The novel's protagonist, Sister John of the Cross is a nun of the Carmel of St. Joseph in Los Angeles, CA. Blessed with mystic religious visions after a long period of spiritual drought, Sister John uses her ecstatic visions as inspirations for her writings (essays and poems), the proceeds from which go to supporting the monastery. When it is revealed that the visions are caused by a tumor, Sister John goes through a crisis of faith. Later, she becomes novice mistress for new postulant Claire Bours.
Before coming to the monastery, Sister John of the Cross was Helen, a young, overweight girl who lived with her grandparents. Helen's future role as Sister John of the Cross is foreshadowed when Helen sees herself as savior of the abused chickens and her Christmas Mass experience.
Mother Mary Joseph
A nun for 61 years, she progresses during the novel from being prioress of the monastery to being a Living Rule, a nun who exemplified what it means to live a contemplative life. She helps Sister John keep vigil the night Sister John is trying to ascertain God’s will for her life.
The superior of the monastery.
Sister Teresa was Helen's novice mistress when Helen first came to the monastery. In her later years, Sister Teresa loses her memories to Alzheimer’s. Throughout the novel, the other sisters care for her by feeding her, spending time with her, and trying to help her remember.
Though we never actually see Claire Bours in the book, we are told through her letters that she is a 33-year-old woman with a Masters in Fine Arts. After spending 8 years as a film animator, Claire became a postulant inspired to seek out the Carmelites after reading Sister John's book of essays and poems. She wanted to become a nun because of a persistent questioning she felt that she wasn't able to satisfy.
A former concert violinist before joining the monastery, Sister Elizabeth was raised Catholic and exhibits a sense of humor throughout the book.
Sister Anne is a very strictly devout, hardworking nun who is a ‘Soul of Penance’. Her role in the monastery is to pray for those who are unwilling or unable to pray for themselves. Sister Anne always speaks her mind.
She only appears a couple times, and is described by the other sisters as touchy.
Before coming to the monastery, Sister Bernadette spent 12 years as a schoolteacher and another 10 years as a chaplain at a women's prison. She really dislikes bullies, and demonstrates it through standing up even for birds fighting blue jays for seeds.
Sister Miriam is a novice nun preparing to make her First Vows. Though sincere and eager to please, Sister Miriam is tentative in her actions. We later discover that her father is very controlling, and her parents think she is joining a cult. She's jealous of Sister John's experiences of finding God.
Sister Christine encouraged Sister John to keep writing. She exhibits her sense of humor by jokes like faulting herself for blowing a fuse (shorting the toaster by spilling the soap on it) and wasting Joy (spilling dishwashing fluid).
The mechanic who helped keep the nun's car running.
We only see Helen's grandfather briefly before he dies. He takes Helen to the farm to get eggs and, when she cries over the abused chickens, essentially tells her that there's ugliness everywhere - we just have to make ourselves think it's sweet.
Her grandmother was really aged by her husband's death, and didn't really care when Helen decided to go to the monastery.
We only meet the policeman once, as Sister John is asking for directions to the hospital. At first, he seems big, buff, and muscled--until Sister John sees his nails, chewed down to the cuticle. He'd been trying to hide them. Once she saw them, he looked more like a little boy pretending to be a policeman.
A replacement teacher at Helen's school, Sister Priscilla realizes Helen's abilities and challenges her. Helen rises to the challenge and finds that Sister Priscilla is her idea of a fully realized human being who has decided to live life, instead of wait for it to start. Sister Priscilla tells her students of a Christmas where, for months, she begged her parents for a trip to Italy to see where the martyrs were killed at the Coliseum. When her parents gave her an Italian language primer instead, she was devastated, but when she did go to Italy later, she had experiences she would have completely missed out on without knowing the language. She uses the anecdote to teach the children the value of suffering.
Helen's mother, who struggled with drink, left Helen to be raised by her grandparents. We don't even meet her until two weeks after Helen's grandfather dies, when she calls with the excuse that she just got the letter telling her of his death. Over a decade after Helen joins the monastery, her mother appears again, basically to sever all ties with her daughter. Her mother had gotten pregnant with Helen at a very young age. When she got into a relationship, she was afraid to tell her husband about Helen and so she never retrieved her.
Father Aaron is the parish priest who administered sacraments to the nuns; he suffered from heart trouble. Some of the sisters found him patronizing towards female religious figures and was extremely careful to follow Vatican policy. In the story, his most important contribution is advising Sister John, as she thinks through whether or not to get the surgery, to place God first, above all else.
Sister Mary Michael
The extern nun who took care of all the monastery's interactions with the outside world -- shopping, visiting with parishioners, etc. She drove Sister John to the hospital.
Sister John's doctor, he is young, cold, and impersonal. However, when she leaves the hospital after her surgery, she experiences a sense of kinship with him.
He drove Helen to the monastery, and didn't charge her in case she needed the money for a return trip.
Lying Awake Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Lying Awake is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.