July 25: Feast Day of St. James the Apostle: The book opens with Sister John of the Cross waking up and giving the day to God. Right away, the profound silence of the monastery puts her in a reverential mode. She gets dressed, spends a bit of time editing poetry she’d written the night before, makes her bed, and goes to her dormitory bathroom, where she experiences an ecstatic vision where she sees herself as an ember carried weightlessly into infinity into glistening darkness. There, she sees a supernova that lit up all existence with God’s love. When she is able to move again, she writes down her experience.
July 29: Martha: Mother Mary Joseph is a Living Rule a nun who lives by the highest standards of her order. According to tradition, if the laws and constitution of the order were ever lost, they could be recovered by watching a Living Rule pray. She summons the nuns for morning devotions by ringing a clapper and pauses to remember that doing so is the voice of Christ calling to His servants.
The author then gives us a description of the monastery, tucked into the heart of 1997 Los Angeles, California, surrounded by the Golden State Freeway, the Police Academy, Dodgers’ Stadium, and Chinatown. The cloister buildings are in the shape of a U, with the chapel, choir, bell tower, refectory, and kitchen in the center. In the arms were located the common room, visitor’s parlor, scriptorium, and private cells for the nuns.
Mother Mary Joseph then leads Lauds, the morning office, which is meant to be a living encounter with God the Word through a public reading. All the other nuns join in except for Sister John, who is missing. Mother Emmanuel then gives the benediction, and they begin. In the Gregorian chant they join all other contemplatives who pray for those unwilling or unable to pray for themselves. At the Gloria Patri, the sisters rise and bow to each other. That’s when Sister John arrives, tired but happy. Without being told, Sister John prostrates herself before the cross, happy to do it.
July 31: Ignatius of Loyola: In the Scriptorium, Sister John and Mother Mary Joseph work together on a project for Father Aaron’s reading for Mass on the feast day of St. Christopher. Mother Mary Joseph finishes illustrating the saint carrying a child on his back across a swollen river, and then hands it to Sister John to copy the text.
As the saint crosses, the river swells even more. However, he presses on for the sake of the child. Sister John is moved by the text, remembering the dry time when she felt abandoned by God for years. When St. Christopher reaches the shore, Sister John stops to read on, discovering that the child was really Christ. The lesson is that when we ask for strength to persevere for the sake of others rather than ourselves, we discover how powerful love is. The bell then summons the nuns to midday prayer. As they leave, the two nuns share a silent laugh because Sister John forgot to remove the napkin she’d tucked into her habit to protect it.
August 6: Transfiguration: As Sister John holds her breviary for service, she suffers a bad headache gladly because suffering is an imitation of Christ’s life. A novice nun, Sister Miriam, reads the service, which is derived from Psalm 130, about waiting for the Lord like watchmen wait for daybreak. After the prayer is concluded, the nuns file to their cells for Sext, the examination of conscience. She asks herself if she’s acted with God’s presence in mind, if she’s been grateful for both her joys and trials, and if she’s lived up her commitment to trust God completely.
Through the pain of her headache, she experiences another ecstatic vision, feeling the gap between her and God close as His love pulls her toward Him. In His embrace, only God remains and she experiences the significance of the “I am,” the name God gives Himself in the Old Testament.
August 15: Assumption: This scene takes place during the hour of recreation, in which the nuns are allowed to speak and laugh. It starts in the garden, with the sisters watering the plants. In a humorous exchange, Sister Bernadette squirts water at a blue jay that was keeping the other birds from drinking. Sister Angelica reprimands Sister Bernadette, saying that the birds are just doing what they’ve been created to do. After it the nuns watch as the birds come and drink again. As Sister Bernadette continues to refresh the greenery, she asks Sister John if she’d finished her poem for St. Therese, who was a French nun who died of tuberculosis in 1897 at the age of 25.
She’d managed to write an autobiography with the simple message that we needn’t fear God or feel obligated to do great things to please Him, because He loves all His saints equally. Though the work had been controversial, it earned Therese canonization. For the 100th anniversary of her death, the Superior General of the Carmelite Order had invited Sister John to write a poem for the ceremony that would make St. Therese a Doctor of the Church and had asked Sister John to deliver it to the Vatican in person.
