Vivian, Tim, Anglican Theological Review
Lying Awake. By Mark Salxman. New York Knopf, 2000. 181 pp. $21.00 (cloth).
Sister John of the Cross, of the Order of Discalced Carmelites (founded by Saint Teresa of Avila in the sixteenth century), became a nun in 1969, that year of disorder when, following Vatican II, religious were leaving their monasteries in droves. Six years later she took her life vows, but by 1982 "her heart felt squeezed dry. God thirsted, but she had nothing to offer" (p. 95). In 1994, still a nun, she began to have mystical experiences and from those insights wrote a best-selling book (when it goes into a second printing one of the Sisters exclaims, "We'll definitely be able to replace the roof this year!"). In 1997 her "three-year gift of God's presence" is diagnosed as "temporal lobe epilepsy" and, when the book opens, she will soon face surgery that will heal her but will also probably bring an end to her visions.
This in outline is the bare bones of Mark Salzman's wonderful novel about the contemplative life. Such an outline, however, can reveal the novel's depths and riches no more than by looking in a mirror we can plumb the depths of our spiritual lives. For depth perception we need icons. In this case the icon is the novel itself it opens a resplendent window onto (into) the mystical darkness that is and is not God. "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, nova" (pp. 5-6).
On a second reading of this short novel (it can be read, perhaps should be read, in one sitting, and then reread) I noticed more saving humor and sharper sad glimpses of the world outside the convent, "a world that seemed committed to destroying itself' (p. 73). Salzman's descriptions of life in the monastery beautifully capture both its quotidian and lyrical nature. …