Human nature and monasticism: thoughts on Karen Armstrong’s autobiography

I chanced upon Karen Armstrong’s autobiography, Through the Narrow Gate, whilst browsing a charity shop. I heard that Karen is a highly regarded commentator on religion, but did not know much about her otherwise. This alone would not have been enough for me to purchase the book. What enticed me to purchase the book was that it was centred around Karen becoming a Nun, and subsequently leaving. I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to find out more about the depths of spirituality in Christianity. As I read the book, and pondered more on the idea of an innate human nature, I further became interested in viewing becoming a Nun as an experiment with which I could understand how human nature interacts with the intense social conditioning that was characteristic of the Order that Karen joined (in this respect I was also exploring the claim of Postmodernism that there is no inherent meaning in things, and that social conditioning is the principal influence upon the individual).

As regards to the first reason for wanting to read the book i.e. a deeper insight into Christian spirituality and the life of a Nun, I was exposed to a world of staggering dedication and discipline. Nuns would enter as Postulants, essentially an induction year, with the strictness of the later years slightly toned down. But even in this first year, the personal discipline required was alarming. Long periods of silence must be observed; there are limits to the number of baths one can take; food is given and not chosen; sisters sleep in cells with minimal bedding, and to a rigorous schedule. In sum, it’s a monastic lifestyle aimed at destroying and silencing the self, so that God may fill the void that is left. I admired this approach, but did not agree with it, as I will discuss later. What I did very much agree with was Karen’s reasons for becoming a Nun in the first place; during her teens, she was exposed to death, and came to realise the fleeting nature of the world. This drove her towards God, which as she contended against her parents, would be but a logical conclusion of believing in God. Such crisp and universal reasoning, the idea of losing what was once a given in one’s life is no doubt something that all of us have experienced.

The second part of the Nun training is the Noviceship, which is notoriously difficult, and aims to utterly break the individual, creating room for God. Novices are essentially cut off almost entirely from the world. They are even encouraged to physically discipline themselves with a whip of sorts as a means of conquering the carnal self. This lifestyle took a heavy toll on Karen; she would frequently have fainting spells and would vomit almost every night. She became extremely thin and unwell. Even under such conditions, Karen was told she was being weak and emotional, and that she had to conquer this aspect of herself as well. The dedication to the notion of erasing the self is truly astonishing. After completing this ordeal, Karen officially become a professed Nun, after taking an oath of obedience, chastity and poverty. Following this, under the instruction of the Order, Karen began her studies at Oxford, where she read English Literature. Her experience there certainly wasn’t a typical student experience; as per the intense training she underwent, her days were scrupulously planned, and unceasingly busy. She was also warned by her seniors not to become corrupted by her mind, as throughout her training, she was taught that there was no need to think.

It was also during her studies that Karen finally left the order, renouncing her vows. What I understood to be the reasons for this were essentially Karen’s mind and body both being broken by her training. Her mind was repressed, and silenced throughout her training, even though that was her speciality; she was an acrobatic and graceful thinker and writer (as her subsequent career proves most strongly). Throughout the book, Karen struggles with forgoing her thinking and questions why God would endow us with such a faculty in the first place. Despite her questioning, even very late into the book, Karen doesn’t outrightly reject this; she fervently clings to the idea of renouncing oneself so that God may fill the void. Perhaps it was this internal questioning was combined with her yearning for love, affection and human interaction ungoverned by the strict edicts of the Order, that unleashed a flurry of mental and physical conditions that would alert Karen to her not being suited to such a life.

It seems to me that Karen seemed to confront the depths of human physical state and found that it was not a force to be silenced or ignored. After all, the mind and body, both architects of the physical realm of experiences is the canopy of one’s existence. Attempting to silence it would essentially be trying to erode the parameters of one’s life; as is implicit in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, desire for food, security, meaning etc. are conductors of human behaviour. I suppose the implicit assumption in pursuing such a silencing of the self is that something else exists that entirely independent and external to the body and it’s sensations. Certainly, the soul exists, though attempting to silence the body would be an endeavour to experience the soul within the confines of the body. It seems impossible, and some of Karen’s kinder seniors acknowledged this by telling her that her desires would never actually leave her, and she would always have to struggle against them. Karen also observes how the community of sisters in Oxford obsess over a cat, to the point of hysteria; she notes the incongruence of the emotional attachment to a cat, but neglect of similar emotional regard to other humans. Perhaps this indicates that one must find something, anything at all, to attach to; whether that be the ephemeral, or the Eternal is a matter of piety.

In seeking the Eternal, Islam proposes a voyage with and throughout the self, rather than one that denies it. The month of Ramadan and fasting actualises this voyage. Food and drink are forbidden from dawn to dusk, though, hunger is no sin. And the forbidden morphs into the permissible over the course of a miniscule shift of the sun’s position, or a slight of hand by a clock. This demonstrates that desire (in this case, hunger) is to be indulged on God’s terms, and for God. It is a tool that we use to endear the Divine, not something that in and of itself is a blight. The Nikah is another example of this; the difference between adultery and intimacy which the Prophet described as charity is the short Nikah ceremony. Again, a slight change in practical terms causes a seismic change in the spiritual magnitude of an action. The action itself remains the same, yet it’s spiritual consequences differ vastly. Yet another example is halal meat consumption. The action the same, the slaughter has some rules, which would yet still fall into impermissibility were it not for the utterance of the Basmalah. A slight change in practical terms, once more causing a spiritual flip. So from these examples it seems, quite clearly, that food and sex are not taboo in and of themselves. Rather, they too are among the repertoire of worship that are actualised into the human, available to voyage closer to God, not through a denial of the self, but through a voyage through and within it.

This, I feel, is a major blossom of Islam; it confidently strides into a nebulous human condition, and scrupulously edifies the self through a symphony of utterly coherent rituals and narratives that enable a wholesome living that is of no umbrage to being a human. It is, as God says in Surah Taha:

 “We have not sent the Quran down to you that you be distressed”.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Kin Lo says:

    I read this book years ago – it’s so insightful!!

    On Wed, 21 Nov 2018 at 19:42, Fraternal Philosophising wrote:

    > fraternalphilosophising posted: “I chanced upon Karen Armstrong’s > autobiography, Through the Narrow Gate, whilst browsing a charity shop. I > heard that Karen is a highly regarded commentator on religion, but did not > know much about her otherwise. This alone would not have been enough for ” >


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