September 26, 1997: Cosmas and Damian, Martyrs: This chapter takes place in the hospital, the day before the surgery. After she puts on her hospital gown, a medical student visits her to complete the admission paperwork. He informs her of the risks involved in her surgery: she might be unable to speak or see or think clearly, might lose a limb, hemorrhage and die during surgery. After he leaves, she tries to pray and thinks about how she will be changed the next day. What if something goes wrong? What will she do for the rest of her life?
September 27, 1997: Vincent de Paul, Priest: This is the day of her surgery. At 6, a nurse comes in to get her and gives her an injection. Dr. Sheppard comes and sees her. She then changes into the hospital gown and lies on the gurney. The nurse takes her into the operating room, where she gets anesthetized and falls asleep.
As she falls in and out of sleep after the surgery, she hears Sister Mary Michael and Mother Emmanuel chatting. They stay with her for her two days recovery in the hospital. On the third day, she takes communion before breakfast and tries to read the Office, but can't concentrate well yet. As she starts walking around the hospital and continues recuperating she draws parallels between the hospital and the monastery and contrasts the two. Like her doctor, she had dedicated her life to the service of others--but she realizes that all along, she had been dependent on the charity of others. Now, she would always be defined by her treatment for epilepsy and her faith would always be questioned.
October 1, 1997: Therese of the Child Jesus, Virgin and Doctor: This is the day Sister John was to have been at the Vatican presenting her poem on St. Therese. Instead, she is recuperating at the hospital. Only Sister Mary Michael stayed with her that day because all Carmelite monasteries were linked to the Vatican that day by prayer (so Mother Emmanuel was too busy to come). But Sister John is happy to avoid discussing the significance of the day, feeling unhappily that her own childhood is being repeated: she's in need of rescue, but the rescuer is no longer interested.
So she asks Sister Mary Michael, the extern nun, what motivated her to leave her children and become an extern -- whether it was a sudden or a long-time calling. Sister Mary answers that it was a little of both. After her husband passed away, she wanted to make a deeper commitment to being useful, and the Carmel monastery seemed to need her most. She shares further that she couldn't be like her cloistered sisters, but is profoundly grateful for the varied life she's led. Sister John tells her that it might be her own vocation that burns brighter than the rest of them, as she's never felt out of place. Sister Mary chalks it up to hindsight and reminds her that Christ, who knew hardly any peace and struggled to the end, is her model.
October 2, 1997: Guardian Angels: In this chapter, Dr. Sheppard removes Sister John's bandages and takes out the staples. When he throws away the pair of scissors he had opened and used just on her (it's cheaper to use new pairs than sterilize old ones), she asks him for them. He is happy to give them to her. He also gives her the all-clear signal but tells her not to shave her head for a while so she doesn't risk infection. He gives her a clean bill of health, and tells her that it is normal for patients to feel some sort of postsurgical depression. She reflects that her life had been anything but normal before the surgery. She tells Dr. Sheppard that, as a religious person, losing confidence in her personal experience makes it difficult to keep from doubting everything. Dr. Sheppard shares with her that that's true anywhere. He had nearly quit medicine during his residency because he realized he'd gotten into it for the wrong reason. What kept him going was that he realized that everybody gets into medicine for wrong reasons. This encourages Sister John.
October 4, 1997: Francis of Assisi: On Sister John's last day at the hospital, a teenage girl who had been shot in the head is brought to the hospital by ambulance. She is guarded by a policeman, whom Dr. Sheppard tells Sister John is there to ensure that she does not walk out of the hospital because she'd been involved in a crime. Though Sister John asks the girl's family if there's anything she can do, they are too distraught to respond. Because the hospital is crowded, she is put in Sister John's room. The girl is not expected to live.
October 5, 1997: Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: As Sister John is getting back into her habit, Dr. Sheppard comes into the hospital room with a Spanish speaking nun. Though Sister John couldn't hear what was said, the mother's agonized reaction suggests that it was terrible news. When two orderlies come in and move the girl onto a gurney, Sister John's hands start shaking. Dr. Sheppard only says that they are giving the family some time with her first, suggesting that they are taking her off life support. But he brightens when he sees her ready to go home. He gives her a box of spare scissors to take back with her to the monastery. When she says goodbye to him, she felt like they played the same roles, just "across borders."
October 15, 1997: Teresa of Avila, Virgin and Doctor: Back at the monastery, Sister John was struggling with how dull and worn everything seemed. Her convalescence in the infirmary became an extended exploration of her conscience, where she realizes that she had come to the monastery more because she wanted to gain paradise, rather than truly love God. That's why she had become so disillusioned during her drought period, and why she wanted her seizures to be spiritual favors rather than illness. Even the surgery, she realizes, was undertaken out of fear of hell. She is kept company by Sister Teresa, dried up and silent.
