on 23 February 2010
Having read several of Karen Armstrong's books, starting with "Through the Narrow Gate" many years ago, I was intrigued to read this autobiography. She has come a long way since her days of entering the convent at the age of 17. From beginning a life of austerity as a Christian nun, she has gradually embarked on a search for the truth apparent in every great world religion.
From unbelief after her time in the convent to belief in the sacred is an interesting adventure and one which Karen Armstrong is able to take the reader along with very competently. As she says, "if conventional beliefs make you compassionate, kind and respectful of the sacred rights of others, this is good religion."
She considers the similarities, rather than the differences between Judaism, Christianity and Islam. All the great world leaders have taught the Golden Rule: 'Do not do to others as you would not have done unto you.' It is the bedrock of Buddha's teachings, also of Jesus, and is too the bedrock of the Koran.
The more we study the world faiths, the more it is possible to see the profound, underlying similarities. It would be good if the author were to research and investigate the Bahá'í Faith next since it is the fourth monotheistic religion in the Holy Land and throws new light on the whole understanding of the progressive nature of religion - a subject about which, it seems, too few people know much about.
on 4 January 2009
This is a wonderful biography from an author I much admire. Her story wonderfully woven with the verses of Elliot's Ash Wednesday we see the post-monastic life of Karen Armstrong. We her see journey through the world and grow as a person and see how her ideas change. This book allows one to gain a context to her other works and see the perspectives that she holds. As with all Armstrong's books this is wonderfully written and a pleasure to read if nothing else.
I'd recommend this book to anyone who feels that life is not going quite as they planned, who is asking the question 'where to now?' about their personal life or career, or who has suffered at all from depression. I read it just before a period of some change in my life, and it made me think a lot.
After leaving the convent where she had been a nun, and the Catholic faith, Karen Armstrong found herself having to rebuild her life as a student of English at Oxford. She did brilliantly at her work and planned to become an academic. But it took her some time to be at ease with people, and she was plagued with bouts of anorexia and depression, along with strange fits (epilepsy, only diagnosed when she'd left Oxford and was in her late twenties). After years of study, Armstrong found that an academic career was denied her. She went reluctantly into school teaching, only to find that after some years at a top London girls' school as Head of English she was asked to leave due to her epilepsy, which made her vulnerable to illness. Her memoir of her time being a nun made her successful but wasn't going to keep her in money for ever. A career as a television presenter and broadcaster on religion began well but soon ran into problems due to television funding, and backers of Armstrong leaving their jobs to move to other positions. Eventually, as she grew older, Armstrong reconciled herself to religion and began to feel a real interest in it again - not only her former Catholicism, but also Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and other faiths. She became a full time writer and broadcaster on religion, immersing herself in her work and loving it and making many friends. After feeling that door after door had shut on her, she finally found a career she loved and that she believed she was made for - thinking and writing about God. Her writing fulfilled her in a way that being a nun did not.
This is a beautifully written, lively and engaging book, sometimes very sad, sometimes funny, with Armstrong always good company. I particularly loved her depiction of the eccentric don's family with whom she lodged as a graduate student and her bond with the autistic, epileptic youngest son of the family, her memories of the crazy life of a school teacher, her descriptions of visiting Israel for the first time, and her account of how, having shunned religion for years, she gradually returned to it in a calmer and much broader frame of mind. Armstrong is honest about her illnesses and problems with relationships, and her struggles, but never melancholy or - particularly in the later stages of the book - bitter. And she's wonderful at describing all the people she has met and befriended, bringing them vividly to life, A brave account of a woman coming to self-realization.
on 27 August 2011
I read this book as a follow up from her book "Through the Narrow Gate", hoping, as an ex-nun myself, to find more inspiration. Sadly for me this book is the opposite - it describes the author completely losing her faith and more than that deciding there is no basis for faith in the first place.
I think this is a personal disappointment to me as I still long to find a religious life that suits me, but those who have left religious vocations with the hope of totally rejoining the world apart from religion may find it very useful indeed and even inspiring, though I find it the opposite.
There are too many books and people already saying religion is without basis and not helpful, and too few able to face the critics and say actually religion can be really wonderful, done the right ways.
Armstrong's story is interesting, but to me ultimately unsatisfying, even though I am a mature student of RS and Philosophy.
on 10 September 2006
Having read the two previous volumes of karen Armstrong's autobiography, I was very keen to read this latest one. I had found "Through the Narrow Gate" particularly moving. In all honesty, I was disappointed with this account, filtered as it was through many years of memory. I too spent seven years in a convent in the sixties, but this latest volume failed to sound many sympathetic notes.
It is the account of the author's struggle to find her rightful place in the world after her experience in the religious life, and what a meal she makes of it! (One is tempted to suspect that the opinion of her former superiors was indeed justified!)
