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Through the Narrow Gate is Karen Armstrong's intimate memoir of life inside a Catholic convent. With refreshing honesty and clarity, the book takes readers on a revelatory adventure that begins with Armstrong's decision in the course of her spiritual training offers a fascinating view into a shrouded religious life, and a vivid, moving account of the spiritual coming age o Through the Narrow Gate is Karen Armstrong's intimate memoir of life inside a Catholic convent. With refreshing honesty and clarity, the book takes readers on a revelatory adventure that begins with Armstrong's decision in the course of her spiritual training offers a fascinating view into a shrouded religious life, and a vivid, moving account of the spiritual coming age of one of our most loved and respected interpreters of religious.


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Through the Narrow Gate is Karen Armstrong's intimate memoir of life inside a Catholic convent. With refreshing honesty and clarity, the book takes readers on a revelatory adventure that begins with Armstrong's decision in the course of her spiritual training offers a fascinating view into a shrouded religious life, and a vivid, moving account of the spiritual coming age o Through the Narrow Gate is Karen Armstrong's intimate memoir of life inside a Catholic convent. With refreshing honesty and clarity, the book takes readers on a revelatory adventure that begins with Armstrong's decision in the course of her spiritual training offers a fascinating view into a shrouded religious life, and a vivid, moving account of the spiritual coming age of one of our most loved and respected interpreters of religious.

30 review for Through the Narrow Gate: A Memoir of Spiritual Discovery

  1. 4 out of 5

    Jessaka

    Due to Karen’s desire to serve God, she joined a convent at the early age of 17. For years I have admired monks and nuns who saw fit to do this, and for years I have seen them leave disillusioned and broken-hearted Not just monks and nuns, but also laymembers. These were not Catholic but Hindu as well as from other religions. I now no longer believe that it is best to serve God in any religious order; instead, I believe that God is best served by helping others and caring for the earth, but even Due to Karen’s desire to serve God, she joined a convent at the early age of 17. For years I have admired monks and nuns who saw fit to do this, and for years I have seen them leave disillusioned and broken-hearted Not just monks and nuns, but also laymembers. These were not Catholic but Hindu as well as from other religions. I now no longer believe that it is best to serve God in any religious order; instead, I believe that God is best served by helping others and caring for the earth, but even if you don’t believe in a God, I feel it is still the best way to live. After joining, Karen began vomiting daily and often this led to her fainting. The nuns believed that she just wanted attention. So, she was chastised and finally, because of her “passions,” her “sensitive nature,” she was given a whip and told to lock herself in a room and beat herself with it, and she did just that. I was appalled by this hellish so-called cure. They never suspected that there was a medical reason for what was happening to her. Then mental and physical abuse in religious organization are horrendous. Once you believe that the ministers or priests of any religions have all the answers and once you accept their authoritarian power, it is all downhill. Rules are made by man, not by a higher power. I found her story to be interesting, just as I have listened to other stories for years, even my own

  2. 5 out of 5

    Ronda

    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 inc 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.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Meg

    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 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.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Clif

    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 w 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.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Leila

    A fascinating revelation into what went on in this young girl's experience of life as a nun and the traumas she encountered while A fascinating revelation into what went on in this young girl's experience of life as a nun and the traumas she encountered while

  6. 5 out of 5

    Chris

    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 & 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)...it 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.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Stormy

    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 mor 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.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Molly

    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 ha 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.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Samar

    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 si 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.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Gail

    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 needl 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.

