The Agony and the Ecstasy

Are moments of religious transcendence illumination or illness?
Mark Salzman (BR ’82) probes this question in his most recent
novel, Lying Awake, and, to his credit, does not answer
it. Setting his novel at the crossroads of mysticism and medicine,
Salzman refrains from both sermonizing and diagnosing, instead
offering his readers a poetic meditation on faith, science, and
art.
Sister John of the Cross has lived in a Carmelite monastery outside
Los Angeles for 28 years. As we learn from a series of flashbacks,
Sister John’s spiritual life was arid until three years ago,
when she began to experience dazzling visions. In the first chapter,
as she empties her washbasin, we witness one of these transcendent
moments: "Pure awareness stripped her of everything. She
became an ember carried upward by the heat of an invisible flame
. . . until the vacuum sucked the feeble light out of her. A
darkness so pure it glistened, then out of that darkness, nova."
These luminous visions inspire a book of poetry, which earns
Sister John international acclaim, an invitation to the Vatican,
and enough money to replace the monastery roof.
But with the visions come piercing headaches, which Salzman also
captures in acute prose: "Her mind fractured under the pressure.
She splintered like broken glass, she became all edges and points."
When her headaches grow more frequent and severe, Sister John’s
Mother Superior sends her to a doctor, who diagnoses her with
an epileptic disorder. He explains that this condition can draw
one into an altered world, create an obsessive interest in religion
and philosophy, and bring about artistic effusions. But, the
doctor assures her, there’s good news: The growth that causes
her seizures is in an excellent position for removal, and once
it’s dislodged, Sister John will be "as good as new."
This promise of modern medicine is at best a mixed blessing
for Sister John. She weighs two distressing options: She can
have the growth removed and risk losing her divine visions; or
she can forego surgery, knowing that her assurances of God’s
grace may be the mere symptoms of illness. She responds to the
doctor’s diagnosis with a simple and heartfelt plea, uttered
in the intimate voice of prayer that permeates the novel: "Please,
God, take anything, take my life . . . but don’t take Yourself
away from me, don’t tell me I haven’t known You at all."

Sister John’s spiritual crisis raises profound, if hardly original,
questions: Does mental illness preclude genuine transcendence?
Is religious experience a response to external realities or merely
the chemical activity of the brain? Sister John’s musings later
in the novel imbue these questions with a wistful humor as she
wonders whether a doctor would translate all monastic experience
"into the language of pathology[.] The ideal of continual
prayer: hyperreligiosity. The choice to live as a celibate: hyposexuality.
Control of the will through control of the body, achieved through
regular fasting: anorexia."
The author’s contribution, then, is not to raise new questions,
for Sister John’s religious struggle echoes centuries of philosophical
debate, but rather to situate imposing, age-old quandaries in
a deeply humane, yet simply human, story. Salzman, who considers
himself an agnostic, handles Sister John’s religious faith in
such a tender way that one can’t help but feel he is drawing
on his own artistic experiences. Indeed, he considers the nature
of artistic genius in the novel: An article that the doctor gives
Sister John to explain her condition speculates that Dostoevsky,
Van Gogh, Tennyson, and Proust all suffered from temporal-lobe
epilepsy. Sister John wonders, "If Dostoevsky had been given
the option of treatment . . . would he have taken it? Should
he have?"
Lying Awake also bears a striking connection to one of Salzman’s
earlier novels, The Soloist. Written nearly ten years ago, the
novel describes a cellist’s struggle to achieve perfect pitch
and is moderately autobiographical-an October article in The
New Yorker reported that Salzman entered Yale as a music major
but gave up the cello after he saw Yo-Yo Ma play and realized
he would never share his passion for the instrument. The Soloist
begins: "This morning I read an article suggesting that
Saint Theresa of Avila, a sixteenth-century Spanish mystic noted
for her ecstatic visions, suffered from a neurological disorder
known to cause hallucinations."
So, it appears, Salzman had been brooding over Sister John’s
dilemma long before he brought her character into being-his protagonist’s
spiritual crisis seems to bear an affinity not only to his own
musical struggles but also to his literary struggles. Lying Awake
emerged from nearly six years of self-doubt, and Salzman completed
the novel only after retreating to a writer’s colony, where,
as he told The New Yorker, "I was in a community of people
who seemed dedicated to art almost like a sacred pursuit. And
the irony was not lost on me that I was now living essentially
like a Carmelite nun."
Perhaps this proximity of religious and artistic yearning underlies
Salzman’s ability to move even the most skeptical of readers.
To be sure, Salzman periodically stumbles into clichés,
especially when describing Sister John’s visions; of one epiphany,
he writes, "[e]very moment, every breath was poetry."
And some of his descriptions-Sister John falling "upward
into brilliance," for example-are too strenuously lyric.
Perhaps Salzman should not have tried to express the inexpressible,
for he does much better with yearning than fulfillment, with
doubt than with certainty.
But these shortcomings do not significantly detract from his
spare, lyric novel. Salzman makes Sister John’s character compelling
and her struggle with faith poignant, not sanctimonious. This
balanced treatment of the story’s protagonist finds a formal
counterpart in Salzman’s narrative style: He intersperses a prose
plot with poetic gestures of prayer, so that readers are at once
a part of Sister John’s outside world and her innermost thoughts.

The greatest achievements of Lying Awake are the humility and
attention to detail that animate the novel. Salzman writes about
daily life in the monastery, rather than focusing on extraordinary
events. In fact, it is not the religious moments, in any traditional
sense, that are most touching, but rather the more mundane struggles
of women who have chosen to give up "television, radios,
newspapers, movies, fashion, [and] men" to commune with
an impalpable God.
Salzman writes that in "the spiritual life, individual success
often came at the expense of community harmony," and rather
than gloss over the human emotions and relationships of the sisters,
he records both the secular and the deeply religious aspects
of life at the monastery. For example, the sisters discuss breakfast
juices with both religious conviction and personal preference,
and they feel a mix of awe and envy when Sister John achieves
poetic fame. The everyday motions of the sisters convince readers
not only of their faith, but also their individuality. These
are not cookie-cutter nuns.
Sister John’s interactions with her doctor are also compelling,
because Salzman sucessfully resists caricaturing either individual.
The doctor is not a mere representative of secular modernity,
nor is Sister John a two-dimensional embodiment of piety. Although
they often speak to each other on seemingly separate planes of
existence-her "Peace be with you, Doctor" receives
an empty "Have a great day" in response-the smaller
moments of connection between them reveal Salzman’s fine characterization
and the judiciousness of his novel. Near the end of the novel,
the doctor turns to discard a pair of surgical scissors he has
used only once, and Sister John asks if she can have it for the
monastery. During her next visit, he gives her a box full of
scissors. This moment could easily become sentimental and contrived,
but the doctor’s comment, "Now you and your Sisters won’t
have to fight over that other one," reflects both his professionalism
and his nervous compassion.
Ultimately, it is the daily life of the monastery and the sisters’
interactions with the outside world that impress the reader with
genuine spirituality. And it is the poised balance Salzman maintains
between faith and science throughout the novel that makes this
meditation succeed in its contemplation of two seemingly irreconcilable
creeds.

 

Jessica Bulman, a junior in Berkeley
College, is a managing editor of
TNJ

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