hey christians, get out into the world!

For me, the sign of a good book is if it keeps you pondering long after you finished the last page. Karen Armstrong`s book, Through the Narrow Gate – A Memoir of Life in and Out of the Convent has done this for me. In response to my previous post our friend, Ray, summed up the old school thought of religious life,

Over time religious life had drifted into a kind of personal devotion to personal salvation. The male religious in this project entered religious life at a time when the essence of religious perfection meant a separation from the world. 

I believe there is still a place in this world for women and men who devote their lives to the discipline of prayer. Thomas Merton comes to mind. Though a brilliant intellectual, he chose the hermit life of a Trappist monk. He promoted the value of contemplation as not only a means of union with God, but of spiritual union with the world. His prolific writings came from this grounded spiritual life.

But after Vatican II, many religious orders opened the doors of convents and monasteries and began to share their gifts with the world. I have many friends who are religious sisters or brothers. These women and men are passionate about living the Gospel, not just meditating on it. Their action is grounded in prayer. Their prayer leads them to action. What a loss it would be if they were all locked up in their religious houses, seeking only their own salvation!

As Catholics, we do not believe that things of the spirit equal good, and things of the world equal evil. We got rid of this dualistic philosophy a long time ago. But it still lingers. It yanks my chain when I hear any Catholic spout that holiness can only be found within the four walls of a church or religious community. What nonsense!

Think of it this way. Most women and men who are drawn to committed parish life or religious life are pretty serious about their faith. These are, for the most part, good people. And, the world needs good people. Isn`t it stupid to gather good people together and keep them separated from the world? We need prisons for the bad folks, for the safety of society. But, we shouldn`t be imprisoning our good folks, using all their energies and talents for the church or community. We need good women and men bringing their goodness into family life, schools, the work place, our streets and shelters.

As Christians, we need to be with like-minded souls. We need the gift of community to be formed, to pray, and to find support on our life`s journey. But our faith community or church should never be an end in itself. A wise friend once said that `community is the vehicle, it`s not the destination`. This is so true. Whether we are in a parish, a small faith community, or a religious community, we need to embrace our faith and then go out into the world and put that faith into action. God knows the world is in need of some serious goodness!

old school nuns

One of the most clicked on posts on this blog is nun`s veils, simply a habit?  Thanks to the magic of Google, folks come to the blog while searching articles on traditional nuns. The image of cloistered nuns in full regalia is part of our Catholic psyche – at least for baby boomers and older. And the fascination continues.

I just finished reading Karen Armstrong`s  Through the Narrow Gate – A Memoir of Life in and Out of the Convent. Armstrong is a respected religious historian and prolific author of best-sellers such as A History of God (1993), The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (2000) and Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time (2004). She is also the moving force behind the Charter for Compassion. (More on that in an upcoming post!)

Armstrong entered a strict, religious order at the age of seventeen. Through the Narrow Gate describes her convent experiences and the struggles of re-entering the world. She entered as Vatican II was beginning, and left in the heady days of the late 1960`s. Her class was one of the last to be formed according to a firm rule of obedience and self-emptying humility.

Armstrong`s writing is very personal and intimate. She draws you into her mind and heart as she tried to live a life of complete self-denial and perfect obedience– even when obedience seemed absurd. Her spiritual life is opened up and laid bare on the pages for us to see. She clung to her vision and aspirations of being a perfect nun, while slowly realizing that this version of religious life was neither life-giving nor reflective of basic Christian charity.  A turning point came when a fellow student from Oxford made an unannounced visit to the convent to see Sr. Martha (Karen). The Superiors were furious and made a big fuss behind the closed doors. The young woman later told Karen that she was considering becoming a Christian, and thought the convent was a good place to find someone to talk to. She had never been greeted more uncharitably!

Armstrong writes lovingly of some compassionate Sisters, women able to find the balance between giving it all to God and having some left over for others. But this is no romanticized `Nun`s Story`. She is brutally honest about the cruelty of some of her Superiors. And, sadly, there`s a lecherous priest in the story as well.

Despite her experience, she still believes that the ideal of the religious life is a beautiful one. And she does not regret her seven years of convent life.

I`m a better nun now than I ever was in the Cloister. You can be so fearful of loving other people more than God that you can be downright uncharitable. Surely it`s better to love others, however messy and imperfect the involvement, than to allow one`s capacity for love to harden. 

Through the Narrow Gate is one woman`s carefully pondered and reflective experience of religious life prior to Vatican II. Her religious order followed others into the spirit of renewal promoted by the Council.   Today, there is a movement in our Church to go back to the `good old days` of cloistered, fully habited, and perfectly obedient and docile women. After reading this book, all I can say is God help us!