Sister John responds to Sister Bernadette that the work is still in progress. However, she worries about getting nervous. Sister Bernadette encourages her, saying that people like it when artists are shy, and jokes about all the food she will get to eat.
August 22: Queenship of Mary: It’s dinnertime. The nuns file in, stop at the center of the room to bow to the cross, say grace, then sit down and fasten napkins to their habits. Mother Emmanuel and Mother Mary Joseph sit at a table with a replica of a human skull on it as a reminder of their mortality and the insignificance of their current hardships. Sister Angelica recites from Augustine’s sermons on 1 John, saying that the life of a Christian is one of holy desire. During the recitation, Sister Miriam serves the soup. The nuns make little noise as they eat to combat distraction from the contemplative ideal of thinking on spiritual things at all times. Food is a big distraction. Sister John has another headache, but it’s an hour before she can get away for private prayer. Announcements follow. The nuns receive a letter from Claire Bours, who after reading Sister John’s book Sparrow on a Roof, asks to join the monastery as a postulant. The sisters congratulate Sister John, who tries to deflect attention from herself because she didn’t want individual blessings to come at the expense of community harmony.
The nuns discuss Claire’s candidacy. There are concerns that this interest in the monastery might be just a phase rather than a genuine vocation, that Claire expresses her own doubts in the letter, that her experiences as a Master of Fine Arts who worked in Hollywood would preclude her benefiting from and being a benefit to the monastery. They voted 6-2 in favor of admission.
2nd announcement: Sister John’s book is going into a 2nd printing and the proceeds will provide a new roof for the monastery. She again tries to deflect the praise, but the nuns encourage her by telling her not to hide her light under a bushel. Sister Anne changes the subject, asking about how people liked the high-fiber cereal she’d asked the extern nun to buy. Though some disliked it, Mother Mary Joseph quips about it doing her good. They also vote to keep three types of juices after debating whether or not having three types of juice violates their vow of poverty.
They then participate in the ritual of the Faults, where nuns share their own sins or sins of others and call them to accountability. Sister Christine accuses Sister Elizabeth of whistling during spiritual reading. Mother Emmanuel imposes a standard penance of 5 decades of the rosary. Sister Christine also accuses another sister of falling asleep during Night Office, and then accuses herself for breaking a dish on her way to recreation. Mother Emmanuel accuses herself of losing her place during the reading and fumbling the pages noisily. Sister John is then accused for missing Lauds and Vespers. The prioress discovers that it is because of additional headaches. The penance she requires is for the Sister to stop writing at night and get rest. Though she doesn’t want to, Sister John submits out of deference to her Superior, knowing that obeying her Superior means obeying the will of God.
After they are dismissed for evening recreation, Sister John has another ecstatic vision. Mother Mary Joseph notices, asking if Sister John is well. However, the vision is accompanied by a headache so bad that Sister John feels like all the blood vessels in her head give way. In this vision, she becomes glass and is sure she is dying, before the pain abruptly gives way to the reality of God.
August 29: Beheading of John the Baptist, Martyr: The extern nun, Sister Mary Michael, drives Sister John to the neurologist’s for her appointment. Leaving the monastery makes her uneasy after 28 years entering the outside world only for medical visits. In the waiting room, Sister John is the subject of scrutiny because of her habit. She notes the irony that when nuns originally donned the habit it was meant to make them inconspicuous. In the modern world, it makes them stand out. She is unimpressed by the daytime talk show on TV, in which a man accuses his wife of infidelity and wants her to take a blood test. The results were to be announced at the end of the program, but Sister John moves her attention away and lets her memories wander.
She remembers going up to her old bedroom in her grandparents' home in the summertime to read a letter from her mother. In the background, crickets chirp and her grandmother (who with her grandfather looked after Sister John, whose christened name was Helen) does housework. Helen is disappointed with the short, impersonal letter - another in the long line of sporadic, impersonal letters that always implored Helen to write soon and ignored her when she did.
