Lying Awake

Lying Awake

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Lying Awake by Mark Salzman, Stephanie Shieldhouse

Mark Salzman's Lying Awake is a finely wrought gem that plumbs the depths of one woman's soul, and in so doing raises salient questions about the power-and price-of faith.

Sister John's cloistered life of peace and prayer has been electrified by ever more frequent visions of God's radiance, leading her toward a deep religious ecstasy. Her life and writings have become examples of devotion. Yet her visions are accompanied by shattering headaches that compel Sister John to seek medical help. When her doctor tells her an illness may be responsible for her gift, Sister John faces a wrenching choice: to risk her intimate glimpses of the divine in favor of a cure, or to continue her visions with the knowledge that they might be false-and might even cost her her life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375706066
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/09/2001
Series: Vintage Contemporaries Series
Edition description: 1 VINTAGE
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 234,933
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Mark Salzman is the author of Iron & Silk, Lost in Place, and the previous novels The Laughing Sutra and The Soloist. He lives in Los Angeles.

Read an Excerpt

July 25
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.

As Sister John emptied the basin into the sink, taking care to avoid splashing, the motion of the water as it spiraled toward the drain triggered a spell of vertigo. It was a welcome sensation; she experienced it as a rising from within, as if her spirit could no longer be contained by her body.

Wherever You lead me, I will follow.

Instead of going to the choir to wait for the others, she returned to her cell, knelt down on the floor again, and unfocused her eyes.

Blessed is that servant whom the master finds awake when he comes.

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,

More luminous than any sun, transcending visibility, the flare consumed everything, it lit up all of existence. In this radiance she could see forever, and everywhere she looked, she saw God's love. As soon as she could move again, she opened her notebook and began writing.

Reading Group Guide

The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Mark Salzman's Lying Awake. We hope they will give you interesting ways to talk about this beautifully crafted novel about a middle-aged nun whose "dark night of the soul" raises profound questions about the nature of faith, identity, and artistic creation.

1. How appropriate is the choice of locale of the monastery of Sisters of the Carmel of Saint Joseph in the very heart of Los Angeles rather than in a more pastoral setting?

2. The nuns follow a way of life established for centuries. In what ways, if any, are they allowed to express their individuality?

3. Salzman writes, "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" [p. 21]. What incidents in the book support this statement? How does Salzman "humanize" Sister John and the other nuns—for instance, Sister Bernadette, Sister Anne, and Mother Emmanuel—without undermining his portrait of lives dedicated to serving God?

4. What specific roles do these women play in creating the reality of the religious life: the novice Sister Miriam, Mother Mary Joseph, the former prioress, and Sister Teresa, Sister John's novice mistress? What qualities does Sister John share with each of them? What do each of their lives teach her about herself?

5. The story of Sister John's past unfolds gradually throughout the novel. Why are some of her memories [for example, pp. 42–43, pp. 61–62 and pp. 86–90] set in italic type, while other aspects of her background are integrated within the narrative? In what ways did her family situation and her attachment to her teacher, Sister Priscilla, influence her decision to become a nun? Is she drawn to the religious life for spiritual reasons alone, or do other aspects of her life play an equally important part?

6. "For seven years she watched as the cloister got smaller and the silence got bigger . . . and the farther she traveled inward without finding Him, the more aware she became of His absence" [p. 97–98]. How does Sister John's period of spiritual aridity affect the decision she must later make about her medical condition?

7. Is Sister John's interpretation of her mother's visit as "an opportunity to end the relationship once and for all, and to get away with the lie" [p. 105] fair? Is her reaction to the way her mother looks and acts surprising? What does her curiosity about her half siblings tell you about her feelings about her mother's choices and her own? Why does she pull off her wimple and veil after the visit [p. 107]?

8. After years of feeling lost, Sister John finally feels God's presence while making preparations for the Easter service [p. 115–6]. Why are both the setting and the time of year significant? In what way are the circumstances particularly relevant to the teachings of St. Teresa of Avila?

