Clif's Reviews > Through the Narrow Gate: A Memoir of Spiritual Discovery

Through the Narrow Gate by Karen Armstrong
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's review
Apr 07, 2012

it was amazing
Read in April, 2012

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.
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Jeanne Your review adds a richer understanding of this book that I read several years ago. Thank you.

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