on 3 May 2010
Karen Armstrong gives the reader a very detailed picture of what life was like in a Catholic Covent in the 60s. I would imagine convent life these days is probably very different. It was a disturbing read at times as Karen - obviously intellectually extremely gifted - battles with her questioning mind and struggles with obeying her superiors who are supposed to help her empty herself of her worldly ego and thus open herself up to God's will. Many faith traditions have at their core this aim of negating the ego and emptying oneself up to the divine impulse. I found the whole convent scene in this book incredibly bleak and saw few glimpses of divine love and more exhibitions of anger and cruelty from the so-called superiors which shocked me. There were, thankfully, one or two moments when human compassion crept in.
Karen Armstrong seemed to have a deep sense of self-criticism and she displayed some self-mastery and this enabled her to be one of the survivors of the batch of 10 postulants which shows her strength and resilience and in fact worthiness for a faith path. What a pity she hadn't embarked on a more compassionate, more self-directed path as someone like Etty Hillesum (Jewish diarist - see 'A Life Transformed' by Patrick Woodhouse) did and really found God. Whatever the outcome the whole experience has made Karen Armstrong the great writer on religious affairs we have today and that suggests that Karen is now leading a more integrated life with herself and the divine and has realised her unique gift in this life through her writing and lecturing career. It is a pity though that the convent superiors didn't recognise Karen's talent and nurture it like the superiors of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968) fruitfully did. The convent life, by suppressing her natural creativity, possibly fostered Karen's formation as a writer - no experience is wasted in life and as a result the individual grows in self-realisation.
A fascinating read. A book recommended for anyone seriously contemplating institutionalised faith seeking and for those who are just interested in what makes people subject themselves to such institutionalised austerities as a way of perfecting themselves. The drive in some people to seek perfection of self and the paths they take to attempt to achieve this realisation is a humbling insight into the deep recesses of the human psyche and its longing for something greater than itself. The combinations are endless and extremely fascinating. Karen's 'aborted' journey in the convent is just one way. It is interesting to reflect how the writing gifts of Karen Armstrong (writes on all faiths), Etty Hillesum (diaries) and Thomas Merton (Trappist monk and prolific writer) help other generations expand their knowledge of the divine and across faiths. As Thomas Merton said: 'For me to be a saint is to be myself.' Karen Armstrong has encountered her true self as a writer.
Antonia White showed us in her novel 'Frost in May' how teaching nuns could wreck an innocent schoolgirl's life. In this memoir, Armstrong shows us the horrors of becoming a nun in a particularly strict order of the Catholic Church (the sister organization of the Jesuits) and the sadism of many in charge. Armstrong decided to become a nun when in her teens, looking for a deeper meaning in life than she could find in 1950s Birmingham, and wanting to escape petty middle-class snobbism and find God. During her time as a novice and postulant, she was repeatedly bullied, forced to eat food she was allergic to and mocked for her clumsiness. When she began to get ill (she suffers from epilepsy) she was informed that it was merely hysteria. Although Armstrong appears to have been particularly harshly treated, general life as a nun seems to have been fairly hellish in the 1950s: baths were only once a week and the sisters had to wash with harsh, cheap soap, food was very bad, and long periods of complete silence were insisted on. Armstrong is clear-sighted and fair enough to show that life wasn't pure hell. She met a few really saintly women, like the head of the convent house she was sent to when she came to study in London, or her old headmistress, and made some good friends, particularly with 'Sister Rebecca', another young nun who studied with her at Oxford. But the world of the convent was appallingly claustrophobic - what's most horrifying about it is how God and many basic Christian morals got lost in a mass of petty details - and inevitably as she began studying English, first at a crammer in London and then at Oxford University, Armstrong began to question the rule of her superiors. Eventually, following a minor breakdown, she made the heartbreaking decision to leave the convent and try to return to normal life.
This is a brave, honest book about a very traumatic period in Armstrong's life. Despite all the horrors she went through and the sadism of many of her superiors, she writes practically without bitterness, and can sometimes be very funny (her description of trying to learn to cook is hilarious, as is the depiction of two elderly nuns who became obsessed with the convent cats). She has plenty of interesting thoughts about discipline, and about what the celibate life might do to women. And the ending of the book, as she slowly returns to being a normal student, is rather heartwarming. A very interesting read indeed.
on 4 December 2010
I decided to re-read this first volume of Karen Armstrong's autobiography when the second (The Spiral Staircase) came to the top of Mt ToBeRead. I remembered most of the content - Karen is a former nun and this book explains why - but I'd forgotten how deeply moving I'd found it. This time around I think I only cried twice.
Last time I read Through the Narrow Gate, was either just before or during my journey to converting to Catholicism through the RCIA process. The Roman Catholic Church has changed a great deal since the 1960s when Karen was in her convent but, even so, I feel there was less I simply did not understand this time around. That said, Karen is excellent at explaining (as one would expect from such an established writer of religious non-fiction) but she doesn't go into the nuts and bolts of Catholicism in this book. Instead, she's focussed on her own spiritual journey in, and out, of a religious Order.
This could be a depressing book and, indeed, I believe Karen was probably depressed during some of the events she describes. In the Introduction she admits to having written several drafts which were 'black and angry' but the finished item is warm and engaging. Although she does not spare herself (or the Order) a long, hard look, she is generous with what she finds.
