This post will continue my thoughts on why religious life didn't work for Karen Armstrong, as she describes in her book Through the Narrow Gate: A Memoir of Spiritual Discovery. I will begin by repeating the quote from my last post that sums up the difficulty with Karen's religious training. On page 252, a nun whom Karen calls Mother Melinda tells what she had heard from a priest who was a psychologist: " 'He was saying that the traditional way of training nuns has been 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.' "
The religious life, or the caricature of it presented as an ideal to Karen, asked nuns to do the impossible--to live in a way that was utterly incompatible with who we are as human beings. Some nuns were able to live the religious life because they could ignore the humanity-denying trivia and concentrate on the essentials. Others were only able to live a soul-less cartoon of the religious life by strongly suppressing their humanity. Unfortunately, these latter nuns were the ones who trained Karen. Karen, with the humanity-suppressing example before her, simply couldn't do it. Her effort led to a nervous breakdown. Here are some of the difficulties that Karen experienced.
OVER-EMPHASIS ON EMOTIONAL SELF-EMPTYING. The professed religious life involves emptying oneself so that one can be filled by God. One works to purge oneself of attachment to preferences and to emotional states. The goal, though, is not the self-emptying but the union with God.
Unfortunately, many of the practices specified by Karen's superiors led to a pre-occupation with self. For example, Karen and the other nuns were required to exam their consciences in minute detail twice a day and to record their failings in a notebook. For Karen, this was a constant reminder of her self-absorption. She kept seeing how full of self she was and how far from the ideal of self-emptying. She was constantly discouraged.
This emphasis on emptying, emptying, emptying simply kept the focus on how full I am of self, self, self. It practically guaranteed that one would never move beyond self-emptying into experiencing God's filling. In addition, it produced empty, shell-like nuns, all of whom were focused on self-emptying.
NO PARTICULAR FRIENDSHIPS. Everything about the religious life was set up to discourage particular friendships. Silence was the norm except at communal recreation. Nuns were not to engage in conversation in twos but only when a third was present. Each nun was to communicate solely with God.
This, of course, ignores the fact that humans are social beings. One hugely important way that we experience God's love is through the love of a friend. Not to allow friendship produced nuns starving for love. Karen recounts the story of the two rival convent cats, Ming and Sebastian. Certain nuns of Karen's convent favored Ming while others favored Sebastian. One day, when Sebastian tore Ming's ear in a fight, a nun whom Karen calls Mother Imelda became so distraught over her dear wounded Ming that she couldn't stop weeping, had to receive sedatives from a doctor, and was given bed rest for three days. The need for tangible love came out in this exaggerated way with cats.
Karen suffered greatly from the prohibition of friendship. She also saw that the constant self-policing to avoid particular friendships produced an aloofness or even coldness in many of the nuns. The convent was an emotionally cold place, lacking the warmth of friendship. Karen was isolated and lonely.
Adding to Karen's isolation was the fact that her superiors, to whom she was allowed--even required--to talk freely about her spiritual progress, simply would not listen to her. These superiors had fixed ideas and rejected anything that didn't fit. For example, when Karen confided that she absolutely never experienced consolation in prayer, her superior replied that she was exaggerating. Thus, the one person in whom Karen was allowed to confide--her superior--simply rejected Karen's difficulties as impossible. Karen really had no one to turn to.
MENTAL DISTORTIONS. Karen was forced to perform mental distortions in the area of obedience. Obedience requires that nuns do whatever their superior asks without question, no matter how much the nun may disagree with the command or even find it absurd. Karen, for example, was ordered to practice sewing daily on a machine that had no needle, to scrub the pavement with a tiny nailbrush, and to eat cheese even though it caused her to throw up. She struggled constantly to convince herself that such pointless or even harmful orders were God's will.
Karen also struggled mentally with Catholic doctrines. At one point, she produced an essay proving incontrovertibly that Jesus physically rose from the dead, all the while knowing that her essay lacked intellectual integrity.
Such mental distortions became all the more difficult as Karen's mind began to awaken through her study of English literature at Oxford. It became nearly impossible for Karen to use her keen mind in her Oxford studies and then to shut off her mind upon her return to the convent.
EPILEPSY. Karen began to suffer epileptic seizures while in the convent. To the nuns, she was engaging in a disgusting display of emotions by fainting, and she was sternly admonished to control herself. Of course, this was impossible, since the electric impulses in the brain of a person with epilepsy are not under conscious control. Karen herself, though, believed that her fainting was a shameful failure, and this led to deeper discouragement because she simply could not control it.
SEXUAL REPRESSION. Another area outside Karen's control was sexual arousal. Karen first noticed this when using the discipline. The discipline was a set of cords with which the nuns flagellated themselves to subdue their bodies and to offer penance for sins. The discipline was supposed to be physically painful. Karen, however, found the discipline to be sexually arousing. This was a great conflict for her. She was commanded under obedience to use the discipline daily and she was also supposed to shun sexual pleasure, yet the discipline created sexual pleasure for Karen!
KAREN'S DREAMS. Immediately after her breakdown, Karen experienced a very pointed dream, which she describes on page 245: "Sometimes trying to kill something growing. A plant that keeps putting out new shoots, huge monstrous growth, stabbing and thrashing at it, feeling its pain as the green sap falls in huge drops. But it never dies."
The convent is killing the ways in which Karen's soul is striving to grow. She keeps putting out new vibrant intellectual shoots with her literature studies, but the convent life keeps stabbing at these shoots, calling them monstrosities. The new life won't stop, though. It keeps growing, even in the pain of being stabbed again and again. It won't die.
Oh, my! Karen needs to GET THE HELL OUT before the convent life kills her. And she does.