John of the Cross, a cloistered Carmelite nun in an isolated monastery,
has rapturous visions that inspire her to write luminous poetry, which
has been published to public praise and brought her monastery
much-needed funds. But when Sister John’s visions begin to be
accompanied by migraine headaches, she learns that they might be the
result of a form of epilepsy, not divine favor. A simple operation
might fix the problem and take away the headaches — but also
the visions. What should Sister John do?
This spiritual dilemma is more complex than it might appear. Feeling special is not consistent with the humility expected in a contemplative religious community; Sister John realizes that she has enjoyed recognition for her gift. She fears a cure would return her to the spiritual barrenness she felt before the visions started. But if the visions are medically explainable, how valid is her spirituality? Once she has a better understanding of her own motives, Sister John can make a choice consistent with her religious vocation.
While most of the short novel is devoted to Sister John’s introspection, author Mark Salzman also gives readers a picture of the austere, rigidly disciplined life of a cloistered monastery. Among the sisters he presents a range of human qualities and a not always certain faith.
Even though Lying Awake can be read in one sitting, the existential issues it raises cannot be answered quickly and easily. Such questions as “Can one attempt to grow spiritually for the wrong reasons?” are relevant not just to religious contemplatives but also to anyone seeking life’s meaning.
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