  11. 5 out of 5

    mazohyst

    Wow this is barely a review, it's just me rambling about myself. Tread carefully. And wow I haven't finish this. I have calculus homework to do haha, I'll finish it later. -------- I bought this book at the bookstore at my university. There were carts just outside the store and I was wandering around campus because I had a midterm that evening. I stopped, and saw book carts parked outside with "$5 SALE" signs taped to the sides. the store and I absolutely could not resist going through those carts Wow this is barely a review, it's just me rambling about myself. Tread carefully. And wow I haven't finish this. I have calculus homework to do haha, I'll finish it later. -------- I bought this book at the bookstore at my university. There were carts just outside the store and I was wandering around campus because I had a midterm that evening. I stopped, and saw book carts parked outside with "$5 SALE" signs taped to the sides. the store and I absolutely could not resist going through those carts of books. I have to tell you that I'm a sucker for spines that have horizontal titles. It is the most beautiful sight ever. And when I saw that spine, I was entranced. Simple black serif font on light blue, ah, it was too much. And the sub-title was what really hooked me in, a memoir of life in and out of the convent. I brought it to the till immediately. I'm a Catholic. A practicing Catholic but not to the point that I'm a pushy Catholic. We all know at least one. Actually, I don't. Does that mean I'm the pushy Catholic one? Probably. However I like to think that I'm not. Anyway, I've only known one nun in my life. Well, two really, but the other one I did not know as personally. There was a nun at my (Catholic) high school, Sister Dorothy, but I've never had her for religion class. I've always wanted to be in a class with Sister but my schedule just never wanted it to be. Although I did have a deacon for religion, once. It was... Interesting. She's not the nun I'm talking about. When I was growing up my parents knew a nun and brought my brother and I to see her quite regularly. She was an elderly Filipino lady with curly white hair and thick square framed glasses. Sister Therese was her name. She didn't seem so different from any other religious fanatic that my parents knew. But I always interested about the life she lead. In my head, I always pictured nuns as tall pale billowly creatures and she obviously was't. I wasn't close to that nun. She moved to Montreal when I was finishing elementary school. But every year she would send me a birthday card (with religious context, of course). The cards haven't been coming for a couple of years now. My curiosity about Sister Therese's possible life was the main factor in picking this book up. Not to mention that I'm currently feeling a bit lost since university started, especially spiritually. I want to strengthen my faith but I don't know how. Every couple of months, my mother would participate in this program where a statue of the Virgin Mary would come into our home and we would pray the rosary every day for the duration of Her stay. The people who lead this program asked me if I was keeping up with my YFC (Youth for Christ) activities and I simply stated that I was too busy (the truth was that I didn't get along with anyone there and it made me feel pretty horrible about myself). The Brother there just looked at me disappointingly and made a comment to my mother about how most youth lose their faith once entering university. I was silently enraged. I would never do such a thing. I wanted to grow in my faith, if anything. But as stated before, I don't know how. For some reason, I had some weird notion that maybe this book would help me. I did read the back about how it was an unsuccessful journey to the road to God but somehow, I had this weird hope. I immediately fell in love with this book. I too am 17, like how Karen was at the beginning of the book. The 60s was a radically different time though. Even though I wasn't too surprised by the rigidity and torturous routine of the convent life, it was still hard to comprehend. Teens these days are so much more secular than back then. Despite going to a Catholic school, not a lot of my fellow classmates were actually Catholic. Most were atheists or agnostics who went to that school for friends or because their parents wanted them to go there.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Relstuart

    I've read one of the historical books by this author (Fields of Blood, dealing with violence and religion) and would like to read more. So when I ran across a copy of this book and saw the sub-title indicating this was her memoir of her time as a nun I was curious enough to pick it up. Her story starts with her childhood so you gain some understanding why she decides to become a nun. Her childhood seems to be mostly pleasant in a decent middle class sort of way in England in the late 50s early 6 I've read one of the historical books by this author (Fields of Blood, dealing with violence and religion) and would like to read more. So when I ran across a copy of this book and saw the sub-title indicating this was her memoir of her time as a nun I was curious enough to pick it up. Her story starts with her childhood so you gain some understanding why she decides to become a nun. Her childhood seems to be mostly pleasant in a decent middle class sort of way in England in the late 50s early 60s. Her parents were against her becoming a nun but as good Catholics and loving parents they allowed her to follow what she wanted to do and join a nunnery at the age of 17. The process takes several years to complete. The order she joined teaches girls to lay aside their own thoughts and die to self. Fascinating as the author does a good job of getting your inside her head as she experiences the deprivation of the things that make us human and make humanity worthwhile in an effort to sacrifice that part of herself to become a good nun. For example, one of the things they were taught was that they needed to train themselves to stop enjoying food (a worldly rather than spiritual pleasure). So they needed to avoid the things they really might enjoy when they were served and take second helpings of the things they didn't like. The process of becoming a nun has changed since this book was written. So it's isn't necessarily the best thing to read if you want to know what it's like now. But from a historical perspective it certainly is valuable along with being an interesting story.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Pranada Comtois

