#55: FAILED VOCATIONS. Karen Armstrong’s well-earned reputation is based on her intelligent and popular books on the history of religion, but her first fame was as the author of Through a Narrow Gate (St. Martin’s, 1981), a moving memoir of a failed vocation to the convent life. It was an unusual book, an account of an intense and corrosive experience that ended with a return flight (reluctantly) to secular life, that yet seemed, for all its critique of the emotional coldness and intellectual limitings of convent life, not to be sharpening an axe or paying off a grudge. It must have disappointed readers hoping to work off any lapsed-Catholic payback rage; its intelligence was too balanced, its emotion too intimate. Years later, she followed up with The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness (Random, 2004), a spiritual memoir not quite like any other I’ve read. Armstrong, it turns out, has as clear a sense of the limitings of the secular world as of convent life, and found herself not quite fitted to either. The Spiral Staircase is about her carving a space out for herself and finding her way not in the cloisters of convent or academic life but as a writer—and using her writer’s intelligence to reconnect with her religious impulse, not as an adherent of any one sect but in the more tentative satisfactions of comparative religion. Her memoir is not finally about rediscovered certainty but about learning how to move with an easeful grace through a larger, less certain terrain; she left the convent and became, in her unassuming way, a citizen of the world. Somebody out there is always willing to peddle faith, certainty and rapture; Armstrong’s candor, level-headedness and her reliance on the wingspread of intelligence give these two memoirs satisfactions entirely their own.
The emotional temperature in Nikolai Grozni’s Turtle Feet: The Making and Unmaking of a Buddhist Monk (Riverhead Books, 2008; the title is a reference to the tradition that the Buddha was born with webbed toes) is entirely different—a Gargantuan yawp of dismay at a noble endeavor that goes comically, bitterly, out-of-control wrong. Bulgrarian-born, educated in the U.S. and India, Grozni took robes and went to Dharamsala, the northern corner of India where the exiled Tibetan community follows a centuries-old syllabus of monastic education that resembles the further reaches of Thomism or medieval Scholasticism. The comedy in Turtle Feet is the comedy of living without a net—or, for that matter, without running water, steady income, familiar surroundings, or a reliable way of keeping that huge snake from coming into your kitchen at night—in the shambles and surrealism of India. Add to that Grozni’s snorting sense of humor, with its Eastern European sense of fatalism; a cast ranging from eccentric and snappish gurus to a variety of renegades and potheads; a high incidence of squalor; local distractions like house-liquefying rainstorms and bouts of dysentery; and, behind it all, Grozni’s genuine and serious hopes of attaining wisdom, and you get a pungent account of folly you might want to read before you trip off to your choice of far horizons in search of higher truths. I suspect Grozni of a certain amount of (amusing) embellishment, and some of the conversations might smack of l’esprit de l’escalier; but if, like me, you view any form of institutional life with faint alarm, you may find this a sad and memorable book.