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Sister John of the Cross, an elderly nun, experiences a series of dazzling visions, but she is confronted with a difficult choice between her spiritual gifts and curing the powerful headaches that accompany her visions.
Mark Salzman's Lying Awake is a finely wrought gem that plumbs the depths of one woman's soul, and in so doing raises salient questions about the power-and price-of faith.
Sister John's cloistered life of peace and prayer has been electrified by ever more frequent visions of God's radiance, leading her toward a deep religious ecstasy. Her life and writings have become examples of devotion. Yet her visions are accompanied by shattering headaches that compel Sister John to seek medical help. When her doctor tells her an illness may be responsible for her gift, Sister John faces a wrenching choice: to risk her intimate glimpses of the divine in favor of a cure, or to continue her visions with the knowledge that they might be false-and might even cost her her life.
"A lean, seemingly effortless tour de force...a perfect little novel."
--The New Yorker
"Spare, luminous...Salzman makes this cloistered society not only believable, but also compelling."
--San Francisco Chronicle
"A singularly rich and abundant work.... [Salzman has an] ability to convey spiritual states with a lambent clarity."
--The New York Times Book Review
"A satisfying and evocative questioning of faith and art."
"Mark Salzman is...a poet, capturing in the pages of Lying Awake, his shining novel about devotion and doubt, a mysticism that reaches back in time to an older tradition, yet dwells easily in the present."
--Los Angeles Times
"A gentle story.... Graceful, lucid and enjoyable."
"Elegant.... Salzman's depiction of Sister John's conflict, convent life and this society of devoted women is a marvelous accomplishment."
--The Seattle Times
"Lying Awake showcases an almost ethereal talent, one that can handle complex ideas with a touch lighter than air."
--New York Post
Mark Salzman is the author of Iron & Silk, Lost in Place, and the previous novels The Laughing Sutra and The Soloist. He lives in Los Angeles.
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Mark Salzman's Lying Awake. We hope they will give you interesting ways to talk about this beautifully crafted novel about a middle-aged nun whose "dark night of the soul" raises profound questions about the nature of faith, identity, and artistic creation.
1. How appropriate is the choice of locale of the monastery of Sisters of the Carmel of Saint Joseph in the very heart of Los Angeles rather than in a more pastoral setting?
2. The nuns follow a way of life established for centuries. In what ways, if any, are they allowed to express their individuality?
3. Salzman writes, "The real penance in cloistered life, most Sisters agreed, was not isolation; it was the impossibility of getting away from people one would not normally have chosen as friends" [p. 21]. What incidents in the book support this statement? How does Salzman "humanize" Sister John and the other nuns—for instance, Sister Bernadette, Sister Anne, and Mother Emmanuel—without undermining his portrait of lives dedicated to serving God?
4. What specific roles do these women play in creating the reality of the religious life: the novice Sister Miriam, Mother Mary Joseph, the former prioress, and Sister Teresa, Sister John's novice mistress? What qualities does Sister John share with each of them? What do each of their lives teach her about herself?
5. The story of Sister John's past unfolds gradually throughout the novel. Why are some of her memories [for example, pp. 42–43, pp. 61–62 and pp. 86–90] set in italic type, while other aspects of her background are integrated within the narrative? In what ways did her family situation and her attachment to her teacher, Sister Priscilla, influence her decision to become a nun? Is she drawn to the religious life for spiritual reasons alone, or do other aspects of her life play an equally important part?
6. "For seven years she watched as the cloister got smaller and the silence got bigger . . . and the farther she traveled inward without finding Him, the more aware she became of His absence" [p. 97–98]. How does Sister John's period of spiritual aridity affect the decision she must later make about her medical condition?
7. Is Sister John's interpretation of her mother's visit as "an opportunity to end the relationship once and for all, and to get away with the lie" [p. 105] fair? Is her reaction to the way her mother looks and acts surprising? What does her curiosity about her half siblings tell you about her feelings about her mother's choices and her own? Why does she pull off her wimple and veil after the visit [p. 107]?
8. After years of feeling lost, Sister John finally feels God's presence while making preparations for the Easter service [p. 115–6]. Why are both the setting and the time of year significant? In what way are the circumstances particularly relevant to the teachings of St. Teresa of Avila?
