Book Review: Through the Narrow Gate by Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong attended a convent school in England. A scholarly, introspective child, her feelings of social isolation and an overwhelming desire to feel close to God led her to join an austere order as a postulant against her parents’ wishes. She was seventeen. In Through the Narrow Gate: A Memoir of Spiritual Discovery, she describes seven years of convent life.

My daughter asked me what made the book so good, and I explained that aside from telling a good story, Armstrong excels at describing severe cognitive dissonance. She recognizes the unreasonableness of the convent’s demands for total obedience and complete emotional suppression (postulants “kept silence” and never showed preference for one Sister over another), yet accepts the nuns’ teachings that her concerns were symptoms of her own pride and “worldliness.” She works even harder at humbling herself in this way, because she hopes it will help her grow spiritually and put God above all.

The incidents she chooses to share shed light not only on Karen’s own conflicts, but those of the nuns themselves. With Vatican II, the convents underwent a drastic reform and future postulants will no longer be limited to two pairs of underwear a week and two family visits a year. The nuns are unsure how to deal with the new guidelines, and their charges receive contradictory messages.

After Armstrong takes vows, the order sends her to Oxford to study literature and canon law even though they have forbidden her from opening a book for two years. Once there the cognitive dissonance grows and she becomes physically ill, yet she is told that she is “anxious” and “calling attention to herself.” When she decides to leave the order, she easily receives a dispensation from Rome as well as funds to start her new life.

Armstrong continues the story of her difficult adjustment to secular life in the equally dramatic and compelling sequel The Spiral Staircase. I just wish I had read the books in the proper order.

Since leaving the convent Armstrong has written many books on religion, including Islam and A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. She is considered an apologist for Islamic terror in some circles.

Other bloggers are also writing about books (I stole this list from Leora):

Thanks for the inspiration. What are you reading?


  1. Thanks for the review and the link to my blog.

  2. I just finished Anne Rice’s “Called Out of Darkness: a Confession of Faith”. I was a huge Anne Rice fan when I was younger, and was very curious to hear about her returning to her Catholic roots. It was beautifully written and helped me see Catholicism through a Catholic’s eyes without feeling like she was trying to convert the reader. It also put into words some of what I felt when I was younger and confused about God.
    I am now reading “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” and I know I’m several years behind on this one. Its light hearted and fun. It will do until our book club votes in this year’s picks.
    Thanks for your review Hannah! Happy New Year!