Through the Narrow Gate – Karen Armstrong


I want to write the review of the book before it gets off of my head. I know it will get off soon. It’s a good book. I appreciate the bravery of the author in baring her soul. But, I also know that this book has not made a deep impact on me. That could be because I am not religious and this book deals mainly with religion and struggles to keep up with a religious life.

‘Through the Narrow Gate’ is an autobiographical work by Karen Armstrong, chronicling her feelings about deciding to get into a convent, her years of becoming a nun and then finally, why and how, she gave it all up for the world. The convent life, which she describes, is haunting and a novelty for me. Guilt and punishment seem to be the major themes in becoming a nun. ‘A nun has to die every day’. This sentence captures the essence of living in a nunnery. Sisters are never allowed to question anything, they are not allowed to form friendships or even try to get close to a person, they are to dutifully follow every wish and command of their superiors – all the while introspecting their relationship with God. What Karen finds impossible to do is to muster up such abandon. She cannot abandon her rationale, her sensitivity, her questions, her need for friendship and community. This causes her much trouble. For failing to do such things, she is punished and made to feel guilty. She changes herself so much that at the end, she is almost a complete stranger to her former self.

One of the main highlights of the book is the difference between the dream and reality of a religious life. While Karen enters a convent filled with a hope of communion with God, what she instead finds herself doing is dealing with a lot of practical and physical inconveniences which somehow do not let her think so much about God. There is a fear, of having done something wrong, all the time, in her mind. It is this fear of being wrong and then feeling guilty for it, for having to ask forgiveness for letting herself be sometimes is what exhausts her. At Oxford, in literature, she finds the kind of intellectual stimulation as well as the human bonding which she has been looking for. She sees hope. She finds herself useful. She sees purpose and which is why she gives up the ‘religious life’. It is not easy. It is not easy because she is again filled with a sense of betrayal. But this time, she can not take it more.

It is a story of a deep internal struggle. I can feel it. But it takes courage to give up the world at seventeen and become a nun and then renounce it all after seven years to start afresh in an unknown world. Karen Armstrong is brave and she is courageous and her story is fantastic. But, I could not connect with the Godliness and the religious line so much and that’s why it did not move me at a level at which it can potentially move other people.

It is a good book.

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