Lying Awake

Lying Awake Summary and Analysis of September 14, 1969: The Call


September 14: Triumph of the Cross: This major flashback deals with Helen's arrival at the advent. It opens with the driver carrying her suitcase to the door and refusing to charge her for the ride in case she changed her mind. As the cab pulls away, she looks at the world one last time, then rang the bell. She tells Mother Mary Joseph on the other side of the door that she seeks to love God with all her heart. Once in, the nun welcomes her with a crucifix and a blessing. She leads Helen through the Blessed Sacrament and introduces her to Sister Teresa, who is Helen's novice mistress. Sister Teresa then takes Sister Helen to her cell, shows her things to her, and tells her she will return in an hour to lead her to the reception ceremony. Unpacking and changing into her postulant's outfit takes only a few minutes. Helen tries to use the time to meditate, but finds it nearly impossible.

Instead, she remembers things from her childhood. Helen particularly remembers the nuns at her old Catholic schools: their magic pockets, their habits like houses, and the reverence toward religious vocations they tried to inculcate in the children. Though Helen participated in things like collecting holy cards and marveling at the lives of martyrs, she found herself getting distracted from the miracle of God's presence in everyday life, at least until she met Sister Priscilla. Sister Priscilla was a new teacher at the school. At first, Helen disliked her because she was tough on the girls in gym class and assigned more homework. One day when the girls were running around the school to warm up, the other girls made fun of Helen's running. So Helen stopped running. When Sister Priscilla saw it, she asked her why. When the other girls giggled at Helen's statement that she was not good at it, Sister Priscilla reprimands them and tells Helen that we are only good at things with God's help, but we have to make an effort. She sends Helen to run again. Helen, completely humiliated, cries once she is out of sight of her classmates. Seeing a bird flying through reeds effortlessly, she thinks that if she could do that, she would poke out everyone's eyes and get away with it. But guilt over the thought sends her running again. When she comes to a stop in front of Sister Priscilla, she throws up from the effort.

Sister Priscilla redefined what Helen thought it meant to be alive. Sister Priscilla seemed to be aware of life and living it as it happened, rather than waiting for life to begin. It made her actions beautiful and sacramental, even while she made faith seem like an everyday, common sense thing. Sister Priscilla shares the story of how one year her parents gave her an Italian language primer for Christmas after she had begged them for a trip to Italy to see the Coliseum. Though she was heartbroken, she took the lessons. When she did go, her enjoyment was much greater since she could understand the language. As a child, the book was a disappointment. As an adult, the nun saw it as a wise and loving choice. She uses her experience as an object lesson, asking her students what lessons they might derive from the experience. When none of them answer, she restates the question, asking them how bad things could possibly be for good. It's a rhetorical question; no one can answer it, she tells them, and reminds them that next to the Creator, we are merely children. Even though we might not understand the reason for things, God does.

Sister Teresa returns to take Helen to the garden. The nun explains to Helen some of their customary greetings and, recognizing Helen's awkwardness, encourages her. She tells her that they all feel like impostors when they first get there, putting on their habits and calling each other Sister. She tells Helen just to act like a nun should, and soon enough through love and grace she'll become one. They then walk to the garden, where Helen meets the other nuns. Sister Elizabeth gives Helen a copy of The Interior Castle, by St. Teresa of Avila. Sister Emmanuel, the infirmarian, gives her a bouquet of wildflowers. Sister Elizabeth and Sister Emmanuel crack jokes about giving work to each other. One unnamed sister takes Helen's hands in her own and squeezes them gently, but doesn't say a word. Sister Anne is the sternest one, making her blessing sound like an admonishment. After introductions, they begin the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross. The prioress gives a short statement on how life in the monastery is not about escaping the cross but rather experiencing how it carries them.

Afterward they go to manual labor period. Helen follows Sister Teresa to the kitchen. They pass Sister Anne, ironing in the sacristy, and Sister Teresa explains that Sacristan is the most demanding assignment - one that Sister Anne is particularly suited to. Together, Sister Teresa and Helen make the soup for dinner. The colander reminds Helen of her grandfather's death, and she realizes that his death had actually led her closer to God, not the other way around as she had thought. She remembers watching the Apollo 8 astronauts broadcasting live pictures from orbiting the moon with her grandma one Christmas eve. That night, she dreams of visiting the moon, finding Sister Priscilla there. The next morning, Helen decides to go to 6AM Christmas mass to try to see Sister Priscilla. She goes in before she could change her mind, telling herself that she'd watch the service as if it were a movie (thereby avoiding the need to wrestle with Catholicism.) She spots Sister Priscilla, but finds herself unable to ignore the story of the Cross. It angers her with its unfairness: an absentee father who demands every allegiance from his children--though Sister Priscilla did not seem to find it unfair.