The flashback ends with a nurse calling Sister John. She walks her into an examination room, where Sister John studies the room and realizes that it does not invite time and healing: rather, it is merely for examination. Nevertheless, she reminds herself that it is still God's room. Her doctor, Dr. Sheppard, is young and impersonal as he examines her, but she still sees him as a figure of Christ. As Dr. Sheppard kneels down and cradles her feet in his hands to test them, she is reminded of Christ washing the feet of his disciples. She tells him about how she deals with the pain of her migraines by surrendering to them as a spiritual experience. He asks her a few more diagnostic questions and writes her up for a CT scan and EEG. Sister John reminds herself that God is as present in sickness as he is in health, and blesses the doctor as she leaves.
August 31: Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Sister John is writing in her room and reflecting on the good dream Saint Therese gave her: a vision of herself dressed in white, lying in a white room. She interprets the dream to mean that a cycle will soon be completed. Then, Sister Miriam comes in with a toasted muffin, butter, homemade kumquat jam, and coffee, sent by Mother Emmanuel. Sister John invites Sister Miriam to join her. Though Sister Miriam refuses because she's eaten already, she visits with Sister John for a few moments and asks her how Sister John's family felt about her joining the convent. Sister John explains that her grandparents raised her. Her grandfather had passed away and her ill grandmother had only expressed apathy. Sister Miriam shares that her parents objected to her own choice to become a nun. Sister John asks for their names in order to pray for them.
After Sister Miriam leaves, Sister John returns to her thoughts, remembering when her grandfather would take her to get eggs from a local farm. She hated going with him, preferring to wait outside and hurl clods of red dirt against the outside wall. She daydreamed about freeing the chickens and coming back generations later to find them venerating her as a goddess. One time, her grandfather takes a wrong turn and Helen for a moment thinks they are going to look for her mother. When he turns around, she cries and complains of the stink. Her grandfather tells her that it stinks everywhere -- the thing to do is tell oneself it's sweet.
September 3: Gregory the Great, Pope and Doctor: In this chapter, Sister John gets her tests done. Even though she got delayed and had to ask a policeman for directions, she checks in an hour early and prays while she waits. The nurse-technician leads her in and instructs her to remove her veil and lie down. She is pleased to find Sister John's head already shaved and makes small talk about a strict nun in Manila who disciplined her for winning a cha-cha contest by making her bend over and hold her ankles until she fell over. Sister John is upset over the misuse of authority, but lets go of her anger at the nurse's request to try to sleep. She falls asleep quickly.
For the CT scan, Sister John has to remove all clothing and jewelry (even the symbols of her mystical marriage, a crucifix and wedding band) and put on a white hospital gown. The room is also white, reminding Sister John of the dream she had from St. Therese. As the clicking of the machine begins, she promises she will not fight against God's plan for her and surrenders to it completely.
September 4: Twelfth Thursday in Ordinary Time: Still forbidden from writing at night, Sister John lies awake and sinks into memories. She remembers walking up to her house one night and knowing from the darkness something was wrong. Walking into the kitchen, she found string beans spilled on the floor and a note on the table. Her grandfather had died. Two weeks after the funeral, her mother calls, drunk. Their conversation is the first one they've had in a decade, and it's awkward. Her mother says she hadn't gotten the letter until then. When her mother asks to speak to her grandmother, Helen calls for her grandmother, who hangs it up without a word. Her mother never called back.
September 5: Twelfth Friday in Ordinary Time: Sister John of the Cross feeds Sister Teresa, who is now suffering from Alzheimer's. By this point, Sister Teresa's memory is nearly gone. She doesn't recognize Sister John, has forgotten that her home is in the monastery, and wants to go home. Meanwhile, Sister Anne enters the infirmary and starts cleaning. Sister John goes to help her, but she refuses, telling her instead to get some rest. Complying, she goes back and helps Sister Teresa finish her pie, combs her hair, and sits with her, watching out the window where Sister Miriam was hanging laundry. When the bell rings for Sext, Sister John reflects that the regimentation to which they submitted willingly was how they are freed from the tyranny of their selves.