    I love Armstrong's books and her memoirs are especially important for several reasons. First because the world needs more woman's spiritual narratives. Second, the honesty of how a serious spiritualist faces the rituals and dogma of faith and wrestles them down within their actual life experience is edifying and can inform our own journey. As a spiritual activist for women's rights in secular, as well as religious and spiritual, worlds, I'm grateful Armstrong is forthright. More women need to do I love Armstrong's books and her memoirs are especially important for several reasons. First because the world needs more woman's spiritual narratives. Second, the honesty of how a serious spiritualist faces the rituals and dogma of faith and wrestles them down within their actual life experience is edifying and can inform our own journey. As a spiritual activist for women's rights in secular, as well as religious and spiritual, worlds, I'm grateful Armstrong is forthright. More women need to do the same. On the subject of Ms. Armstrong's research and writing as a religious scholar I wrote her about the glaring omission of the world's forth monotheism in her books. Bhakti, the Path of the Heart, India's mystic path, is a beacon for empowering women--and men who recognize that the Soul's nature is based in a feminine psychology, character, and emotional expression--to stop oppression and abuse of women in secular and spiritual settings and allow true religion and spirituality to be released from masculine worldviews and management and exalted back to their true essence. Here's my exchange with Ms. Armstrong: Letter exchange with Karen Armstrong.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Lianne

    I have read most of Karen Armstrong's books on the history of religion and admired her combination of scholarly research and clarity. Although I realized she was once a cloistered nun, I never know her story. While Mods and Rockers were frolicking and the counter culture was ramping up in the England of the 1960's, the author was doing her best to adapt to the rules of her order. She sincerely attempted to become obedient and submissive but endured inexplicable seizures because of the internal c I have read most of Karen Armstrong's books on the history of religion and admired her combination of scholarly research and clarity. Although I realized she was once a cloistered nun, I never know her story. While Mods and Rockers were frolicking and the counter culture was ramping up in the England of the 1960's, the author was doing her best to adapt to the rules of her order. She sincerely attempted to become obedient and submissive but endured inexplicable seizures because of the internal conflicts of her situation. The authorities dismissed her episodes as simple attention getting behavior. Fortunately, Karen's intellectual gifts were spotted even after she took her vows so she was allowed to study at Oxford. Her intense devotion to scholarship and study brought her to the attention of her instructors and ultimately an intervention made it impossible for her to continue with her vows. The memoir is engaging, honest and reveals the rigidity of the Church's practices before Vatican II, as well as Karen's heroic efforts to comply with her vows. I'm grateful that her particular gifts were saved and that she able could produce her inspiring body of work.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Kris - My Novelesque Life

    4 STARS "Through the Narrow Gate is Karen Armstrong’s intimate memoir of life inside a Catholic convent. With honesty and clarity, she explains what drove her at age seventeen to devote herself to God. Over the next seven years, she endures the difficulties of convent life — the enforced silence, the lack of friendship and family, her own guilt at not being able to stifle her voracious intelligence — and unveils the secrets of religious life during the post–Vatican II years." (From Amazon) A grea 4 STARS "Through the Narrow Gate is Karen Armstrong’s intimate memoir of life inside a Catholic convent. With honesty and clarity, she explains what drove her at age seventeen to devote herself to God. Over the next seven years, she endures the difficulties of convent life — the enforced silence, the lack of friendship and family, her own guilt at not being able to stifle her voracious intelligence — and unveils the secrets of religious life during the post–Vatican II years." (From Amazon) A great writer! I love this memoir as it is honest and acknowledges her biases. A young Karen wants to be a nun in the 1960s and this is her journey in and out of the habit. She manages to call out the cliches and acknowledges the stereotypes. This is not just for those interested in religion. It is about finding yourself and what it all means. This is the first of two memoirs.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Michael

