Lying Awake

Lying Awake Summary and Analysis of September 9-14, 1997: Darkness


September 9: Peter Claver, Priest: Back at the monastery, Sister John reflects on her diagnosis and thinks about what to do. Dr. Sheppard's materials had informed her that her type of epilepsy sometimes changed patient's behavior, spurring hypergraphia (voluminous writing), intensification and narrowing of emotional response, and obsession with philosophy and religion. In fact, the type of epilepsy had been named after the Russian novelist Dostoevsky, who exhibited all these symptoms of experiencing the presence of eternal harmony. Sister John wondered: if treatment had been available, would he have taken it? Should he have taken it? Other notables who probably suffered from the same type of epilepsy include Van Gogh, Tennyson, Proust, Socrates, St. Paul, and St. Teresa of Avila, the major saint of the Carmelites. St. Teresa's illnesses were part of the church record. She called her illness her greatest teacher, but warned against seeking illness to cultivate holiness. We should strive to be as healthy as possible so we may serve God to the best of our ability. But, Sister John questions, if the body is so important why did Jesus not spare himself the Cross? She laments that if all she has experienced in her visions in the past three years was falsely inspired, she is worse than before they started.

September 12: Thirteenth Friday in Ordinary Time: We are introduced to amusing figure of Father Aaron, who performs Mass for the nuns. Sister John seeks his opinion, as someone who is a professional religious far enough removed from the situation. She explains the situation to him: should she assume her mystical experiences are false? Does she let go concerns for her health, or desire of God's presence? Father John counsels her that in this trial she is probably closer to God than she has ever been before. He tells her that presuming to be holy is worse than having concerns about her soul. He explains that her conception of loving God has been self-centered; she loved him for what she could get out of it rather than trusting him completely.

Sister John asks him for a direct answer: should she do the surgery or not? He says that it has to be her decision and reminds her to seek God first in all things.

September 13: John Chrysostom, Bishop and Doctor: In this chapter, Sister John reflects on the question Father John had raised. Was her approach to faith innately selfish? That would explain her reluctance to get rid of the seizures and, in a way, the popularity of her book - because the book was basically telling people that they could have what they want, including direct experiences of God. During the hour of prayer, she retreats to one of the hermitages of the monastery to pray, but finds, to her surprise, that it is occupied by Sister Miriam, the novice nun, lying on the cot. When she is barely responsive, Sister John asks if it has to do with her parents. At that, Sister Miriam bursts into tears. Her parents had been to visit her, and had told her they thought the monastery a cult. Though she tried to explain she could leave anytime, her father points to the bars and implies it's a prison. Usually, says Sister Miriam, her father dictates what the family thinks, but there is a grain of truth to what he says. Her father thinks she is staying in the monastery out of selfishness; she wants to become holy so people will pay attention to her. Sister John points out that Sister Miriam is the most self-effacing person in the monastery, which surprises her. Sister Miriam is jealous of Sister John for finding God while they are seeking for him, which embarrasses Sister John. She suggests that she tell Mother Emmanuel.

September 14: Triumph of the Cross: On the 28th anniversary of her coming to the monastery, Sister John prays. She has to tell the nuns her diagnosis the next day. While she prays, she notices the votive candles start flickering and realizes that another headache is on its way. As the Terce service begins, Sister John hopes that the nuns cannot sense her heaviness. As they begin to chant Mass together with Father Aaron, Sister John distinguishes each of the sisters' voices from each other and what each signifies. She sees each voice as a rope woven of many strands together in her mind. When they say in the service, "Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world," Sister John perceives all the voices as a tapestry woven together, stretching across the world and over time. The tapestry lights up and she experiences all over again the intense beauty that makes their flaws and her epilepsy irrelevant.

When she is again conscious, she finds herself lying in the infirmary. Mother Emmanuel is with her, having been told of her condition by Father Aaron. During her vision, Mother Emmanuel tells her, she had been wandering around the choir talking about how beautiful the view was, everything was, and she asks Sister John if she had considered how the view looked to the rest of them. She tells Sister John to stay in the infirmary and rest.

Sister John is restless. How best should she manage this? She will go to her cell at the first signs of a headache and will be more careful, so she doesn't disturb her sisters again. But what if the seizures increase or worsen? What if she can't do her duties? When does the inconvenience she is causing others become the reason for her to question if this is God's will after all?

Doubt is a part of life St. Teresa had experienced as well, but Sister John feels like she is being torn apart. She can't face losing God again, but is her pursuit of God for its own sake, or to know personal happiness?

Later that night, Sister John is listening to the Sisters chanting the Night Office. On Saturday nights, they also chant the Miserere, an ancient psalm of repentance, and undergo flagellation in penance. After she hears the nuns leave the choir, Sister John slips out to the choir, where she intends to hold vigil until she had made her decision about what to do. She remembers how the disciples had failed Jesus during his hour of trial by falling asleep. When she feels herself falling asleep in spite of herself, she feels a hand on her shoulder - Mother Mary Joseph was watching with her. Encouraged, they both keep watch together. After an hour, Mother Mary Joseph leaves but returns with all the other nuns with her. In one of the most touching scenes of the book, they keep watch with her, signifying that even though she may feel lost, she is not alone.

That gets Sister John to consider how her seizures were a burden on her sisters. For their sake, she decides to take the tumor out --an honorable decision, if not a spiritual one. She rises, bows to them, and then walks back to the infirmary.


September 9, 1997: Peter Claver, Priest: This section alludes to Fyodor Dostoevsky, a 1800s Russian novelist who most probably had the same type of epilepsy Sister John did. Dostoevsky was famous for writing deeply philosophical novels, often with characters that had epilepsy having some sort of visions.

September 12: Thirteenth Friday in Ordinary Time: We get a bit of a humorous interlude in the characterization of Father Aaron, with Salzman using metaphor and simile to great effect. Though Father Aaron is described as being slightly patronizing toward female religious, Salzman softens it immeasurably through descriptors like the way he whistles through his nose as he breathes.

September 13: John Chrysostom, Bishop and Doctor: As Sister John struggles through her dilemma, she mildly ironically reveals the depth and immensity of her love for God. By praying through, thinking about what Father John has told her, and sincerely asking herself if her faith had been more selfish than she thought, she lives out her vocation to the monastery.

September 14: Triumph of the Cross: Though this chapter is the climax to the novel, in some ways it is a bit anticlimactic. Sister John gets no grand revelation from God about what she should do--she gets one final vision wherein she sees all her sisters, past, present, and future as one great tapestry interwoven. Yet on the other hand, even that vision contains some foreshadowing of her choice: it includes the entire community of contemplatives throughout history. When she makes her decision--quietly, without fanfare or search for praise, in keeping with her vows--it is the good of the community that finally wins out.