Life within a convent's walls is mysterious to most of us. We can't
quite imagine what goes on, how people tolerate the silence, how they
can pray for so many hours, or even why they wish to remain celibate.
This is especially true for those of us not raised Catholic. Yet, in
Mark Salzman's brilliant novel Lying Awake, the experience of one cloistered
nun, Sister John of the Cross, in a Carmelite monastery in Los Angeles,
comes alive. This book illuminates how the monastic life works and what
it does for the sisters, for their spirits and for their community.
Sister John entered her congregation when she was 20. Raised
by her grandparents, she never had many other ideas of a desirable life.
Her mother left her when she was very young, and during the course
of this book, she again sees her mother for the first time in 30 years.
A published spiritual writer and somewhat of a mystic, Sister John
suffers from severe headaches. At first, she accepts them stoically:
"She welcomed the pain of her headache, knowing that those who love more
want to suffer more, in imitation of Christ's difficult life." But they
begin to take their toll on her writing and on her participation in
community activities. She decides to leave the convent to see a doctor,
an unusual occurrence:
"Since entering Carmel in 1969, she had gone out
for dentist's and doctor's appointments, but otherwise had spent the
last twenty-eight years in a world without television, radios,
newspapers, movies, fashion, or men."
When the cause of the headaches is diagnosed, her decision about how to
proceed with health care will greatly affect her writing and her faith.
Although we might think that nuns must be unequivocally certain about
their vocation and their love of their husband, Jesus, this novel probes
not only Sister John's doubts but also others', including the novitiate
Sister Miriam, whose parents think she is quite crazy for considering
such a restricted life.
Although the book is populated solely by a community of women, plus
their priest and a few doctors, there is one other group of beings which
makes regular appearances: birds. One sister in particular, Sister
Angelica, is drawn to the wild creatures. "Birds do what they do because
God made them that way, and that's his business. Only people can be
cruel," she says. Toward the end of the novel, Sister John and Sister
Teresa watch sparrows in the garden. Reflects Sister John, "They seemed
to have the best kind of understanding of all; they answered yes to
everything." This connection to nature seems important to these women
who have no "traditional " family, hearth or home.
Salzman, best known for his nonfiction work Iron and Silk, a memoir of
his time in China, writes beautifully about the religious community (he
has done incredible research), about the women's visions and work, about
their rituals, joys and disappointments. He makes their life, so foreign
to most readers, seem much fuller and more satisfying than might be
expected, and a bit less mysterious. He also probes the roots of
This novel should appeal to many readers: Catholics; those interested
in solitary lives; women torn by the demands of an artistic life; or
those interested in learning about a somewhat secret world. Lying Awake
is a short yet profound read.