    An extraordinary book, really. A women's journey through her teen years committed to an institution that tried to erase her humanity and failed. One learns about rules, practices and traditions in the process of becoming a nun that have no grounding in reality, or even in scripture. So many rules and customs invented long ago by misogynistic men with complete disregard for the human need for compassion, friendship, and community with others. The author struggles with these feelings and the churc An extraordinary book, really. A women's journey through her teen years committed to an institution that tried to erase her humanity and failed. One learns about rules, practices and traditions in the process of becoming a nun that have no grounding in reality, or even in scripture. So many rules and customs invented long ago by misogynistic men with complete disregard for the human need for compassion, friendship, and community with others. The author struggles with these feelings and the church's demands that she suppress them, and we cringe at the ignorance of the institution committed to ancient, absurd rules and practices. In the end the author's inability to continue in her quest to become a nun is not her failure, but rather a failure of the institution. Highly recommended.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Red

    Thoughtful book about her experience going through the nunnery process when she was 17 in the 60s, before a lot of the reform of the process came through. A struggle of self, denial of self and the ultimate realization that it was too much for her and too much denial of the things that God gave her as unique gifts to her. I think worse happened to her that she only hints about here, but she tried to show both the good and the bad and didn't want the bad to throw off the balance. My heart went ou Thoughtful book about her experience going through the nunnery process when she was 17 in the 60s, before a lot of the reform of the process came through. A struggle of self, denial of self and the ultimate realization that it was too much for her and too much denial of the things that God gave her as unique gifts to her. I think worse happened to her that she only hints about here, but she tried to show both the good and the bad and didn't want the bad to throw off the balance. My heart went out to her when she did decide to leave, not knowing or understanding the culture and being out of the world for 7 years. I'm hoping her next book talks about that process some, I'm really interested in how she adjusted and how she got to where she is now.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Gail

    Karen Armstrong is a former nun and a well-regarded writer on religious topics. This is a memoir of seven years of her life spent in a Jesuit convent. Armstrong mentions that this is a complete re-write of a book she tried earlier...but it was too bitter for publication. Her emotions are still quite raw and she paints a brutal picture of convent life as seen through the eyes of a very young, very naive, very sad candidate for the cloistered life. It's a painful book to read and some parts of it Karen Armstrong is a former nun and a well-regarded writer on religious topics. This is a memoir of seven years of her life spent in a Jesuit convent. Armstrong mentions that this is a complete re-write of a book she tried earlier...but it was too bitter for publication. Her emotions are still quite raw and she paints a brutal picture of convent life as seen through the eyes of a very young, very naive, very sad candidate for the cloistered life. It's a painful book to read and some parts of it are moving, but you're left with the feeling that Ms. Armstrong hasn't yet achieved the emotional distance to write an accurate portrayal of these events.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Tammy

    Illuminating read about the experiences of Ms Armstrong when she embarked on life as a nun to when she left. Fascinating and tragic to see how much was expected of those who desired to live that sort of life back at that time and how much they gave up not just materialistically or physically but emotionally, mentally and in her case intellectually.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Megankellie

    This is a memoir of a pre-vatican II nun. O my I loved all of the gory details. Unfortunately I was very interested in finding reasons to become a nun and other reasons to turn my mind off etc. So. This book does not those grant. I mean, this is sensible food for your "I will just drop out and become a nun" fantasy. Soooo. This is a memoir of a pre-vatican II nun. O my I loved all of the gory details. Unfortunately I was very interested in finding reasons to become a nun and other reasons to turn my mind off etc. So. This book does not those grant. I mean, this is sensible food for your "I will just drop out and become a nun" fantasy. Soooo.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Diane

    Karen Armstrong recounts her early quest for God from childhood to convent’s life and beyond. She wrote this in 1980, 11 years after leaving her Order.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Lianne JM

    This memoir is quite harrowing and often difficult to read because of the abuses Armstrong suffered in the convent. But I resonated with her quest to be near the sacred and to have an identity founded in God.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Colleen O'Neill Conlan