With Ms Armstrong's obvious intelligence and talent, her total lack of self confidence and will to self preservation are surprising. Is it possible that the medical establishment in England in the sixties failed to recognise epilepsy? In my experience, a fellow nun with epilepsy was diagnosed without any difficulty in 1964, and that was in a remote town in Africa!
The first part of the book, which deals with the years immediately following her having left the convent, will be of interest to those who have not had this experience, but to one who has "been there", they seemed overly self-indulgent in that they pandered to the commonly held view of the religious life as being a truly dreadful,gothic thing. This is an unfair generalisation, made with obvious bitterness on the part of one who must have known better. She did choose it freely after all.
The second part of the book deals with the author's later insights into the phenomenon of religion and belief. I found that this part spoke to me more directly, perhaps because it was more immediate to the author, but I have the impression that Ms Armstrong still has not shrugged off that old bitterness completely.
At the end of the day, this is a very well written book, an interesting read if one does not get bgged down in the author's problems.
on 5 April 2011
This is Armstrong's third volume of autobiography, and it attempts to completely undermine her second. Apparently, after the success of her first ("Through the Narrow Gate," which told the story of her seven years as a Catholic nun, her breakdown, and her leaving the convent) her publishers hurried her into writing a second volume, which, they argued, should come across as bright and breezy as possible; she, being new to publishing, agreed. The result was a book I haven't read, but that she describes as the worst thing she ever wrote, and now happily long out-of-print.
It is also probable, it seems to me, that it was just too soon after the events to give a mature reflection on things. Thirty years later she can tell a story that takes her through her catastrophic loss of faith, and along a curious arc that finds her now living quietly, by herself, as a writer on comparative religion; not exactly a nun, I suppose, but she has certainly moved some distance back towards the position of being a believer. Perhaps she has simply reinterpreted the formless desires and questions that led her to join the convent in the first place, having gone through the anger and rejection and out the other side. Certainly the biggest surprise of the book is that it is funny: Armstrong left her convent in 1969 and most of this book is about the 1970s - she has sufficient distance to laugh at things she did or said, or at situations that could only have been blackly comic at best at the time. Her long-undiagnosed epilepsy and her brushes with psychiatric institutions could have been profoundly disturbing, but her sense of wonder and delight at many things often seem as pure as a child's. It's as though the `loss' of the years 17-24 from her life insulated her in some way... not that the convent was a cocoon: it comes across as a bleak and harsh environment in many ways, but whilst it was teaching her not to feel or think for herself, it saved her the acquisition of cynicism that so many learn in those years. She would probably agree that it shaped the whole of her life, not just part of it.
The most vivid section, for me, was the part where she finds herself a part-time nanny to a delightful but severely autistic child in a barmy bohemian household. It might seem the most alien environment you can imagine after a convent, but you realise that her experience has realigned any idea of what is `normal' and what is `crazy'; it certainly doesn't seem any crazier than the rounds of student life and student parties that so baffle her. Maybe she has just a trace of the savant about her herself, and that is her precious pearl of wisdom. I certainly think it's a positive thing that, though she writes and lectures widely, she is not an academic. She brings to her discussions of Judaism, of Islam, of modernist poetry, both a probing intelligence but also a will to enter into someone else's world that is both liberating and enlightening.
on 5 September 2012
I had not heard of Karen Armstrong until the leader of a study group which I attend read a passage from one of her books. By chance I found this autobiography in one of my local libraries. I found the book quite absorbing and was genuinely interested in the obstacles and successes that Karen Armstrong met in her life. I mentioned the book to the aforementioned study group leader and he borrowed the book from the same library. When next I met with him he was profuse in his thanks for making the book known to him. He said it was one of the best books he had ever read. Given that his bookcases occupy space from floor to ceiling, this was quite a well deserved compliment to Karen Armstrong.
on 25 February 2010
I found Karen Armstrong's book brave and honest - she doesn't try for sympathy, but gives an account of her life after leaving the convent through Oxford and teaching to exploring and writing about religion.
on 8 December 2015
a friend gave me this book to read and seemed to think I would enjoy it!I absolutely hated it and cannot understand what people see in it.It is one long moan by a woman who made bad life choices and seemed to blame other people for her misfortunes.Far from inspiring I found it very annoying and depressing.I hate giving up on a book so I read through to the end but definitely will not be reading any more of this woman,s books.No one forced her to become a nun or stay for 7 years so she has only herself to blame for her life being miserable.
on 12 July 2011
This is a book I found it hard to put down once I had started reading - good for a long journey. She writes simply and compellingly about her own experiences, and her life path leads to researching and writing about religion - although she thought she was 'finished' with God. Her interest in religious belief extends to faiths other than the Christian and she is interested in common ground, in compassion (touchstone of true godliness) and forgiveness.