Book Review: Lying Awake by Mark Salzman

A circular logo with a silhouette of a woman in the middle holding her finger to her mouth as if to say, shhhh.

Secretum Meum Mihi Press

BOOK REVIEW: Lying Awake by Mark Salzman

reviewed by Beverly Mantyh

Lying Awake is as close to a poem as a novel can get. Salzman packs meaning and beauty into a little book. Amazingly, Salzman understands the mind of a woman; I had to look again to see if “she” used a pen name. Salzman borrows the cyclical routine of a cloistered convent and the feasts of the liturgical year to organize his novel. As a result, his novel feels orderly and peaceful. This serenity contrasts with the internal struggles of Sister John of the Cross to know and do God’s will.

Sister John’s life unfolds as a series of encounters with God. She lives in a cloistered Carmelite convent located in the midst of modern day Los Angeles. Sister John suffers from severe headaches that are accompanied by deep meditation and a profound knowledge of the love of God. She becomes a best-selling author, helping her community both in terms of finances and vocations.

When the intensity of her headaches forces Sister John to seek further medical attention, she prays and dreams she is dressed in white, lying on a white bed in a white room. “Since white was the liturgical color for both Christmas and Easter, she interpreted the dream to mean that a cycle would be completed.” Her dream foreshadows reality; the doctor sends Sister John for more tests and a CAT scan.

The results rock Sister John’s world. Her diagnosis is a type of epilepsy known for centuries as “holy madness,” because of the false visions that sometimes accompanied the seizures. The artists Van Gogh, Dostoevsky and even St. Teresa of Avila were suspected of suffering from this malady.

The good news, according to the doctor, is that her malady can be surgically corrected. But for Sister John of the Cross, her dark night has begun. “Please God, take anything, take my life – but don’t tell me I haven’t known you at all.” All encounters with Christ lead to our present experience of Him. We are temporal, but God is not.

Salzman seamlessly weaves together Sister John’s most important encounters with God. Sister John is intimately revealed through her history, her prayers, her hopes and her trials. Salzman then brings his novel full circle. “When the poem ended, the monastery entered the Great Silence.”

Sister John of the Cross surrenders on her knees, “But those things I used to consider gain I have now reappraised as loss in the light of Christ.” Just when she feels she can pray no more, she is joined by her Carmelite sisters in faith. I won’t spoil the ending, but it is beautiful. Read it and see what Sr. John chooses!

Discussion Questions

1. A dream draws Helen (young Sister John) to Christmas Mass, fuming about an absentee God making us look for his return. “Sister Priscilla didn’t think it was mean, apparently. She was so in love with him that she married him….One of us, Helen thought, is flying blind.” This Mass is a turning point in Helen’s faith. What changed her mind? This encounter prepares Helen for her dark nights. What events in your life prepared you for deeper trials?

2. After writing her mother a letter after her grandmother’s death, Sr. John receives a surprise visit from her mother, who abandoned her as an infant. She requests that Sr. John never contact her again. “Sister John wondered what the most devastating thing a daughter could say to her mother could be. Something came to mind, a harpoon with a barb at the end so it could never be pulled out….”

Stop! “Had she forgotten so soon that she was supposed to love as Christ loved?” Sr. John forgives her mother. Afterwards, alone, she weeps. “Even then God remains silent.” Who is Sister John crying for? What is the hardest thing you have done for Christ?

3. Mother Emmanuel approaches Sister John about being Claire Bour’s novice mistress, “She’ll need a novice mistress with a special understanding of the difficulties we face trying to do God’s will.” Sister John replies, “I don’t feel I know anything about God’s will, Mother.”….”Yet you’re still here, trying to do His will anyway. That’s the kind of understanding I meant. The doing kind, not the knowing kind.” What does Mother Emmanuel mean by “the doing kind?” Which kind are you?

NOTE: My Secret is Mine Newsletter may earn commissions from sales at the following links.

Want to read the whole issue in one sitting? The articles in MY SECRET IS MINE newsletter are available to paid subscribers as a PDF download. CHECK IT OUT!

$8.00 / month

My Secret is Mine Newsletter – Premium

Choice of ONE email per month or EIGHT individual emails with one article each.

Access to the Newsletter Archives… Read more

Related Newsletters