    (This is not the revised version, but the original edition from the library) I have another of Armstrong's memoirs, but wanted to read this one first, which tells of her early search for a deep connection with God. For her, that meant serving as a religious sister, or nun. She began her formal religious training at 17, and this book is about her seven years of convent life, first as a postulant, then as a novice, and then as a professed nun. Armstrong is a clear and gifted writer, giving intimate (This is not the revised version, but the original edition from the library) I have another of Armstrong's memoirs, but wanted to read this one first, which tells of her early search for a deep connection with God. For her, that meant serving as a religious sister, or nun. She began her formal religious training at 17, and this book is about her seven years of convent life, first as a postulant, then as a novice, and then as a professed nun. Armstrong is a clear and gifted writer, giving intimate detail of what it really means to give one's life over to God and church, to take those vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience at an age when one hardly understands the repercussions. Before entering religious life, her teacher and mentor, a nun of the same order, warns her that it is "a very austere order," and that "becoming a nun is like signing a blank check," as it's impossible to know what one is giving. She also happens to enter in 1962, on the cusp of changes that will come with the Second Vatican Council. As it was, most of her superiors were strict about perfect obedience, sometimes exceedingly so. There are so many aspects to such a life: but the main ones seem to be the spiritual search, the dogma and rules of the Catholic church (so much stricter for a nun than a "secular"), and the utter selflessness that is required. Armstrong braids these together seamlessly, as they are constantly interconnected. Different readers will come away with different questions and conclusions, depending on their religious bent. As for myself, I kept wondering, when the young nun is faced with a challenge dictated to her from above is, Is this what God wants or is this what the Church wants (like being permanently parted from one's family, with letters read and censored)? Is this what the Church demands, or what this particular order demands (like the medieval "discipline", or self-flagellation)? Is this what the order demands, or is this what a certain superior demands (like scrubbing stairs with a nailbrush)? A nun can never question, only obey, and this is the constant struggle for Armstrong as a young sister: her striving toward religious perfection set against a bright, questioning mind. When she goes from postulant to novice, a sign on the wall greeted her, the saying of a saint: "I would grind myself to powder if by doing so I could accomplish God's will." And that's pretty much what is required of Sister Martha and the small group of young novices - smaller all the time, as they understandably leave the order one by one - as they progress to full committed nun. Armstrong eventually leaves religious life, a decision in part brought on in part by her required scholastic work at Oxford, where she is required to use her mind in ways that don't directly serve God, where she must exercise her will, form written arguments - pretty much the opposite of the cloistered life. In an afterword, Armstrong relates that the order is not so strident anymore, that the loosening of rules due to Vatican II brought changes that extended to those governing nuns, including a higher age of entry to formal religious life so that these young women must "live in the world" for a few years before making such a huge decision. Good thing. Fabulous book...raises lots of questions, and gives a good sense of one young woman's search for God in cloistered life, and what she experienced in that search.

  24. 5 out of 5

    JanGlen

    This is a fascinating look at convent life pre Vatican II. It is also a moving account of the author's determined effort to lead a truly spiritual life. I found it deeply personal, so much so that it almost felt voyeuristic to be reading it. This is a fascinating look at convent life pre Vatican II. It is also a moving account of the author's determined effort to lead a truly spiritual life. I found it deeply personal, so much so that it almost felt voyeuristic to be reading it.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Sonya

