Lying Awake by Marc Salzman is look inside a Discalced (shoeless) Carmelite Covent in the canyons above Los Angeles, California. The convent itself is a place of contemplation and simplicity. The lives of the nuns seem the same at a glance, but as Lying Awake reveals, the internal landscape of the sisters who have committed their lives to Christ are complicated.
It provides a glimpse into the contemplative life, where every thought and action is examined to prove its motivation. Throwing away a handful of crumbs is considered outside the vow of poverty, all crumbs must be eaten. Every interaction is weighed to foster an atmosphere of Christ’s exemplary love. Every minute of the day is structured even named. Every notion that proves unwanted gets spun to be claimed as an opportunity to test faith. Special prayers are recited when getting dressed in the morning a verse for each piece of clothing. Once a week they gather to admit “Faults”, and point out sins and seek forgiveness.
The main character Sister John has written volumes about her other worldly experiences of God’s love. Almost mystically these visions pour through her fingers into her journals. Her writings become enough of sensation to gain her special notice by the Vatican, and a modest income for the convent. Sister John is inspired by Saint Teresa of Avila, Patron Saint of Headache sufferers and Spanish writers. The writings of Saint Teresa inspire Sister John.
As the story unfolds it becomes apparent Sister John’s migraines may be related to the visions. A visit to a neurosurgeon reveals that in fact is the case and Sister John gets a diagnosis of epilepsy caused by a small brain tumor. So begins Sister John’s journey as to whether the illness caused the beautiful visions of God’s glory, and should she have surgery that may end them?
Is suffering this illness her calling? Her cross? What impact does her illness have on those around her?
If God is sovereign did God cause her illness and her visions for a purpose? These questions and others are raised with this novel. At one point Sister John says to a novice sister “God loves each one of us as if there were no one else upon this earth… believing that is the most perfect act of faith of all.” The novice sister is annoyed because she admits she is jealous of Sister John’s visions and communication with God, while she is conflicted by family concerns and lack of direction from God.
Lying Awake is written in a very clear prose that moves quickly. Mr. Salzman’s research into the lives of Carmelite nuns and Saint Teresa offers interesting insight into the contemplative life. It prompted me to read about Saint Teresa and the Carmelite order. Mr. Salzman’s depiction of convent life tells us that excluding yourself from society to live a life of piety, doesn’t exempt you from constantly seeking God inside the deepest part of your soul. There is not a direct pipeline to God beyond convent walls.
I would have loved a more expanded and intimate portrait of the visions of Sister John; that would have brought a greater depth to difficult choice she faced in deciding whether to have the surgery. Instead we are left having to take the decision at face value.
As I walk out a life lesson in the area of health matters, I realized long ago– it’s not just the suffering, but what you do with it, and this book reminded me- unless you are tapped into that very thought constantly, you won’t ever hit the mark. What should we do with our suffering? Reach out to others, as we know what limitation feels like. Listen closely to others, as we know what pain, fear and isolation feels like. Pray all the time for them, so that they may know they are never abandoned. Our great Healer is always listening, ever present.
If all we had to do all day long was ponder God’s truth, and work in the strictest adherence toward that goal, how much more complete this world would be?
You know the trials we face. We thank you for the lessons we learn from them. We thank you for the grace to face them. Help us to be equal to the challenge and not waver from you.
Lord there are so many who do not know this yet. Open their eyes today! Make a way for those who know you to be bold enough to share your message, so that the broken hearted would have hope.
Help us to know what is of you, and not to let distractions of this worldly life confuse or deter us from a life that is ultimately yours. We lift up those who have committed their entire life to you, who have thrown over the common world we dwell in, for a life that solely focused on you, Father. We are so thankful for them Lord, for their dedication and their prayers. We pray that they receive your abundant love completely and truly.