Saturday, January 2, 2010

Karen Armstrong's Through The Narrow Gate--Overview

I have just re-read Through the Narrow Gate: A Memoir of Spiritual Discovery by Karen Armstrong. In this memoir, Karen Armstrong writes about her life as a nun. From 1962 to 1969, ages 17 to 24, Karen was a member of a Catholic religious order, the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, in England. This time period includes nine months as a postulant, two years as a novice, and the rest of the time as a professed sister.

The primary ministry of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus is teaching girls and women. Therefore, upon making her religious profession, Karen was sent by her order to study English literature at Oxford, in preparation for teaching. Karen deeply loves literature.

Karen writes of the joys as well as the difficulties of professed religious life, though admittedly, in her case, it was mostly difficulties. She speaks especially of the difficulty she experienced in mastering her emotions, her mind, and her body. Karen often experienced religious life as a struggle to empty herself of what she saw as self-centered emotions (pride in small spiritual victories, hurt at a superior's harshness, frustration at her lack of skill in sewing, boredom with hours of housework) so that she could be filled by God. For Karen, this struggle to master her emotions was consistently unsuccessful.

Karen also had difficulty subduing her mind to accept the religious ideal of blind obedience to superiors, even when their instructions were counter-productive, and the "truth" of Catholic doctrines, even when her mind told her that these doctrines weren't really true. With persistent effort, she forced her mind to stop thinking and just obey--but then came her literature studies at Oxford, which awoke her mind and her deep pleasure in keen thought. As her mind came more and more vibrantly to life through her study of literature, Karen began to question certain practices of the order that she saw were harmful for the nuns, such as the ban on personal friendships and the use of the discipline (a set of cords used by nuns to flagellate themselves as a means of subduing bodily passions and performing penance).

Finally, Karen had her first epileptic seizures in the convent. These were seen by her superiors as spells of fainting due to emotional weakness, and Karen was ordered to stop these emotional displays. Since epileptic seizures are absolutely beyond the control of the will, there was no way for Karen to obey this command. One simply cannot decide to stop the abnormal electrical activity in the brain that causes the seizure. Karen also began to experience sexual arousal while in the convent. This was another aspect of her body that she simply could not control.

In my next post, I will look more closely at why religious life in the Society of the Holy Child Jesus did not work out for Karen.

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