Saturday, January 2, 2010

Karen Armstrong's Through The Narrow Gate--Religious Life

In my previous post, I gave an overview of Karen Armstrong's Through the Narrow Gate: A Memoir of Spiritual Discovery, which tells of Karen Armstrong's life as a nun from 1962 to 1969, ages 17 to 24, in the Society of the Holy Child Jesus in England. In this post, I will begin to look at why religious life did not work out for Karen.

On page 252, Karen pinpoints the crux of the matter. Karen is recuperating from an emotional breakdown, and a fellow nun whom Karen calls Mother Melinda comes to visit her in the infirmary. Mother Melinda had taken a course the previous year with a priest who was a psychologist and who had talked quite a bit with disturbed nuns. Here is what Mother Melinda reports the priest as having said:

" 'He was saying that the traditional way of training nuns was to keep them in a prepubescent state by treating them like children--you know, do as you're told, no responsibility, no mention of sex, no men, no freedom.' "

This method of training seemed to produce at least three types of nuns.

NUNS WHO ACHIEVED TRUE HOLINESS. First, some women, even highly intelligent women like Mother Katherine and Mother Bianca, achieved holiness under this system, probably by seeing through to the core of religious life and holding fast those things that supported union with God while holding loosely those things that were superficial and unhelpful.

NUNS WHO EMBODIED A CARICATURE OF HOLINESS. Second, other women, like Mother Walter and Mother Praetorita, became caricatures of holiness, holding fast to the letter rather than the spirit of the order's rules. Mother Katherine describes this on page 247 as a failure in courage. Here is how Mother Katherine says that these nuns failed in courage: " 'By clinging to the rules as to the rail of a swimming pool. Not being willing ever to go out of their depth and trust that God will hold them up.' "

In other words, these nuns never actually lived the religious life. They remained perpetually in training, and they didn't even allow the training to do what it was intended to do. Instead, they clung to the rules themselves as though rule observance were the religious life, whereas rule observance was simply intended to empty and free one for union with God. These nuns emphasized the emptying, emptying, emptying--but never the living in union with God.

This reminds me of what Frank Schaeffer says about Marine Corps boot camp in Patience With God. Much of what is done in boot camp, such as drills, is preparation for living the life of a Marine. No recruit wants to remain perpetually in boot camp! A recruit accepts the training so that he or she, after three months, can live as a Marine. Clinging to rules indicates fear of risk taking. I know the rules, they are familiar to me, I'll just blindly obey--no thinking, no risk required. This type of nun projected detachment, separation, aloofness, but not aliveness, interest, compassion.

NUNS WHO BROKE UNDER THE STRAIN. Third, some women simply couldn't fit the mold that they believed they had to fit to be a nun. This was the mold held up for them by the rule-obsessed nuns who trained them. Karen was one of these women. She deeply wanted union with God but simply couldn't master her emotions, mind, and body in the ways enjoined by her superiors. Yet she also believed that her failure to achieve this mastery would keep her separated from God. The strain of Karen's constant striving and failing finally led to a nervous breakdown.

In my next post, I will look into some of the specific aspects of religious life that caused difficulty for Karen.


  1. The Prohibition of particular friendships seems particularly troublesome to me. I would assume the strength of a convent would be in the alliance of relationships as the women "spurred one another on towards love and good deeds." I'm with you, connections with one another are so essential, and we often experience God's love through one another.

  2. Julia, I love what you say about how our relationships with each other can spur us on to love and good deeds. What a loss if a convent prohibits this type of grace from happening.