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In a Carmelite monastery outside present-day Los Angeles, life goes on in a manner virtually un-changed for centuries. Sister John of the Cross has spent years there in the service of God. And there, she alone experiences visions of such dazzling power and insight that she is looked upon as a spiritual master.
But Sister John's visions are accompanied by powerful headaches, and when a doctor reveals that they may be dangerous, she faces a devastating choice. For if her spiritual gifts are symptoms of illness rather than grace, will a "cure" mean the end of her visions and a soul once again dry and searching?
This is the dilemma at the heart of Mark Salzman's spare, astonishing new novel. With extraordinary dexterity, the author of the best-selling Iron & Silk and The Soloist brings to life the mysterious world of the cloister, giving us a brilliantly realized portrait of women today drawn to the rigors of an ancient religious life, and of one woman's trial at the perilous intersection of faith and reason.
Lying Awake is a novel of remarkable empathy and imagination, and Mark Salzman's most provocative work to date.
"Here, in his third novel and fifth book, Salzman has discovered a rule that permits him to be freed of himself and to discipline his talent. The result is so superior that it is not unreasonable to call this his masterpiece. . . . Lying Awake is stripped to essentials. . . . This story seems almost to be told through him rather than by him. . . . One wonders why this sortie into a discipline carries him to so much higher a plane [than his earlier attempts]. Mother Mary Joseph, the convent's "living rule," would doubtless say, as she says of Sister John, "God showers this one with graces." Could be she'd be right."
-Marian Burkhart, Commonweal
Mark Salzman is the author of Iron & Silk, an account of his two years in China; the novels The Laughing Sutra and The Soloist, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction; and Lost in Place, a memoir. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, filmmaker Jessica Yu.
The questions, discussion topics, and suggestions for further reading 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 deliberate and 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 deliberate?
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.
Buy Lying Awake by Mark Salzman from our Christian Books store - isbn: 9780375406324 & 0375406328
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