Through the Narrow Gate By Karen Armstrong

Through the Narrow Gate is Karen Armstrong’s memoir of life inside a Catholic convent in the 1960’s.
With gentleness and honesty, Armstrong takes her readers on a revelatory journey that begins with her decision, at the age of seventeen, to devote her life to God as a nun. yet once she embarked upon her spiritual training, she encountered a frightening and oppressive world, fossilized by tradition, which moulded, isolated and pushed her to the limit of what she could endure. Through the Narrow Gate


Probably 3 1/2 stars just because I found the setting so different from anything in my experience that it is somewhat difficult to connection. This is a tragic story of Karen Armstrong joining a very austere convent in 1962 at age 17. Despite a sincere desire to dedicate her life to God, she ultimately could not continue to endure the suffering and had to leave. It was painful to watch Karen/Martha try to adapt herself full of guilt to a life that did not allow her room to develop. The story includes a fascinating portrayal of leadership both good and bad. Some of her superiors were warmhearted and compassionate, but more of them had become hardened by their life of sacrifice and denial of comfort so that they appeared damaged by their suffering. Sadly they seemed to then hurt and damage others in their leadership roles. It appeared that they were thinking that their hardened state was the detachment that others should be striving for, rather than the compassion that can follow healing. English This book is a jewel, so rich in personal detail, so thoughtful and full of insight, so full of ideas that connect with other philosophical schools of thought beyond Catholicism.

It has been said that the first thing you must be able to do is love yourself, not in a selfish way but in a forgiving way, understanding that you are a creature of great possibility but also of great desire, need and fear.

Do we do what we do from rational thought or from innate drives and subconscious motives of which we are only faintly aware?

Karen Armstrong's journey from a 17 year old with a certainty of the course she should follow to an adult deeply aware of herself and willing to face the unpredictable and frightening is an absorbing tale of unfolding identity. The harsh environment brings her self-discovery through the process of self-denial.

We all run into people who impress us with their character. Observing how they deal with life can alter our own approach to it and, if we are fortunate, allow us to see life itself differently. Life can be traveled by known paths. Our psychological fragility invites us to chose the uniform (visible or not) that offers a known path, but as Eleanor Roosevelt wisely said, one should choose to do the thing that is most difficult to do. As the hot iron is strengthened by the hammer, so we become stronger by realizing the basis of the fears that dog us, but only if we look deeply into ourselves as we twist and turn under their power. Most fear to look.

This book marvelously shows how a systematic program of self-denial can actually achieve what it claims - to free the individual of desires the satisfaction of which is not pleasure but servitude, not happiness, but a grind.

Often in the book, I would be taken aback by the seeming cruelty of orders given or treatment received from the person in authority over the sisters. At the same time I would think of other traditions of self-denial, such as those of Buddhism, that work toward the same goal.

In whatever way the goal of freedom from the self is pursued, by whatever practice it may be achieved, it is difficult and only reached by the few. Though many may make the attempt with the best of intentions, even entering an institution that is dedicated to it, the lesson of this book is that it is only the unpredictable combination of a particular self with a particular environment that will bring the result.

The result is the state of sainthood, to be a mahatma or great soul, as Gandhi was named. In this book we see it in Mother Bianca. I use this word not to mean an exceptionally good person, though that can accompany reaching the state, but one who has arrived at a level of knowing beyond what most can reach. That we all could reach such a state I have no doubt because the possibility comes with consciousness, but that the right circumstances, the right environment, the right challenge for the particular individual will meet that individual during his or her life is unlikely. That the individual will know what environment to seek is virtually impossible - we simply do not know ourselves deeply enough beforehand to know the path we should follow that will awaken us.

As Erich Fromm so beautifully put it - the tragedy of humanity is not that we must die, but that most die before they are born.

If you are not religious, like me, I particularly recommend this book because it reveals a positive side of religion that can be separated from the particular mythos of a particular faith. It takes you deep into the self, thousands of miles away from just going to church to what being is about through the process of dying the death I must as expressed in the book. From what little I know of Islam and Hinduism, I would be very surprised if adherents of both faiths would not find something familiar in this book.

We need to keep in mind that religions were not the creations of ignorant fools, but were the very best attempt that could be made before the advent of science to discover the foundation of the self behind the facade of appearances and bodily sensations. That religions became encrusted with dogma or symbols or relics or procedures far removed from their origins should not blind us to the human imperative for understanding ourselves that prompted their creation. English I'd never read a memoir about someone who was a nun or lived as one, so I quickly added it in my pile of borrowing books at the library. Sadly the 7 years she was a nun, starting at 17, wasn't as uplifting and soul strengthening as one would hope. She later left that life because of the difficulty of it and this book tells the tale. Why she as the young age of 17 decided to get into this way of life and start her journey to become a nun. (It takes a bit of time to become a nun). It was emersive, interesting, emotional at times and very intriguing. I'm interested to see if Karen Armstrong have written any more memoirs after this as I would like to know where her life and faith took her afterwards English I read this around the same time I read her The Gospel According to Woman, which I think allowed me to see how Armstrong's personal experience deeply shapes her reading of all the Christian writers she addresses in that book.
Through the Narrow Gate was a little like entering another world, and I think Armstrong does a good job of having the reader experience the sort of mind-wracking logic of religious life that she was exposed to. From what I can tell, it also seems to provide a good historical snapshot of many convents and their attempts to deal with the modern world right before the reforms of Vatican II came into place. English A fascinating revelation into what went on in this young girl's experience of life as a nun and the traumas she encountered while English

