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Sleepless nights in the cloister

By Mark Salzman
Alfred A. Knopf, 192 pages, $22


The deeper I got into Mark Salzman’s latest novel, Lying Awake, the more I was reminded of a wonderful poem by Rennie McQuillen, “Sister Marie Angelica Plays Badminton,” that I like to give to my students. In the poem, Sr. Marie Angelica, “who has been known to have visions,” is shown by way of a game on the lawn to be in some kind of crisis of faith or vocation symbolized by the volleys of the game piece. This particular contest is being played out in the evening: “Today because of lengthy vespers they are late,” and “early bats are darting like black shuttlecocks.”

Sister John of the Cross of Salzman’s novel, a contemplative Carmelite living in and sometimes “lying awake” in her cloister in the heart of present-day Los Angeles, has also been known to have visions.

Lying Awake is Sister John’s story, but it is also Sister Miriam’s and Mother Mary Joseph’s as well. It is a peek through the grille at all eight of her contemporaries living life as discalced Carmelites. Their call is to a life of prayer, “joining contemplatives everywhere whose vocation was to pray on behalf of those either unwilling or unable to pray for themselves.”

Sister John had recently begun to be published. Her books on the spiritual life made it seem accessible to ordinary mortals, even the discouraged searchers. But those writings came with a price tag for Sister John -- massive, blinding, mind-altering headaches. One of them, triggered by a spell of vertigo, was “a darkness so pure it glistened, then out of that darkness, nova. ... More luminous than the sun. ... In this radiance she could see forever, and everywhere she looked, she saw God’s love.”

At first Sister John was able to keep her visions a secret from her community. The fact was, she was glad for them. After 13 years as a nun, she had begun to suffer a spiritual drought. “Her heart felt squeezed dry. God thirsted, but she had nothing to offer.” So the headaches and the visions that came with them were welcome guests. First diagnosed as migraines, her doctor advised her to surrender to them: “You’re a contemplative; think of it as a spiritual exercise.” But when Sister John’s behavior modified, her superior became concerned, and the new diagnosis was epilepsy, the type sometimes referred to as “holy madness.” Sister John also learned that hypergraphia, excessive writing, was a common symptom and that major artists functioned with the same form of epilepsy -- Dostoyevsky was one, Vincent van Gogh may have been another, Proust and even Teresa of Avila, founder of the order. But it was highly curable; full recovery and return to “normal” life was the prognosis.

The novel is underwritten, if anything, and reads much faster than its 192 pages would suggest. But one thing Salzman does not stint on is imagery. Having established that Carmel is located within busy Los Angeles, he proceeds to describe its lushness and to name varieties of trees, plants, flowers and creatures, both winged and footed, that share the nuns’ garden. He succeeds in capturing the exterior richness and serenity. The turmoil and tension are within its human denizens.

Ultimately Sister John must decide for or against the surgery. She asks her confessor, “Should I automatically assume that my mystical experiences have been false, or should I stand behind what my heart tells me? Is God asking me to let go of concerns for my health, or is he asking me to let go of my desire for his presence?”

In a poignant scene she goes to the chapel in the middle of the night, “prepared for the struggle of her life,” where she is joined first by Mother Mary Joseph, then all the sisters.

Here, the book’s parallel to McQuillen’s poem is not to be missed:

It vaults straight up, a feathered cry
that hovers in the heart of heaven, hovers
and plummets to the gut
of the racket she sights it in,
the perfect bird, the shuttlecock
Marie Angelica keeps in play, will not let fall
despite the darkness gathering.

Sister John rose, “bowed to them as a signal that her vigil was over” and left the chapel with a prayer of thanks and one for forgiveness, her life, from this moment, irrevocably altered.

Judith Bromberg teaches literature and composition and is a regular reviewer for NCR. Her e-mail address is jabromberg@sprintmail.com

National Catholic Reporter, March 23, 2001