9. Sister John wonders, "How . . . do you talk about infused contemplation with a neurologist?"[p. 47] In reacting to her account of her symptoms, as well as when he recommends surgery
[p. 68], Dr. Sheppard treats her like any other patient. Why doesn't he respond more directly when she says of her pain, "It’s a wonderful experience, but it’s spiritual, not physical" [p. 47]? Later in the book, Sister John compares the hospital to her monastery and imagines how a doctor might characterize the cloistered life [p. 153]. Is her description an accurate reflection of how most people would regard a celibate life devoted to prayer and contemplation? How does Lying Awake inspire or reinforce ideas about a religious vocation?

10. Sister John wonders whether Dostoevsky would have been treated for his epilepsy if he had had the option. In view of his description of his rapture [p. 120], how would you answer this question? Can artistic inspiration be related to mental imbalances, either physical or psychological? For example, how did the mental instability of artists and writers such as Vincent Van Gogh, Robert Lowell, and Sylvia Plath influence their work?

11. St. Teresa, who suffered epileptic seizures, agonized over how to tell the difference between genuine spiritual experiences and false ones and feared for her own sanity. Is her warning against "seeking illness as a means of cultivating holiness" [p. 121] still relevant today? Why is Sister John’s struggle harder in some ways than the difficulties faced by St. Teresa and other Christian mystics of the past?

12. Why does the priest say, "We’re all better off having doubts about the state of our souls than presuming ourselves to be holy" [p. 125]? How does this compare to the teachings of most religion and most people's beliefs? To what extent do our behavior and the decisions we make entail making "presumptions" about ourselves and our place in the world?

13. "I made a commitment to live by faith, not by reason,"writes Sister John [p. 119]. In making her decision about surgery, does she rely entirely on faith, or does reason play a role as well?

14. 4. How does the language and style of Lying Awake differ from most contemporary writing? In what ways do the words of the nuns' prayers and Sister John's own poetry enhance the narrative? What details of daily life in the monastery help to establish the themes Salzman is exploring?


The questions, discussion topics, and suggestions for further reading that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Mark Salzman's Lying Awake. We hope they will give you interesting ways to talk about this beautifully crafted novel about a middle-aged nun whose "dark night of the soul" raises profound questions about the nature of faith, identity, and artistic creation.