    My first staff bookclub read of 2015 was "Through the Narrow Gate" by Karen Armstrong. Armstrong entered a convent as a teenager, straight out of Catholic school, and left 7 years later. She was emotionally mistreated in the convent, medically neglected, and eventually her relationship with God, a relationship that never stopped being important to her throughtout this experience, was tragically impacted by the facts of the religious life offered to her by her convent. At the staff bookclub we hav My first staff bookclub read of 2015 was "Through the Narrow Gate" by Karen Armstrong. Armstrong entered a convent as a teenager, straight out of Catholic school, and left 7 years later. She was emotionally mistreated in the convent, medically neglected, and eventually her relationship with God, a relationship that never stopped being important to her throughtout this experience, was tragically impacted by the facts of the religious life offered to her by her convent. At the staff bookclub we have a nifty method of selecting titles. Instead of choosing one book to read, we choose a genre and everyone reads a different book. This month was memoirs. Like many young women, I wanted to be a nun. As a teen I converted to Islam and spent several very contended years as an observant person. I often wish I could devote a nice big chunk of years to a religious life but we don't seem to have a good way to balance being "of the world" and "practicing a devote way of life" in the West. I've learned a lot about my family's religious leanings over the past 300 years. One of those things is that we can't seem to stick to any particular religion. Dutch Reformed... Catholic... Anabaptist... "pas" (French for "none" was recorded on one census takers sheet)... Presbyterian... Baptist... faithful (as opposed to "religious").. atheist. We've got 'em loaded up. It's tricky to write about religion but one thing my atheist parents taught me that I've really internalized is not to be afraid of religion. Not to be afraid of ideas in general, but to be particularly thoughtful in a detached way about religion and religious ideas. I consider myself a religious person. My belief in God is absolute. As real to me as the chair I'm sitting in. It's been a consistent comfort to me for many years. Religion in many forms has been considered by and written about by great people for centuries and there's a lot of goodness there, a lot of careful thinking, and a lot of truth. I enjoy reading it. There are a lot of memoirs written by women who left Catholic orders and I enjoy them in particular. Feel free to suggest any titles that meet the "religious memoir " criteria. I'm interested!

  26. 4 out of 5

    Mary

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. Very well written, fair-minded, insightful--and, at this present time in my life, hard to read. That's why it took so long to get through it. As a girl of 17, Karen Armstrong enters a convent of Ignatian nuns. The year is 1962. Karen tells the story of her next seven years trying to find God in the order, and finally realizing her vocation was leading her out into the world. At this time, before Vatican II, the formation of young nuns could be downright abusive. All Karen's physical problems wer Very well written, fair-minded, insightful--and, at this present time in my life, hard to read. That's why it took so long to get through it. As a girl of 17, Karen Armstrong enters a convent of Ignatian nuns. The year is 1962. Karen tells the story of her next seven years trying to find God in the order, and finally realizing her vocation was leading her out into the world. At this time, before Vatican II, the formation of young nuns could be downright abusive. All Karen's physical problems were put down to "nerves" or "spiritual pride". Almost worse was the emphasis on total obedience. Bright and academically inclined, Karen struggled to shut down her mind and do as she was told, even when it didn't make sense. Of course, it makes sense to offer perfect obedience to God, who is perfect Love! But we are all imperfect human beings, and reading about some of the nonsense Karen had to endure made me cringe. That said, Karen also met love, friendship, and true saintliness in the order. The conclusion she came to is that a true, life-long vocation is rare. Those nuns who have it shine in this narrative, especially Mother Bianca, but others seem like warped or stunted souls. One of the more spiritually mature nuns remarks about these women, "They've failed in courage somewhere." Karen's own words, as she comes to understand this, are: "The nuns I lived with were women of charity and integrity. They were striving for a superhuman ideal and not surprisingly they made mistakes. They did their best for me but between us we failed. Religious life is about love and love is about risk. Perhaps none of us risked enough."

  27. 5 out of 5

    Danna

    Karen Armstrong is a bit of a pariah: she studies hard and knows all the answers. When her peers hit puberty, she is horrified--unable to imagine the possibility of dating, kissing, sex. Instead of running with hormones like so many 16-year-olds, Karen runs from them when she decides to become a nun. Through the Narrow Gate is mostly the story of her fight to become a nun, and then her continued fight once she reaches the convent. As someone with nearly no background on the transitions from post Karen Armstrong is a bit of a pariah: she studies hard and knows all the answers. When her peers hit puberty, she is horrified--unable to imagine the possibility of dating, kissing, sex. Instead of running with hormones like so many 16-year-olds, Karen runs from them when she decides to become a nun. Through the Narrow Gate is mostly the story of her fight to become a nun, and then her continued fight once she reaches the convent. As someone with nearly no background on the transitions from postulant to novice to nun are, I found this book interesting and educational. As an added benefit, it reads quickly and easily like a novel. There were times I was horrified by the torture Karen a.k.a. Sister Martha voluntarily endured as a means to get closer to God. In many ways, like the hazing a fraternity pledge suffers through. I finished the memoir feeling incredulous that she made it out alive. Beyond that, that she was able to build a life with her religiosity and spiritual foundation as the driving forces of her new career. A worthwhile read, especially if you're interested in an inside view of the nun experience (albeit a bit dated, as this book mainly takes place in the 60s and major changes have been made to the treatment and training of Catholic nuns since then).

