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by Mark Salzman
A Non-Review By J. Stefan-Cole

LYING AWAKE by Mark Salzman; Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2000, is not an easy novel to discuss. For one thing it is about a Carmelite nun. (Hedonists leap off the page now.) Carmelite sisters take a vow of silence. They remove themselves from the rest of us to live cloistered with other silent nuns except for short recreation periods and one or two other intervals when speech is allowed. Their rooms are called cells, they eat very little, and agree to vows of poverty symbolized by the simple sandals they wear; for, technically, Carmelites are shoeless or discalaced.

Why care about a group of nuns living soundlessly in medieval surroundings, married to God, spending their lives in prayer and contemplation hoping that they may one day 'see' their Holy spouse? For one, there is always a free floating fascination with extreme behavior, as in a life opposed to the tangibly, sexually real. A big "Why?" surrounding those who vow chastity and service over self. Why would anyone do it?

According to the Church, one does not choose, but is called into service. Being "called" is a tricky concept. Insane people sometimes say they are called or spoken to when they push a stranger into the path of an oncoming subway train. To cite a negative example of calling explained invisibly.

Introduce Sister John, Mark Salzman's Carmelite nun who when we meet her has already suffered "divine" headaches for three years. Divine because they take her to the supernatural realm of the revelatory, the beatific: to the very presence of God. During her headache inspired altered-states, Sister John is moved to write poetry. Three books of her verse have been successfully published, and the money goes into badly needed repairs at the convent and out to needy Carmelite orders around the world.

In the miniature society of the cloister, numbering between ten and eleven sisters and an extern or two, her success meets some of the same responses a successful worldly artist would find. There is envy, not due to the success so much as to the extra rich life Sister John now leads, having been "chosen". Her trance states: "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. More luminous than any sun, transcending visibility, the flame consumed everything, it lit up all of existence...As soon as she could move again, she opened her notebook and began writing."

Like an LSD trip minus the chemicals. And some of the sisters are jealous. The fragile balance in so small a society as a cloister is easily thrown off, never mind a poet in their midst. The differing personalities of the sisters create a microcosm of the world outside, less the distances available there. Even an off key voice in the choir can throw off the purity of the Gregorian chants. We meet, in the briefest of pithy descriptions, most of Sister John's fellow nuns and are treated to the unexpected: "The real penance in cloistered life, most sisters agreed, was not isolation; it was the impossibility of getting away from people one would not normally have chosen as friends."

I learned about LYING AWAKE through a painter friend. He told me about a New Yorker profile of Mark Salzman by Lawrence Weschler. My friend will laugh when he learns that I call him a dedicated artist and seeker of epiphanies. But the Weschler article hinted at epiphanies and at a metaphor at work in the book between the faith of Sister John and the leap artists take in committing themselves to so ethereal a pursuit as making art. The true path is the path wherever it leads, regardless of pitfalls like eternal rejection, and obsessive attempts to create excellence. Implied is the idea that faith and art are equally demanding and equally close to impossible in terms of success. Ultimately, of course, who is to say what makes a perfect piece of art or a perfect faith? Kierkegaard hovers.

Enter the dilemma: Sister John's headaches are epileptic in nature, temporal-lobe seizures, and are caused by an operable menangioma above her right ear. The prognosis for removal and cure is good. But curing the headaches kills the genius quality, the exceptional presence. Sister John has spent twenty-five years cloistered. After the first six, the novelty and comfort wore thin and were followed by a parched quest for true faith and God's revelation. Then came the headaches and God's vision. "Please, God, take anything, take my life but don't take Yourself away from me, don't tell me I haven't known You at all."

If making faith is like making art, both work against the odds, because chances are each will fail, either in inspiration or in commitment. And what is one without the other? And here is the other catch for Sister John: the Church looks askance on lunacy. One cannot have a history of mental illness or epilepsy and join a holy order. Mental anomalies can cause false faith, holy madness. The book points out that Dostoyevsky suffered grand mal seizures as did Saint Teresa of Avila.

Because Sister John is part of a society, a faith-based order that is finally governed by the larger orthodoxy of the Catholic Church, she has to make her choice to forgo the glory of her heightened epileptic states or not to forgo them based in part on consideration of the greater whole of the sisterhood of which she is a functioning part. It's a little like suggesting that if Van Gogh had not been running around half out of his head, he would have become a congenial potato picker and an all around well-adjusted guy, an asset to his family and community, and the world would have been better off without his paintings because their origins are specious.

By a stretch, that analogy is comparable to what Sister John had to face. Reality hit, and it hard enough to tempt even the truly faithful to cry foul. To be removed from her special realm of heightened living, Sister John felt the cold breath of doubt, and a profound disappointment. She had believed that she had been called, was special, apart, unique. She had made poems that came from God--others had read them and said they were real! But they came from a tumor, and her creative life turned into a freak, a fluke, a cruel moment in time; a cosmic LSD trip, and the real world came crashing in. As a friend of mine once wrote a, "reality blizzard" without mercy. How wonderful after all was her sisterhood of faith?

At the core of this small, tenderly provocative book is a hard look at life and hope. Sister John had gone through the relatively easy motions of obedience to her order. Then she was given a gift, but the gift was unwrapped and revealed to be empty and she was left on her own. But is it necessary that she never write another poem? With the glamour gone need she be she bereft of work? Can she not still be called? Or, better yet, choose?

We are told that Sister John was the product of a drunken mother who abandoned her to be raised by grandparents, that a longing never left her and that she came to the cloister seeking what she sorely missed. But now she is free of the outside environment of need. The gift given then taken frees her to choose her life.

"She returned to her spot next to Sister John's bed. 'God showed you what heaven could be like, and you shared it with others. Now you can do something even better.'

'You think so?'

Mother Mary Joseph nodded from the waist. 'Walk in faith even though heaven seems out of reach. Think how good it would be if you could write about that.'"

©December, 2000 J Stefan-Cole


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