Through The Narrow Gate is an intriguing memoir by a woman who spent seven years in a convent and who later became a pre-eminent writer and speaker on religous topics. Determined to find God, Armstrong leaves a comfortable life in Birmingham, England for an austere convent at 17.  She struggles with homesickness, the weekly baths, the sewing, the “rule of silence” and other strict rules. She is also not allowed, for instance, to read for pleasure, leave the convent, or write freely to her family.

Despite being called “useless” by the Novice Mistress, Armstrong or “Sister Martha” (as she has been renamed), soldiers on. Unfortunately for her, Armstrong has entered the convent before Vatican II. Her illness, epilepsy, is seen as a failure to discipline her emotions. Armstrong also find that her active mind is constantly at odds with religious life. After she enters Oxford so that she can become a teaching nun, she faces even greater turmoil. Her desire to obey the order is constantly at odds with her desire to study literature.

Surprisingly honest in her willingness to examine her mistakes, Armstrong also never shies away from asking hard questions about her religious vocation. After leaving the convent, Armstrong then went on to write about the commonalities she sees among various faiths: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. She won the $100,000 TED prize in 2008 and drew up a Charter for Compassion that was signed by dignitaries from around the world. Those who are interested in Karen Armstrong’s memoir may also be interested in her second memoir, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness.