Lying Awake

by Mark Salzman

illustrated by Stephanie Shieldhouse

Published by Knopf

181 pages, 2000

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Novel Visions

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning


In his brief, spare psalm of a novel, Mark Salzman probes the mind and heart of a Christian mystic with delicacy, compassion and insight. Though Lying Awake is the kind of book that can easily be read in a couple of hours, its impact reverberates like the tolling of chimes long after the final chapter ends. In simple language infused with poetry, Salzman tells us what can happen when profound religious commitment collides with the tangled, ambiguous reality of being human.

On the outskirts of present-day Los Angeles, Sister John of the Cross lives out her austere and highly disciplined days as a contemplative nun in an isolated Carmelite monastery. Though self-abnegation, humility and sacrifice are paramount to the order's way of life, Sister John can't hide the fact that there is something dazzlingly different about her. After years of spiritual barrenness in which she merely went through the motions, she received a miraculous gift: the ability to connect with the Divine directly in rapturous visions that inspire her to write luminous poetry.

Salzman describes this state of grace in simple, moving terms that are never too overstated or melodramatic:

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.... 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.

Sister John's writings are eventually published to great acclaim, earning some much-needed funds for the monastery and providing her with an ironic sort of public recognition antithetical to the Carmelite way of life. Though she is able to resolve this dilemma with steadfast commitment to her calling, something else continues to trouble her. These visions are accompanied by blinding migraine headaches which are growing progressively worse.

Sister John agonizes over the possibilities: "She knew quite well that one of the first questions asked of anyone wishing to become a cloistered nun was, 'Have you ever been treated for mental illness or epilepsy?' If the answer was yes to either, the candidate was automatically rejected. Epilepsy was particularly feared because of its reputation for producing compelling -- but false -- visions. Doctors and clergy alike had referred to the disease for centuries as 'holy madness'."

When she realizes that her enviable gift may be nothing more than a neurological illness which begs for a cure, she is thrown into a sort of spiritual tailspin that causes her to question deeply the authenticity of the commitment she made as a young woman. Salzman takes us back into Sister John's emotionally parched childhood, filling in just enough detail to make the young Helen Nye's eventual choice of vocation plausible. Though she endured neglect and abandonment from her alcoholic mother, Salzman is careful not to point fingers or lapse into "adult children of alcoholics" clichés.

Instead he traces her spiritual awakening to Catholic school, where the gawky, overweight Helen is inspired by her teacher and mentor, Sister Priscilla: "She was so in love with God that she had married him, even though she would not see his face, hear his voice, or feel his embrace for as long as she lived."

One of the themes in Lying Awake is the sometimes-jarring contrast between the sublime and the mundane. As she faces treatment for what she always thought was a gift, Sister John is not sure how to explain herself to the medical community. "How, she wondered, do you talk about infused contemplation with a neurologist?" This clash of worlds is further illustrated by this little scene after her medical examination:

When the doctor stood up to leave, she forced a smile. "Peace be with you, Doctor." She was so used to the exchange of blessings that when he answered with only, "Have a great day," she felt the absence.

Though Salzman spends most of his energy probing Sister John's psyche, he also creates a small, austerely beautiful world in the monastic setting. The nuns are not stick-figures or saints, but real people who laugh and cry and bicker about what to have for breakfast. All of them are aware on some level that they fall short, but believe there is real value in the attempt to live an idealized, God-centered existence.

The spiritual path, like life itself, is full of ambiguity and paradox, and Sister John must face a multitude of messy truths in making a decision about her treatment. She knows very well what she stands to lose:

For three astonishing years she had lived and prayed from the inside of a kaleidoscope. Everything fit into a design of feeling, a pattern linking all souls and minds together. She felt God's presence in the design, and nothing seemed out of place. Every person was like a piece of glass in a giant rose window.

How she resolves the medical dilemma is finally less important than the illuminating, sometimes searing truths she learns along the way. Lying Awake does not attempt to resolve spiritual paradox, but approaches it with awe, respect, and even a kind of gratitude. | January 2001


Margaret Gunning has reviewed over 130 books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International and Room of One's Own. She has written a novel (A Singing Tree) and a book of poems (Nonsongs and Neopsalms), and is currently at work on her second novel, Better than Life.