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Lying Awake 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Indy-Snow More than 1 year ago
I bought this book for a week long vacation back when it was brand new. I finished it in the first day because I couldn't put it down. I've since lent it to 6 people (and the copies never get returned so I buy a used copy each time). All of them have adored it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved Lying Awake. It was thought provoking, engaging and insightful. This is one of the books that I did not want to put down. Every time I picked it up it caught my attention with the way the story was written and the way it flowed. It was written in such a way that it was not hard to read at all and it grabbed my attention. There was so much substance in this book but it was very easy to read. However, I had to stop multiple times to think about what was going on, especially when Sister John was reflecting on knowing God. So many of the things she said were so deep that I just had to stop and reflect a bit. Her desire to know God and the emptiness she felt within her really broke my heart. I could just see her straining and doing everything she thought she needed to know God only to be left dry and wanting still to know Him. And then when she finally seems to find God, to discover that it was being caused by epilepsy was just heart wrenching to me. I felt like I was right there with Sister John as she went through this whole process of learning about her epilepsy, wondering about knowing God, and then having to make a decision of what to do about the epilepsy. So much of this book just made me stop reading and think and I have not had that experience while reading a novel in a long time. Lying Awake was an amazing book to read, I enjoyed every minute of it and it made me think about my own life and not just about the book and the character I was reading about. I would wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I purchased LYING AWAKE because the premise sounded intriguing. How many times has the central character of a novel been a nun? Hardly ever, right? I had never read a book quite like this before, and I am glad that I did. I wouldn't say that it was one of the best novels that I've read, but it was very interesting. The author impressed me with his use of knowledge/learnings of convent life, the contemplations of nuns, and especially his writing style. Not being a totally devout/religious person, this was a new experience for me. I was glad to have read it to learn about faith and how others viewed it, especially from someone as 'extreme' as a nun. There was no sex, no violence, no action. Just a great simple story about the trials and tribulations in a convent. I had expected more drama and conflict as Sister John wrestled with her past and considered her future, but unfortunately didn't get that. Thankfully, the writer's prose was enjoyable enough, and I recommend this book for anyone wanting a break from fast-paced life.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Lying Awake is good writing. The nuns are real people! Kudos! However, the conflict that the entire story revolves on is unrealistic for a cloistered nun! No nun would confuse 'experiences' for the reality of the God who Is. No nun would even think twice about having to make a decision as to whether or not to choose the 'experiences' over the life of Faith. Any nun, actually any christian, knows that knowing and loving God is in concrete, flesh and blood reality of serving Him in your 'neighbor' whether that be the sisters you live with, and in fidelity to Him in prayer and penance. Everything else is icing on the cake!
Guest More than 1 year ago
As like most of the books I read I picked the ones that have never been checked out. They seem to hold the most promise. While I am not a religious person myself, this was nothing short of lovely. I enjoyed every minute of it. It is a fantastic read and I would suggest it to all.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Written in the prose style, this book is easy to read. However, the impact is not easy. The cloistered life of the Carmalite convent, seems excrucating to me sitting on the outside. The heart of the book is finding God. I learned a path through this writing.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I adored the characters in this book. Nuns may change their lifestyle when they take their vows, but, contrary to popular belief, they don't cease to be human. I was pleased to see Salzman create his 'nun-characters' as individuals who struggle with doubt, who have personalities, and who have the same emotions as the rest of us (they laugh, they cry, they get angry, they joke, etc). The story was lovely, realistic and hopeful.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In just a few pages I was pulled deeply into the quiet peace of the cloistered Sisters' lives, only to be surprised and entranced by the rich interior life of Sister John of the Cross. Her dilemma is riveting, to be faced with the decision of whether to risk her identity, her life's purpose. I found this to resonate with an experience common to many people: whether to medicate with antidepressants, etc. and risk losing the gifts that make each person unique. I love this book and will long enjoy the intellectual, emotional and spiritual questions it inspires.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Mark Salzman, author of a number of excellent books, including 'The Soloist', has captured a way of life in a voice that is at once sparse, and yet quietly beautiful. Like the spare poetry of the haiku, 'Lying Awake' evokes a simple imagery with as few words as possible. This is by far, one of his best works. Sister John of the Cross is searching for answers, and hopes to find that her response will be the Voice of God, guiding with a gentle hand. A celebrated poet, Sister John lives her days uneventfully and quietly in the last vestiges of solitude in Los Angeles. That is until she is visited by images so powerful and breath-taking, that she believes her journey to God is drawing to a climax. Not so, says the doctors to whom Sister John is taken when she begins to experience mild epileptic seizures. Her 'visions' are none other than hallucinations brought on by a tiny 'smudge' on her brain just above one ear. This revelation about the true source of her Godly images sends Sister John into a crisis of faith that threatens the rest of the nunnery as well as her own peace of mind. Salzman writes as if in a whisper, the quiet ways of those on the chosen Path of God, with delicate reticence, yet manages to tell a poetic story that brings the reader a certain sense of inner peace as well. A book to savor and reflect upon in a world that is filled with the faithless and the lost.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Can an exquisite little book about a Carmelite Contemplative nun be a page-turner? Yes, says this reviewer, who likes a quick read. This book is too beautifully written to put down and yet the central plot has only one clearcut question to be resolved. An exotic locale found in somewhere as approachable as the hills above Los Angeles invites close, thoughtful enjoyment. Lying Awake is a poetic novel that rivals the poetry of Kathleen Norris in Cloister Walk. Highly recommended.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book helped me understand my own search for God. Mother Mary Joseph sums up Sister John's predicament in her statement: 'Everything we learn about God leads to deeper mystery.' A very captivating story that helps the reader empathize with Sister John's struggles.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was a surprisingly good book to read. I was intrigued by the theme of the book - a nun who must make a decision to have a physical malady corrected. It is this same malady that has brought her close to God and given her the reason for having taken on her vocation. It is a sensitive work that does not preach to the reader, but draws them into this world that is quiet and complex. Not one that I can readily identify with except through the literate hand with which Mr. Salzman paints such a believable picture. The closing thoughts scribe a message about belief and commitment that, best of all, has led me to many new thougths of my own. My thanks for this book.