Judaism, study was inextricably linked with “a heightened awareness of the divine presence.
Her comments struck a chord with me. Part of it is my conviction that “head” study divorced from affective experience is of limited value in terms of our spiritual growth. Hence, the appeal to me of her description of Islamic and Judaic study. But I also think there is something to the notion of “amateur” that appeals. And it is not just the idea of the amateur as one who loves, but of a humility that comes from viewing oneself as an amateur. I would doubtless bring different gifts to the table if I were formally schooled in theology, and it is good that there are people in the world who have such training. But, like Armstrong, I have come to think that for me, it is not bad that I am self-taught.
Although this book sat in my shelf for a few weeks before I picked it up, once I did start it I couldn’t put it down. One can learn much by reading of this woman’s spiritual journey.