I probably could write a long essay on this book, so I'll just do a few short remarks. This is a fascinating memoir of the author's life journey as a nun in a convent in England in the 60's prior to the modernization ( Vatican II) of the Catholic church. The training is arduous, and I came to feel that often times the wrong person was in a position of power over the postulants & novices. They were cold and often ruthless in their application of the Rules of the Order. Where was the compassion & love that God wants us to have for one another? I understood the stripping away of self to allow one to fully concentrate on the spiritual teachings, prayer and to be open to an intimate relationship with God, but the putting away of all things secular for years seemed to take it too far. Hygiene was neglected, illness was just one's lack of will and trusting in God, friendships even among one's fellow nuns were discouraged, no questioning of the Rules of the Order ( no allowance for using one's brain) all added up (to me) to denying the blessings and gifts God has provided to us. Thank goodness that type of training and thinking has changed.

It certainly increased my admiration of Nuns I have known in the past of that era, who were still able to be human & connected yet set apart by their devotion, sacrifice, and practice of their faith. English Memoirs and autobiographies have never truly interested me. But with Armstrong it is another case entirely. It requires an unearthly amount of courage to write your own story. Kudos to the writer for being honest, objective and real.
Never could the concept and consequences of the utter division of the body and soul have been more beautifully and poignantly explained. Her plight wrenches the heart and completely sucks the reader into her world. The psychological workings of the human mind, the simultaneous not singular need of spirituality with physical affection, and a necessary knowledge of the mundane with the divine are all core issues at the heart of this book.
The reason behind Armstrong's violent fits of illness are not understood by the Sisters. They are attributed to mortal weakness caused by sin, severe displeasure of God or even an inadequacy to conform entirely to the spiritual side of life. While these reasons cannot be all ignored, they in turn ignore the essential human factor: emotions. Religion is important but one which provides a healthy balance of the natural and supernatural.
There are supposed mystics who deem similar patients to be possessed by the devil when in fact there are psychological demons at work. And the cure is not hid within chants and bead rattling and smoke but rather in a compassionate and empathetic understanding of people, the issues which society and the environment thrust upon them and the unraveling of a general principle: we are all ultimately alone and the best we can do is try and form human relationships. English I thought this book would be a general discussion of the author’s spiritual experience, but it is an honest-and painful-account of her entry into a convent at age 17. Her devout Catholic family tried to dissuade her, but she was strong-willed and wanted very much to have that perfect love of God above all else. This was in 1962 and she lasted in the order for six years before her physical and mental health broke.

Since rejoining the secular world, she earned her degree at Oxford, has written more than 20 books and was awarded the OBE. Two books she wrote I can highly recommend: The History of God and The Battle for God. Both books take a scholarly look at the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic hold on the Middle East. English This is the scholar Karen Armstrong's first book, and it is fascinating. I've always loved to read about people who live vastly different lives from my own, and so a 17-year-old British girl entering a convent seemed like it would be an excellent read. I wasn't disappointed. We know going into the book that Armstrong eventually left the convent, but we don't know why; honestly, in the last third or so of the book, I felt a lot of suspense as the plot was clearly headed in that direction but I had no idea what was going to be the final straw to make her leave. There were many nuns who treated her kindly and spoke of the mind as a valuable gift from God, but others (more directly in charge of Armstrong) made it clear that the mind had to absolutely die; the very SELF had to die, in order to achieve the ultimate closeness with God. Or something. I found that part very interesting as the concept of dying to self was familiar to me from my evangelical upbringing - though, of course, never taken to the extreme of Armstrong's Order. It was an interesting time for her to join the Order, just a few years before Vatican II, but at the end of the book she says that she believes she still would have ended up leaving if the convent had had Vatican II's reforms from the beginning. I would call it a very happy ending, which I was glad for, because Karen Armstrong suffers so much for so long before finally asking to be released from her vows. 4 stars and not 5 because it does get a little bit repetitive in the middle - but it's very much worth getting through. English Having read quite a few positive accounts of nuns' lives, I decided to balance it out with a rather less positive one. Karen Armstrong entered a very strict convent in the early 60s - pre Vatican II, as many nuns have pointed out when I've told them about this book. It was an unpleasant, oppressive experience for her in many ways - full of rigid, often illogical rules and a negative atmosphere, things like being forced to eat cheese even though it made her sick, being told to sew without a needle, and being chastised for talking back when she explained that she hadn't been able to sew because of the lack of needle. And having to actually beat herself. Not to mention the lechy old priest that comes on to her. But despite all this, in many ways it's a very inspiring, moving book, because she had a clarity of purpose and a real passion and determination in her spiritual journey.

She left the convent - she stuck it for seven years and eventually realised it wasn't for her. She was becoming ill with anxiety, and from not eating because of being sick from the cheese. I can't help wondering what would have happened if it had been a different community, with more love and wisdom, rather than rigidity and oppression. I suspect she may have stayed and enjoyed it and grown deeply in her faith. Even within this confining environment, it was still a rich spiritual experience for her - she says she wrote the book because her friends often joked about her time as a nun, and she wanted to show what a deep experience it was, and how it had shaped her. English