September 8: Birth of Mary: Before leaving to get the results of her tests, Sister John lights a candle in memory of Saint Gertrude, a mystic who was constantly ill. However, when God asked her if she wanted better health, she responded that she only wanted God's will. By undergoing the suffering she did, St. Gertrude became more human and more holy. Though Sister John did feel ready to hear the results, she was not ready to see the brochure that slipped out from Dr. Sheppard's file onto the floor, Living with Epilepsy. People seeking admission to monasteries are always asked if they suffer from mental illness or epilepsy. If they do, they are automatically rejected because both are known for producing compelling visions. Dr. Sheppard is optimistic for a full recovery after a straightforward procedure to remove a small tumor behind her ear. That's what had been causing her headaches, which were localized seizures.
Sister John is devastated. After not having experiences of God for over 20 years in the cloister, the diagnosis calls into question the very veracity of her faith. She feels isolated and alone, but knows that the real test of faith happens when one is faced with a problem that does not have a human solution. She reminds herself that God would not bring her on this journey for nothing.
If any glib summary is to be made of this book, it is that "still waters run deep." Though it is the story of a 1997 nun at a monastery in Los Angeles fighting for her very soul, there are no exciting developments or plot twists in this story. In fact, Salzman subtly moves the action through linking the most ordinary experiences with the sacred in the life of the protagonist, Sister John of the Cross. Consequently, the reader learns how to appreciate the significance of a vocation to monastic life and to wonder, perhaps, if the lines between the sacred and secular in our lives are thinner than we might expect.
Salzman achieves this by taking a profoundly sacramental tone, meaning that ordinary life is lived with the knowledge that God is at work in a real way in the world, and they are a part of his work. The way the sisters attend to their duties, anchoring their importance by seeing them as a reflection of God's love, created order, and Christ's suffering suffuses even the most ordinary of tasks with an urgency that throws the importance of ordinary things into life. In this section, it can be seen for example in the juxtaposition of the humorous moment where Sister John forgets to remove the napkin she'd tucked into her habit to protect it when she was copying the text for Father Aaron's reading with the intensity with which Sister John had read and experienced the text itself.
Moreover, the many metaphors and similes Salzman infuses into the book further develop the sacramentalism. So many of the holiest or spiritually significant moments are anchored to the physical or even sometimes secular world through metaphors that often shock with their vividness and beauty. In one of her earliest visions, for example, Sister John is "Frozen in beauty, like a fly trapped in amber" (p. 18).
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we experience sacramentalism through the chapter titles. Nearly all the chapter titles are named for days in the Catholic calendar. Because the passage of time is marked as feast days of different saints, Salzman irrevocably links time to holiness, to knowing that each day has significance in a devotional sense.
Salzman also uses foreshadowing in two telling instances in this section. The first is in the tale of St. Christopher, the reading Father Aaron was to give for the feast day. Both Sister John and Mother Mary Joseph were working together on the project -- Mother Mary Joseph to illustrate and Sister John to copy the text. Poignantly, the moral of the story is that strength to persevere for the sake of others is stronger than strength to persevere for the self because it is founded on how powerful love is. This ends up being the reason Sister John gets her tumor removed and loses the visions.
The second instance of foreshadowing is through the part where Helen sees herself as savior of the chickens. As a child, Sister John went with her grandfather to a farm to get eggs. She hated going, and would daydream as she waited outside that she would one day free the chickens. When she would return generations later, she daydreamed about the chickens singing her praises as a radiant goddess (though she wouldn't tell them it was her!).
Finally, in order to understand the background and context it is important to know a little bit about St. John of the Cross and the Order of the Discalced Carmelites, which is the order Sister John is a member of. John of the Cross is the 16th century Spanish mystic who founded the Order of the Discalced Carmelites. He is also famous for writing a poem called "The Dark Night of the Soul," in which he explores his own spiritual crisis (much like Sister John does, which is why she took his name).