  28. 5 out of 5

    Patty

    I only read this book as it was this month's book club selection but I ended up liking it and watching a TED talk by its author Karen Armstrong who has become a widely sought and widely read commentator/author on the history of religion. Hard to believe the somewhat sheltered, 17-year-old girl who entered a British convent in the early 60s could become this worldly, intellectual woman. Armstrong recounts her trying, early days as a novice nun in a traditional convent in a simple writing style th I only read this book as it was this month's book club selection but I ended up liking it and watching a TED talk by its author Karen Armstrong who has become a widely sought and widely read commentator/author on the history of religion. Hard to believe the somewhat sheltered, 17-year-old girl who entered a British convent in the early 60s could become this worldly, intellectual woman. Armstrong recounts her trying, early days as a novice nun in a traditional convent in a simple writing style that becomes more complex and deeper as she progresses from a postulant to a full-fledged nun. But her struggle to leave the 'self' behind in her desire to truly know God becomes both psychological and physical. By the time she is an English student at Oxford the strain to both shut down her mind in her devotion to God and her convent orders and expand it to meet the rigourous academic challenges of her course work are overwhelming and she leaves the convent to take her first tentative steps on the 'outside.'Armstrong recounts her dawning awareness that faith does not have to be synonymous with cruelty with both precision and heart. Although I couldn't relate to her on any level, she definitely drew me into her world and had me cheering her courage to pursue her intellectual freedom.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Ginger

    I really only read this book to get an idea what this woman went through during her time trying to become a nun. I wanted to know the background for "The Spiral Staircase" which, I believe, is her second book (about life after the convent). I enjoyed reading about what Karen went through during her journey in this book, trying to become a nun. You never know what really happens inside the convent walls except from individuals like Karen who defect and are willing to tell their story. The reason I really only read this book to get an idea what this woman went through during her time trying to become a nun. I wanted to know the background for "The Spiral Staircase" which, I believe, is her second book (about life after the convent). I enjoyed reading about what Karen went through during her journey in this book, trying to become a nun. You never know what really happens inside the convent walls except from individuals like Karen who defect and are willing to tell their story. The reason for only two stars... I felt there were large chunks of information missing. For instance, what was with the fainting/seizures? No explanation except it was self inflicted due to nerves... The same with dairy products especially cheese...so are you lactose intolerant or what? What was with all the food issues? Also there were quite a few small storylines throughout that (I felt) were cut short. I hope all my questions will be answered in "The Spiral Staircase". If not...then...oh well.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Emmkay

    One of the most interesting memoirs I've read! Karen Armstrong entered a convent at the age of seventeen, in the early 1960s, part of the last group of young women to do so before the liberalization of the Church via Vatican II. A shy, intellectual girl put off by the idea of sexual maturation, she was eager to achieve the self-abnegation that her Ignatian order taught was necessary - the death of the self, in order that God may fill the emptied self. This is a sensitive, fascinating account of One of the most interesting memoirs I've read! Karen Armstrong entered a convent at the age of seventeen, in the early 1960s, part of the last group of young women to do so before the liberalization of the Church via Vatican II. A shy, intellectual girl put off by the idea of sexual maturation, she was eager to achieve the self-abnegation that her Ignatian order taught was necessary - the death of the self, in order that God may fill the emptied self. This is a sensitive, fascinating account of her own struggles and of the contradictions and their consequences within the lives of women religious at that time. Really good.

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