9. Sister John wonders, "How . . . do you talk about infused contemplation with a neurologist?"[p. 47] In reacting to her account of her symptoms, as well as when he recommends surgery
10. Sister John wonders whether Dostoevsky would have been treated for his epilepsy if he had had the option. In view of his description of his rapture [p. 120], how would you answer this question? Can artistic inspiration be related to mental imbalances, either physical or psychological? For example, how did the mental instability of artists and writers such as Vincent Van Gogh, Robert Lowell, and Sylvia Plath influence their work?
11. St. Teresa, who suffered epileptic seizures, agonized over how to tell the difference between genuine spiritual experiences and false ones and feared for her own sanity. Is her warning against "seeking illness as a means of cultivating holiness" [p. 121] still relevant today? Why is Sister John's struggle harder in some ways than the difficulties faced by St. Teresa and other Christian mystics of the past?
12. Why does the priest say, "We're all better off having doubts about the state of our souls than presuming ourselves to be holy" [p. 125]? How does this compare to the teachings of most religion and most people's beliefs? To what extent do our behavior and the decisions we make entail making "presumptions" about ourselves and our place in the world?
13. "I made a commitment to live by faith, not by reason,"writes Sister John [p. 119]. In making her decision about surgery, does she rely entirely on faith, or does reason play a role as well?
14. 4. How does the language and style of Lying Awake differ from most contemporary writing? In what ways do the words of the nuns' prayers and Sister John's own poetry enhance the narrative? What details of daily life in the monastery help to establish the themes Salzman is exploring?
Saint James, Apostle
Sister John of the Cross pushed her blanket aside, dropped to her knees on the floor of her cell, and offered the day to God.
Every moment a beginning, every moment an end.
The silence of the monastery coaxed her out of herself, calling her to search for something unfelt, unknown, and unimagined. Her spirit responded to this call with an algorithm of longing. Every moment of being contained an indivisible -- and invisible -- denominator.
She lit a vigil candle and faced the plain wooden cross on the wall. It had no corpus because, in spirit, she belonged there, taking Christ's place and helping relieve his burden.
Suffering borne by two is nearly joy.
Fighting the stiffness in her limbs, she lifted her brown scapular, symbol of the yoke of Christ, and began the clothing prayer:
Clothe me, O Lord, with the armor of salvation.
She let the robe's two panels drop from her shoulders to the hemline, back and front, then stepped into the rough sandals that identified her as a member of the Order of Discalced -- shoeless -- Carmelites, founded by Saint Teresa of Avila in the sixteenth century.
Purify my mind and heart. Empty me of my own will, that I may be filled with Yours.
A linen wimple, with the black veil of Profession sewn to its crown, left only the oval of her face exposed. Mirrors were not permitted in the cloister, but after twenty-eight years of carrying out this ritual every morning, she could see with her fingers as she adjusted the layers of fabric to a pleasing symmetry.
Let these clothes remind me of my consecration to this life of enclosure, silence, and solitude.
She sat at her desk to read through the poems she had written the night before -- keeping her up until past midnight -- and made a few changes. Then she made her bed and carried her washbasin out to the dormitory bathroom. She walked quietly so as not to wake her Sisters, who would not stir for at least another hour. The night light at the end of the hall was shaded with a transparency of a rose window; its reflection on the polished wood floor fanned out like a peacock's tail.
As Sister John emptied the basin into the sink, taking care to avoid splashing, the motion of the water as it spiraled toward the drain triggered a spell of vertigo. It was a welcome sensation; she experienced it as a rising from within, as if her spirit could no longer be contained by her body.
Wherever You lead me, I will follow.
Instead of going to the choir to wait for the others, she returned to her cell, knelt down on the floor again, and unfocused her eyes.
Blessed is that servant whom the master finds awake when he comes.
Pure awareness stripped her of everything. She became an ember carried upward by the heat of an invisible flame. Higher and higher she rose, away from all she knew. Powerless to save herself, she drifted up toward infinity until the vacuum sucked the feeble light out of her.
? ? ?
A darkness so pure it glistened, then out of that darkness,
More luminous than any sun, transcending visibility, the flare consumed everything, it lit up all of existence. In this radiance she could see forever, and everywhere she looked, she saw God's love. As soon as she could move again, she opened her notebook and began writing.
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