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Through the Narrow Gate: A Memoir of Spiritual Discovery Paperback – November 15, 1994

4.6 out of 5 stars 67 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


"An emotive, spiritually intimate, and often quite moving memoir...written with affection, some humor, and bittersweet regret."--Kirkus Reviews

"A scrupulous record of one woman's spiritual journey, excellently written and profoundly moving."--Cosmopolitan

About the Author

After leaving her religious order in 1969, Karen Armstrong took a degree at Oxford University and taught modern literature. She has since become one of the world's foremost commentators on religious affairs; her most recent book is The Battle for God. A teacher at the Leo Baeck College for the Study of Judaism and the Training of Rabbis and Teachers, and an honorary members of the Association of Muslim Social Sciences, she lives in London.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin; 1st rev. pbk. ed edition (November 15, 1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312119038
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312119034
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.8 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (67 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,771,287 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Joanna Daneman #1 HALL OF FAMETOP 10 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on February 22, 2001
Format: Paperback
Karen Armstrong entered a convent as a teenager in the 60's. While all the tumult of the sexual revolution, the Cold War, the Vietnam War seethed in the outside world, Karen was struggling with her difficult and almost medieval novitiate, her classes at Oxford, where her training as a nun conflicted with the scholastic world, and with her health. While Karen sought to cool the passions and desires of the world and become the perfect nun, her body rebelled and she suffered anorexia, fainting fits which were attributed to her emotions (but were diagnosed as epilepsy much later on.) Meanwhile, she achieved scholastic triumphs at Oxford, but at heavy price.
How Karen adjusts to live in the convent, and then to life at Oxford is an amazing story. Her autobiography is unsentimental and honest. This is a fascinating personal story as well as a rare look into a secret world that was forever altered by Vatican II and its reforms.
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Format: Paperback
....cloistered in a psychological as well as a physical sense.
Karen Armstrong, a woman of prodigious intellect and talent, a woman who has written seminal books on the subject of religion, goes inside her own personal experience as a cloistered nun in Through the Narrow Gate.
It's not a particularly pretty picture, this story of her seven years immersed in a life full of bleakness, medical neglect, sexual frustration, and mindless negation of intellect. For someone of Armstrong's mind-set, that last privation must have been hardest to bear. Outside the walls of the cloister, meanwhile, the chaos of the 60s was raging, making the life within more inexplicable - and ultimately, irrelevant.
There is one bright, kind, and encouraging Mother Superior, however, who provides the necessary window of light, a person who provides Armstrong with both a reason to stay and a reason to leave the convent.
It's a blessing for us that she did leave and go on to live her life as a scholar, teacher and author. It's almost an equal blessing, however, that she endured those 7 years and writes about it so poitnantly; it makes her presence in the world all the more valuable.
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Format: Paperback
As this is a book relating to Catholicism, it is fitting for me to start the review with a confession. I bought this book not because I was interested in it, but because I wanted to read its sequel - The Spiral Staircase - and felt I should read this book first. I was not interested all that much in the story of becoming a nun and my only curiosity was how Miss Armstrong would find anything interesting to say about it.

Well, I was off the mark. Karen Armstrong's recounting of her 2 years in the convent (and subsequent disenchantment with the process) are fascinating. Most of the action in this story takes place inside the subject's head as she tries to wrestle with being human in a place where humanness is to be shed (as one must renounce worldy desires, thoughts, and feelings to be close to God).

Karen Armstrong does a magnificent job of depicting what this conflict is like. The process of becoming a nun, as Armstrong describes it, is a rigorous program of self-denial. One is not to complain, be tired, be mournful, be happy, be questioning, or let onesself feel any of the things that come with the territory of being human. Rather, it was taught that the pinnacle of the spiritual life was the abillty to shed one's humanness, to think and feel only about one thing - God.

Armstrong also tells of a very hierarchal system where to question one's superiors is to question God (as one's superiors are closer to God than onesself; that is why they are superiors). With accuity of word, Karen Armstrong recounts how she was constantly made to feel insignificant and imbecilic by her superiors. At the same time, feeling bad about this was attributed to her weak spirit and - so it was called - her selfishness.
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Format: Paperback
Karen Armstrong has written a most marvelous account of her life within a very strict order of English Catholic nuns of the 1960's. Her description of the torments she endured has caused me to regard with renewed respect and affection the nuns who taught me in the 1950's. How odd that we boys who were in class with the nuns for hours each day really had no idea of what kind of lives some of them led in the hours before and after school. The moral, spiritual, and intellectual gifts they bestowed on us daily are inestimable, even though at the time we were probably more interested in whether or not they actually had hair under their wimples!

I've noticed some confusion in these reviews about several aspects of Catholic religious orders of those days. First, despite having no contact for long periods of time with "seculars" - i.e., civilians - Karen was not in a order of "cloistered" nuns. Cloistered sisters do truly cut themselves off completely from the world and, if I can be so bold as to describe them, they live a life governed by "ora et labora" - work and prayer. In fact, though, as strict as they were, Karen's order was primarily an order of teaching sisters.

But there is a much more important concept that many people seem not quite to grasp, and that is that all Catholic youth of those days - at least in my experience - were taught that the most perfect way to be a true follower of Christ was to share in his suffering. That is why those nuns were treated - and treated themselves - as harshly as any Marine Corps recruits would ever be treated - only the nun's harsh treatment was to continue all her life. Certainly, most youth who took Catholicism very seriously must have given thought at one time or another to entering the religious life.
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