I'm looking forward to reading The Spiral Staircase when I'm finished my current book - Lisa Bevere's You are not What You Weigh.
on 31 August 2003
It's the final chapter of this gripping book - the one describing the start of the author's reintegration into secular society - that is entitled "Through the Narrow Gate". This would seem to imply that for Karen Armstrong, facing the real world, and not life in the cloister, was the "hard road" of Matthew 7:12.
And despite all the physical and psychological hardships she routinely suffered (see synopsis), and her occasional traumatic encounters with drunken and groping priests, it would seem that life as a nun might *almost* have worked for her: The order was populated with such a broad spectrum of characters, ranging from the saintly Mother Bianca (who despite dying a slow and excruciatingly painful death refused to take pain killers because they impaired her ability to teach) to the sadistically pedantic and mentally deranged Mother Walter (who...erm...well, just read the book!) - all with their own differing interpretations of how to live the religious life - that I'm sure she could have fitted in somewhere. But what a tragedy that would have been.
In addition to the broad sweeping theme of the book there are numerous inconsequential details which to a lay observer are both fascinating and deeply weird. For example, when the postulants are decked out in high-heeled shoes and wedding dresses in preparation for the veiling ceremony, where they become "brides of Christ". The grainy black and white photo of the beaming author arrayed in this finery is crushingly sad.
There are also moments of joy and humour. One of the most moving passages for me occurred after the author had been elected by the order to study English Literature at Oxford University, and she was given her reading list. After years of living in an environment where the intellect was something to be despised, and with her access to literature largely limited to hagiographies, she was now instructed to read Jane Austen, Keats, Wordsworth and George Eliot...and moreover to enjoy it! I freely admit, it brought a tear to my eye!
Hardly surprisingly, starting at Oxford was the beginning of the end for her vocation.
The only minor criticism I have about this book is the use of US spelling and terminology, which at times I found quite jarring.
Unfortunately the follow-up book, "Beginning the World", now seems to be out of print. However, I've ordered a copy from my local lending library and look forward with interest to finding out what happened next!
on 17 January 2008
after reading karens acount of her time in a convent, i can understand what she meant. i too once worked in a convent, not as a nun but as a carer for old and ailing nuns. i have seen first hand how cold and feelingless it can be. i once asked an elderly nun who had been a midwife in the congo many years ago was it nice to be able to love and hold all those new born babies??? she replied in a sharp cold voice, all my love i have to give to God alone.......makes me wonder,surely to love God we must be able to love each other, else we end up cold and lonely and starved of human affection...........on an afternote i also met wonderful kind gentle loving nuns, maybe it goes to show that convents like any other workplace has its indeviduals both cold and kind. i am only sorry karen was not able to get help for her illness, she was made to think she was trying to get attention when all along she was quite ill and not well, the poor girl must have thought she was going mad, never mind shes ended up one great writer and thats our gain and alas the convents loss.
on 27 August 2011
As an ex-nun myself, though Buddhist rather than Christian, I found this account amazingly good. Although my experience was very different I could easily understand how Karen felt, and the ins and outs of convent life as she described them.
I don't know what sort of people read these books other than ex-nuns, but I highly recommend this to the ex-nun populations of any religious tradition. Most people won't have a clue what it's been like for us, but reading this book you feel you've an ally in Karen.
Of all the nun and ex-nun books I've read over the few years, since giving back my vows, this is by far the best.
on 12 November 2000
A very gripping and thought provoking read. Why are other reviewers damning her for not enhancing their spiritual experience? That's not what she claims to be doing, or has set out to do. What she does do is provide a perceptive account of convent life as she experienced it.
on 9 March 2013
The first time I read this book it was almost by accident. But the memory of it never left me and nearly 20 years later I have read it again. It is the story of a 17 year old girl, who in the early '60s, chose to enter a convent having been educated in a convent school. She tried for 7 years, through ill health mentally and physically, emotional and tactile deprivation, intense feelings of loneliness and constant reprimands, to bend her will to the requirements of her chosen life. As the author describes her experiences and emotions, constantly reassessing her behaviour, trying to modify her thoughts and suppress feelings, it is incredible to think that there are any who remained in the convent their entire lives. Having just finished reading The Spiral Staircase which follows on from from this, it shows what a significant impact those 7 years had on the rest of her life.
An excellent and thought provoking read.
on 2 May 2011
What elevates this book from prurient, misery memoirs is the fact that Karen Armstrong never once delves into self-pity. It is an extraordinary account. She writes beautifully - it reads like a novel.
On the strength of this book I bought the Spiral Staircase which is the better of the two follow-up books on her life once she'd started back into the world as a secular.
on 7 February 2012
I THOROUGHLY ENJOYED READING THIS BOOK - BUT WAS CONFUSED BY THE AMERICAN STYLE OF WRITING, IN THE FIRST PAGES I CAME ACROSS "GOTTEN" AND HER MOTHER, APPARENTLY COMPLETELY ENGLISH, WAS REFERRING TO "CANDY" - I WAS BORN AT A SIMILAR TIME AND MY MUM ALWAYS GAVE ME SWEETS! IT THREW ME A BIT BUT DID NOT STOP MY PLEASURE IN THE STORY.