In a Carmelite monastery outside present-day Los Angeles, life goes on in a manner virtually un-changed for centuries. Sister John of the Cross has spent years there in the service of God. And there, she alone experiences visions of such dazzling power and insight that she is looked upon as a spiritual master. But Sister John's visions are accompanied by powerful headaches, and when a doctor reveals that they may be dangerous, she faces a devastating choice. For if her spiritual gifts are symptoms of illness rather than grace, will a "cure" mean the end of her visions and a soul once again dry and searching This is the dilemma at the heart of Mark Salzman's spare, astonishing new novel. With extraordinary dexterity, the author of the best-selling Iron & Silk and The Soloist brings to life the mysterious world of the cloister, giving us a brilliantly realized portrait of women today drawn to the rigors of an ancient religious life, and of one woman's trial at the perilous intersection of faith and reason.
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February 28, 2001
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Excerpt from Lying Awake by Mark Salzman
Saint James, Apostle
Sister John of the Cross pushed her blanket aside, dropped to her knees on the floor of her cell, and offered the day to God. Every moment a beginning, every moment an end. The silence of the monastery coaxed her out of herself, calling her to search for something unfelt, unknown, and unimagined. Her spirit responded to this call with an algorithm of longing. Every moment of being contained an indivisible -- and invisible -- denominator.
She lit a vigil candle and faced the plain wooden cross on the wall. It had no corpus because, in spirit, she belonged there, taking Christ's place and helping relieve his burden.Suffering borne by two is nearly joy. Fighting the stiffness in her limbs, she lifted her brown scapular, symbol of the yoke of Christ, and began the clothing prayer:Clothe me, O Lord, with the armor of salvation. She let the robe's two panels drop from her shoulders to the hemline, back and front, then stepped into the rough sandals that identified her as a member of the Order of Discalced -- shoeless -- Carmelites, founded by Saint Teresa of Avila in the sixteenth century. Purify my mind and heart. Empty me of my own will, that I may be filled with Yours. A linen wimple, with the black veil of Profession sewn to its crown, left only the oval of her face exposed. Mirrors were not permitted in the cloister, but after twenty-eight years of carrying out this ritual every morning, she could see with her fingers as she adjusted the layers of fabric to a pleasing symmetry.Let these clothes remind me of my consecration to this life of enclosure, silence, and solitude. She sat at her desk to read through the poems she had written the night before -- keeping her up until past midnight -- and made a few changes. Then she made her bed and carried her washbasin out to the dormitory bathroom. She walked quietly so as not to wake her Sisters, who would not stir for at least another hour. The night light at the end of the hall was shaded with a transparency of a rose window; its reflection on the polished wood floor fanned out like a peacock's tail.