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Through the Narrow Gate: A Memoir of Spiritual Discovery

4.10  ·  Rating details ·  1,759 ratings  ·  187 reviews
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 ...more
Paperback, 304 pages
Published February 19th 2005 by St. Martin's Griffin (first published January 1st 1981)
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Sep 23, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: religion
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 ...more
Jun 01, 2008 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Mar 23, 2007 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, religion
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
Apr 07, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography, philosophy
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
A fascinating revelation into what went on in this young girl's experience of life as a nun and the traumas she encountered while ...more
Nov 13, 2008 rated it really liked it
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
Jun 01, 2015 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Jul 15, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Sep 29, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
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 & ...more
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
Apr 18, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: faith, memoir
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
Pranada Comtois
Mar 18, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Aug 20, 2012 added it
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 ...more
Kris - My Novelesque Life
Jul 16, 2014 rated it really liked it

"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
Jun 18, 2014 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
May 23, 2017 rated it really liked it
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
Jan 15, 2008 rated it it was ok
Shelves: memoirs, 2007
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 ...more
Jun 19, 2017 rated it really liked it
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.
Mar 11, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: holier-than-thou
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.

Jun 09, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Lianne JM
Jul 27, 2019 rated it really liked it
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.
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
Jul 15, 2017 rated it really liked 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. ...more
Feb 02, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jul 15, 2016 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
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
Oct 23, 2013 rated it liked it
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 ...more
Feb 17, 2009 rated it it was ok
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
Sep 16, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
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Karen Armstrong, a comparative religion specialist is the author of numerous books on religion, including The Case for God, A History of God, The Battle for God, Holy War, Islam, Buddha, and Fields of Blood, as well as a memoir, The Spiral Staircase.

Her work has been translated into 45 languages. In 2008 she was awarded the TED Prize and began working with TED on the Charter for Compassion,

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