I went from reading about hunter-gatherers to a memoir about life as a nun--and what Karen Armstrong endured in Through the Narrow Gate (1981) seems nearly as foreign a lifestyle. After all, I'm a Protestant, and I'm married. Convent life isn't just the road not taken, it's a road that doesn't connect to any road I've ever been on.
Armstrong entered religious life at 17 in 1962 as one of the last group of nuns to go through the old, more rigid pre-Vatican II religious training. And it was a hellish life, not so much for its physical hardships or sacrifices as for the way the order tried to repress every bit of her will, her intellect, and human feeling and friendships. (I think it was an unusually strict order even for the time.) She endured for seven years before leaving when she began to realize she wasn't suited for the life and had entered for the wrong reasons--basically, she was an intense, intelligent, socially and physically awkward adolescent, and a religious vocation was a way of hiding from the challenges of the outside world. And while she encountered some good people during her years as a nun, I couldn't help but feel that there was more of the grace of God in the day she left the life and some fellow Oxford students who barely knew her took her in, took her shopping for new clothes, and generally did all they could to smooth her way back into an unfamiliar world, than in all the years that had gone before.