THROUGH THE NARROW GATE by Karen Armstrong

THROUGH THE NARROW GATE

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KIRKUS REVIEW

An emotive, spiritually intimate, and often quite moving memoir by an English woman who entered an austere Catholic Order in 1962 before the sweeping changes initiated by Vatican II--and a tribute to sister nuns, kind or cruel, who ""were striving for a superhuman ideal and not surprisingly made mistakes."" At 17, Karen, daughter of loving middle-class parents, was a sensitive, unsophisticated loner, unhappy with her appearance and a bit frightened of a world of men-and-women. Charmed by the serenity and intelligence of her school's headmistress, Mother Katherine, and against the wishes of her parents, Karen entered the Order as a postulant. The early months at the convent offered some disagreeable but challenging surprises: medieval underwear, laundry soap for the weekly bath, and, worst, the rule of strict silence except for two hours a day. Sometimes ""it all seemed so contrived and unreal, like performing in a play."" But the two-year novitiate began the severest test, especially in living the Word: ""I would grind myself to a powder if by doing so I could accomplish God's will."" Karen, now Sister Martha, engaged in a bitter battle with Self as a novice, after her final vows, and as a Scholastic preparing to teach. Then, the tortured, insuppressible demands of mind and body brought about a final crisis. Desiring so much the selfless life, Sister Martha attempted to draw spiritual growth from meaningless tasks, anachronistic punishments (even self-flagellation), a racking, ""Karen""-crushing self-analysis. Some of her superiors, clinging to archaic rules like a ""guard rail in a swimming pool,"" seem unnaturally cruel--forcing food upon often-nauseated Sister Martha, insisting her fainting and dizzy spells were due to ""pride."" The last breakdown came during her studies at Oxford, when intellectual thrust and integrity warred openly with ""blind obedience""; in 1969, Karen received permission to leave and break her vows. ""I rarely felt at peace,"" she grieves, ""but at another level I was happy. . . . Religious life is about love and love is about risk. Perhaps none of us risked enough."" Despite the gripping, widely-appealing details of convent life, an essentially religious confession--written with affection, some humor, and a bittersweet regret.

Pub Date: Sept. 16th, 1981
Publisher: St. Martin's