The priest closes by asking people to pray for the astronauts. He tells them that from there, they see it as a ‘good earth’. But a good earth is not a real place. Rather, it's a state of mind that comes from seeing the world from God's perspective. Rather than expecting the world to revolve around us, we need to put God in the center. The view changes completely. Helen is disconcerted and confused by this and tells Sister Priscilla that something happened during Mass. The sister sizes her up and proclaims, "He's after you."

Now the narrative reverts to the end of Sister Helen's first day in the monastery. She is lying in bed, reflecting on the day (which was successful, as she hadn't lost her place or made noise during page turns, and kept tune with the singing). She did not regret leaving the world behind, but she did wonder what cross God had for her to bear - if she could even make it as a nun. She lay awake for hours, both drawn to and frightened by the mystery of God.


Salzman names this section "The Call." Set on the day Helen comes to the monastery in 1969, it nevertheless reveals the events immediately preceding Helen entering the monastery. In it we see Helen as a young girl: insecure, shy, and uncertain of herself as she experiences God calling her to the monastic vocation.

Some background Biblical knowledge is required to understand the significance of events occurring in this section. Basically, the redemption story of the Bible breaks down like this: Jesus is the divine Son of God. Jesus took on the form of a man who was without sin and took the sins of the world on himself through being crucified. Crucifixion was the most painful punishment the Romans could devise. It involved the "criminal" being nailed through his hands and feet onto a wooden cross, hoisted upright, and left until either the asphyxiation from being unable to breathe or the heart giving out kills them. So Jesus died, but rose again from the dead three days later, having won victory over the grave. The idea is that the sins of humanity need punishment, but because Jesus loved us so much he took the punishment on himself. Because he is a perfect, sinless being, death could not hold them. Forty days after he rose again, he ascended up into heaven. This is the source of Helen's distaste for the Cross image she sees during Christmas Mass and the displeasure she experiences at God's absence. That image of the Cross appears constantly throughout the book.

Two other Biblical references are made in this section. The first occurs when Sister Teresa calls Helen's cell the pillar of cloud where God spoke to Moses (p. 75). Exodus, the second book of the Bible, is primarily about Moses, who has an incredible story. The story is set in Egypt during the time of pharaohs. One pharaoh was afraid of the Israelites rising up against him and ordered that newborn Israelite boys be put to death to lessen their numbers. Moses' mother put baby Moses into a basket and sent him floating down the Nile, where he was found by Pharaoh's daughter and raised as her own as a Prince of Egypt. Later, Moses flees Egypt after killing a slave driver who was abusing the Israelites. Eventually, God chooses Moses to be the one to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, which he does. As they flee, they follow God, who manifests himself as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.

The second Biblical reference is made when Sister Teresa likens Sister Anne to Martha, who worked so her sister Mary could sit and listen to Jesus (though that's not quite how it's written in the Bible!). In Luke 10, Jesus comes to the house of two women named Martha and Mary. Mary chooses to sit at Jesus' feet and listen to him while Martha burdens herself with a lot of serving. Eventually, she gets exasperated with her sister's absence and asks Jesus to tell Mary to help her. Jesus gently says that Mary has chosen what cannot be taken away from her, while Martha is troubled and anxious. But Salzman's characterization of Martha as the hardworking one is apt.

Finally, we experience more foreshadowing in the story of Helen's first major interaction with Sister Priscilla. When Sister Priscilla makes Helen run around the school again to show God what she's “made of," Helen rebels at first - but the wicked thought of wanting to pluck everyone's eyes and get away with it spurs her conscience again. She resumes running the race, harder than ever, until she stops and throws up in front of Sister Priscilla. In the same way, Helen experiences a crisis of faith/conscience when she gets word of the tumor. She questions everything for a while but recommits to running the race with everything she's got, to following God's will wherever it takes her. Just as she finished running around the school for Sister Priscilla, we can be certain her faithfulness will win her the race.