Sister Miriam brings her a hearty breakfast tray. The nuns were trained to turn the unpleasant task of caring for the ill into an opportunity for grace, but Sister John does not feel like she could be a figure of Christ for the nuns to serve. She knows that she does not resemble Christ at all. She asks Sister Miriam about the sermon and about how the sister feels now about her parents' visit. Sister Miriam had spoken to Mother Emmanuel about not always feeling like she belonged in the monastery. The Mother had told her that even then, she herself had doubts sometimes. That sometimes, even though they have been told the cost of following Christ, we are surprised by how big the bill is. That has helped Sister Miriam decide she is ready to take temporary vows, even though she doesn't think she has it all worked out. She thanks Sister John for talking to her that day, than leaves.
During private prayer, Mother Mary Joseph brings popovers to the infirmary for Sister John and Sister Teresa. Sister John relates that she is eager to get back to choir because she feels useless, but Mother Mary Joseph gently reminds her that she is keeping Sister Teresa company. The mother asks if she has written anything, but Sister John says that her muse has gone with the surgery. Mother Mary Joseph responds that God must have decided she'd done enough with her gift and now had another job for her. When Sister John tells her that's a very positive way of looking at it, the mother tells her that's the only way to look at it. She reminds her that Christ died without seeing his work completed. Though by human standards he was a failure, from his perspective faith turned his defeat into victory. She continues that Sister John had been able to share heaven with the others. Now, she has a greater calling to walk in faith even though heaven seems out of reach, and perhaps to write about that. Sister John isn't convinced, but Mother Mary Joseph reminds her, that learning about God only invites greater mysteries.
November 1, 1997: All Saints: In this chapter, Sister Miriam takes her vows in a special ceremony. As Sister John watches Sister Miriam make the journey to the altar, she remembers the joy and certainty of her own ceremony and how things had changed. Salzman describes the ceremony, focusing particularly on Mother Emmanuel's words that though the nuns often feel like God is far away, people only recognize in darkness that faith gives off light. After the ceremony there is a simple celebration in the garden. Sister John and Mother Emmanuel speak briefly, and Mother Emmanuel asks her to become the novice mistress for Claire Bours when she comes to the monastery the following month. Mother Emmanuel is concerned that she will have trouble adjusting to not being able to force God to come to her, and thinks she'll need a novice mistress who understands the difficulties behind doing God's will. Sister John responds that she does not feel like she knows anything about God's will, but the Mother reassures her: by still trying to do God’s will, she says, Sister John has achieved the kind of understanding that she meant – an understanding based on doing, as opposed to knowing.
Sister John agrees. As Mother Emmanuel leaves her, she takes out her hand bell and rings it. The sound cheers her.
In this section, we see Sister John really start to draw parallels between the hospital and the monastery. The scene where she puts on the hospital gown mirrors the scene where she first put on her habit when she first came to the monastery. While recovering, she realizes that the rule of obedience in the monastery also applies to he hospital: younger doctors submitted willingly to their superiors because cooperation and teamwork were more important than individual success. Flipping the parallel on its head, she wonders what a doctor who came to the monastery would think and how he would apply the language of medicine to what he saw in the monastery. Interestingly, she decides that her epilepsy had been a sort of opportunistic virus, and her egotism weakened her resistance to it. In addition, Dr. Sheppard reminds her of St. Augustine, an early church father and scholar. When she leaves the monastery, she salutes Dr. Sheppard as her counterpart "across the border."
In some ways, the teenage girl who was shot in the head serves as a foil to Sister John. Both are wounded in the head--but Sister John gets a choice. She can keep her visions and be a dead woman walking, or she could choose to live. Her choice to live, even if it started because she didn't want to be a burden to her sisters, became the means by which she realized that she had been building her faith on her own experiences of God rather than by loving him whether she felt he was present or absent. By choosing to get rid of her tumor--even though she feels like she's regressed in her faith, is the means by which she follows him more fully.
The ceremony for Sister Miriam taking her temporary vows contains beautiful imagery that symbolizes again the mystical wedding union between nun and Christ. The book has come full circle, from Helen's own ceremony to Sister Miriam's. Even Sister Teresa has come to the end of her story and Sister John is taking her place as novice mistress to Miriam. After making her vow to of obedience, chastity, and poverty, she lays facedown on the floor with her arms outstretched lie a cross. A white sheet covers her, symbolizing the mystical death through which the nun dies to the world and to self.
Resolution is achieved quietly and without fanfare, mirroring the quiet contentment the nuns seek to achieve in their lives. Though Sister John no longer experiences visions, she keeps going, still trusting in God to accomplish his will. She doesn't need to know what it is; her job is to follow him through daily life. It is a beautiful resolution that fits the profoundly sacramental style Salzman has used in the book.