"'Sister John is too modest to mention this, but I'm going to embarrass her anyway: her book is going into another printing. We'll definitely be able to replace the roof this year.'
The Carmel of St. Joseph traditionally depended on the sale of homemade jellies, greeting cards, and communion wafers to meet expenses, but its economic future had brightened considerably since Sister John discovered her gift for writing.
'None of it is my doing,' Sister John protested when the others congratulated her. She felt herself blushing again.
'Don't keep your light under a bushel,' Sister Elizabeth advised. 'Talent comes from God, but it only bears fruit through hard work."
This quote provides a context for just how widely Sister John's ecstatic visions affected the whole monastery. Thanks to the funds that came from her book based on her visions, the monastery was able to provide for itself. It adds another layer of responsibility to Sister John's dilemma whether or not to go through with the surgery to take out the tumor.
"Her mind fractured under the pressure. She splintered like broken glass, she became all edges and points and she was sure this had to be death, it had to be the end of everything, then her suffering blinked off.
an invisible sun
a shockwave of pure Being
swept my pain away, swept everything away
until all that was left was God."
In this ecstatic vision Salzman connects (for the first time) the immensity of Sister John's visions with the immensity of the pain of her headache by using language full of painful imagery. Words and phrases like fracture, and splintered like broken grass. In addition, this is the first time that her fellow-Sisters see the suffering that accompanies her ecstatic vision. Consequently, they encourage her to go visit a doctor.
"Time seemed at Sister Priscilla's disposal. While Helen experienced time as the measurement of waiting-waiting for her mother to return, waiting for her life to begin-for Sister Priscilla, all waiting seemed to be over. The main even was under way; time as a measurement of action.
And her actions were all beautiful. She turned even the most ordinary tasks, like pulling maps down or emptying the pencil sharpener, into sacraments. On the other hand, she could talk about faith in a way that made it sound like common sense. She made divine things seem human, and human things seem divine.
In this quote, Helen crystallizes what she wants to get out of life: she wants to live with the same intentionality and awareness that Sister Priscilla does. This is where the seed is planted for Helen to become a nun.
"'I'll change the question slightly. We are told that God only allows to happen to us what is for our own good, but what about when bad things happen? How could that possibly be for our good?'
. . . .
'I can't answer those questions for you,' Sister Priscilla finally said, looking right at Helen. 'No human person can. But we can all think about this: compared to the One who created the universe, we are all children. Just because we cannot understand what happens to us doesn't mean that God doesn't.'"
In this quote we see Sister Priscilla planting the seeds for the realization that God's ways are not human ways and that if we put God at the center of our thinking, the world may make more sense. It opens new vistas up for Helen and her way of looking at the world.
"Loneliness, the hole in the center of her being.
Look at me, answer me, Lord my God!
The response came in the form of understanding, and it came all at once, as if a dam had burst in her soul. Her search for God had been like a hand trying to grasp itself. God, who is infinite, cannot become present because He can never become absent.
You were here all along.
'Sister? Are you not feeling well?' God was present in Sister Anne's voice, He was present in her face.
Nothing was changed, yet everything was changed. Compared to this, she felt as if she had been sleepwalking all her life. 'God is here,' she answered."
This is where Sister John experiences a breakthrough. After searching for God and desiring to experience him for over twenty years while in the cloister, she realizes that He is always present everywhere. To live daily life is to experience God.
"'Take heart, Sister!' he boomed. 'You may feel separated from grace right now, but in reality you are probably closer to it now than you ever were before.'
She hadn't expected to hear this. 'How could that be?'
'Because we're all better off having doubts about the state of our souls than presuming ourselves to be holy.' His eyebrows moved ominously, as if they had sighted the enemy at last. 'You allowed yourself to think that loving God meant enjoying His company, having ecstasies. It was all about you, wasn't it? But loving God is supposed to be all about Him. About trusting Him, putting yourself in His hands completely.'"
In this quote, Father Aaron serves as the catalyst to challenge and thereby deepen Sister John's faith by re-centering her and reminding her that she did not enter the monastery for what she could get out of it. Rather, joining the monastery is about following wherever He leads. This spurs a turn in the story as Sister John reevaluates her dilemma in the light of her deeper motivations - thereby revealing the depth of her faith.
"The rigorous daily schedule, which seemed to allow for no personal freedom, taught her to measure freedom differently. In religious life, everything was turned either upside down or inside out: to gain, one had to lose everything first. The only path to victory was through surrender. To become full, one had to become empty."
This quote is significant because it exemplifies the massive change contemplatives have to undergo in their thinking during training; it requires an emptying of self and one's conceptions of time and the way the world works. It also highlights how much Sister John has changed from being Helen.
"At the moment of the Breaking of the Host, the congregation said in unison:
Lamb of God, You take away the sins of the world.
Hearing the voices together, she perceived them as all woven together to form a tapestry, stretching not only across the world but backward and forward into time.
The tapestry lit up.
Like a piece of quartz viewed under a black light, her soul went from achromatic to beyond chromatic. Fractures and other imperfections--including her epilepsy--became irrelevant; a much deeper beauty revealed itself now.
Faith is light, doubt is shadow. If you remove the obstacles to faith, all shadows disappear."
This is significant because within it is the seed of the reason Sister John makes the choice to remove her tumor. She isn't going through her suffering alone. She's doing it in community with all the saints who have gone before and who are with her. Together, they are so much stronger than they are on their own.
"Within a few minutes the entire community, all holding candles, rallied to keep watch with Sister John. Their presence turned night into day, midnight sun at the end of the earth. Nothing was said, but the message was clear: a Sister might feel lost, but she was never alone."
This is the corollary to the previous quote. Here, the entire monastery shows what it means to be a community. In one of the strongest and most poignant images in the book, all the Sisters keep vigil with Sister John as she grapples with what God would have her do about the tumor.
"'In religious life,' she said, turning the scissors over in her palm, 'if you lose confidence in your personal experience, it's hard to keep from doubting everything.'
He closed the manila file containing her charts. 'That's true for everybody, isn't it? I nearly quit medicine during my first year of residency because I realized I'd gotten into it for the wrong reasons. But here I still am, and I'm glad I stuck with it.'
She appreciated hearing something personal from him. 'What kept you going?'
He laughed. 'Finding out that everybody gets into medicine for the wrong reasons. It seems to come with the territory.'"
This scene serves as encouragement to Sister John and an excellent summation of the big ideas of the book: that our feelings don't dictate what God does in our lives, but God himself does. It's not about our motivations, but rather about following his leading.
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.