Lying Awake

Lying Awake Summary and Analysis of July 16, 1982: The Desert; and, March 27, 1994: Rain from Heaven


July 16: Our Lady of Mount Carmel: The LA sun makes life difficult for the nuns at choir. At this point, Sister John has been in the monastery for 13 years. She feels spiritually dry; God has not made himself felt to her. Although the first 13 years passed quickly in service of the training that contemplative life required (making rituals and traditions second nature; reading, writing, and remembering from the heart rather than the head; etc.), the next 7 had dragged on painfully, without the presence of God she'd been accustomed to. Sister John finds herself thinking of nuns who had decided they did not have genuine vocations to the monastery after all and left with their souls in states of mortal sin, or faithful nuns who had died in bitter pain.

It's in this setting of dryness and isolation from God that Sister John most appreciates the funny moments of life in the monastery. She recalls when the postman brought a letter addressed, in a child's handwriting, to "St. Joseph's Disgraced Carmelites." The laughter that had ensued almost forced Mother Mary Joseph to declare a day off, because everyone struggled to regain their composure before choir. Another time, Sister Angelica accused herself for blowing a fuse and wasting Joy - meaning that she had shorted out the toaster by spilling dishwasher fluid on it.

Sister John rises to go to the bathroom, but runs into another nun with the same idea. Because of their humility, they both kept deferring to each other. Sister John submits and uses the bathroom. When she comes out, she finds Mother Mary Joseph waiting for her. She beckons Sister John to follow her to the kitchen, where she tells her that her mother is waiting at the Turn, a small window that allowed nuns to receive mail and exchange gifts without being seen. Sister John is shocked. Though the executor of Sister John's grandparents' estate had written that he'd tracked down Sister John's mother, living in San Diego and married. Sister John had resisted contacting her for a while, partly out of resentment and partly because she did not want to reopen old wounds. However, she eventually wrote to her, telling her that she had become a nun dedicated to prayer and forgiveness. She had not expected her mother to come visit her, and asks Mother Emmanuel if her mother sounded drunk. She hadn't.

Sister John receives her mother in the Turn. They sit, and Sister John pushes back the curtain (though there is still a metal grille separating them.) Sister John is conflicted and shaky as she sees her mother, looking professional and friendly in a tasteful cream-colored outfit spoiled only by an enamel brooch shaped like a seal with a heart on its nose. She only recognizes her mother's face, and realizes her mother probably feels the same about her, dressed in the habit.

They exchange greetings, but Sister John's surprise starts wearing off into anger. Her mother tells her that she had thought it would be better if there were no communication between them. Her mother explains that she had been very young and immature when Helen had been born. She had panicked, and when she met someone when Helen was young, she put off telling him about her daughter because he wasn't ready for kids. Though she always intended to tell him, one thing led to another and she never had. She wasn't proud of what she had done, but she was only seeking to give closure to Sister John, who realized her mother was asking her to end the relationship once and for all and to excuse the deception. Her mother didn't want any more letters.

Sister John searches for something cutting to say, but she is soon ashamed of herself. She had come to the monastery to love as Christ loved. Denying her mother's request would only be meant to hurt her mother, which had no purpose anyway since she was cloistered. She asks her mother for her half-siblings' names. Her mother passes her a picture through the grille of the two kids, named Beth and Ethan. After looking at the picture, she hands it back to her mother and tells her she will pray for their health and happiness. Then, Sister John blesses her mother and takes her leave, waiting until she had left the parlor and closed the door gently before rushing out of sight of Mother Mary Joseph.

All of her suffering and searching meant nothing at that moment. God was still absent.

March 27, 1994: Rain from Heaven. Holy Thursday: Sister John is scrubbing the floors toward the altar to prepare for the Good Friday service happening the next day, and reminisces. Her experiences with her mother did not, in the end, shake her calling as a nun because it changed the way she felt about drudgery; she threw herself into her work and God's mercy and life moves on. On the 20th anniversary of her arrival she declares that it only felt like she'd been at Carmel a couple hours. It is a reminder to her that God never changes.

Sister Anne comes and indicates that she needs Sister John to help her prepare for the Vespers service, happening in half an hour. While they work, the extern nun comes to ask Sister Anne some questions, so Sister John takes advantage of the opportunity to sit a moment and close her eyes, feeling a headache develop. When she is ready, she rejoins Sister Anne in her work though her headache worsens. She tries to breathe deeply and relax, but drops her supplies and finds herself in the midst of another vision. In this one, the silence feels alive and she cries out to God to answer her. Finally, she experiences Him again, an experience like a dam breaking within her soul. Her great insight is that God is infinite, and that he is therefore present everywhere. In fact, He can never be absent.

The experience makes her feel like she had been sleepwalking all her life. Now, she had passed, like her namesake, through her dark night of the soul and understood how the light of faith penetrated everything. This is the beginning of her writings.


July 16,1982: In this scene, we see the resolution of one of the major plot themes: the relationship between Helen and her mother. Helen again demonstrates the change she's undergone as a nun: from an insecure, hurting child to a woman of God, able to forgive her mother the hurt she caused even though it still hurt. Note the metaphor Sister John uses for the hurtful thing she wanted to say to her mother: it was barbed harpoon that could never be removed. The resolution of this thread of the plot is crucial to the overarching plot because it shows Sister John seeking and needing some sort of comfort from God, and not finding it. It makes her dry time that much more painful.

March 27, 1984: In some ways this scene is both resolution and conflict simultaneously. It resolves the cause of Sister John's spiritual anguish--she has experienced God more richly than she ever has before--but it also signifies the tumor taking root and the coming choice before her to keep it and keep the visions, or remove it and not experience God in the same way perhaps for the rest of her life.