Sunday, February 3, 2013

I hear god's voice: symptom or calling? (Books - Lying Awake by Mark Salzman)

Sister John of the Cross is a nun, a member of an order that despite being located smack in the middle of Los Angeles, devotes itself to prayer and contemplation as Carmelite orders do.  After her initial calling, she spends her life in service to the church, but never really feels the touch of god.  She goes through years of patient, unremarkable service and then, finally, ecstasy is rained down on her.  She feels the presence of her god, and begins prolifically writing poems, but at the same time, she experiences violent headaches.  Sister John is finally diagnosed with temporal-lobe epilepsy as the result of a meningioma and given the option of surgery to relieve her debilitating headaches and seizures. Generally, with this type of epilepsy, the seizure activity does not manifest itself in full-body convulsions and the frothing at the mouth that are commonly associated with epilepsy.  The symptoms here are more psychological in nature.  They can include mystical hallucinations and prolific writing such as that seen in Sister John.  In fact, there are those who attribute St. Teresa of Avila's visions to temporal-lobe epilepsy.  The meat of Mark Salzman's short, interior novel Lying Awake (Vintage, 2000), itself an act of contemplation, is Sister John wrestling with the decision of whether to take this treatment available for her pain and risk losing the sense that she is finally graced with the presence of god or whether to stay as she is.

Does the surgery serve Sister John or does it serve god?  Is opting for the surgery a rejection of god? If her mystical experience was due to epilepsy, does that mean that it is was not due to god and that, therefore, her faith is fake? Science is not the opposite of religion, it demands different criteria. Science tests evidence, but faith asks you to reach only one conclusion, with or without evidence.  The problem is, even in such a circumscribed life, it is not always clear what behavior serves god. Sister John sits in this either-or outlook for a while: god or epilepsy. I guess such a construct allows the outcome to have certain meaning.  But, thankfully, this novel is not so simple-minded as to stay there. It is Salzman's accomplishment to put us convincingly inside the doubtful mind of a sixty-something nun as she struggles to reach a decision.  Salzman does not make the order a dour and untouchably holy place.  He reveals the people behind the wimples.
A nun who appeared to be in her late thirties introduced herself as Sister Elizabeth, then presented Helen with a copy of The Interior Castle, Saint Teresa of Avila's spiritual masterpiece.  Sister Christine, a nun about the same age, leaned in and stage-whispered, "She's giving it to you so someone will finally tell her what's in it."

Sister Elizabeth shooed her away.  "Do we have to let the new girl see what we're like so soon?'

A middle-aged nun with the bluest eyes Helen had ever seen handed her a bouquet of wildflowers and said, "Welcome to God's hidden garden.  I am Sister Emmanuel."

"She's our infirmarian, "  Sister Elizabeth explained, "and I'm the refectorian.  She's very good at her job, which I take credit for, because I'm so bad at mine.  I give her plenty of cases to learn from."

"That's not true!"  Sister Emmanuel protested.  "Only that one time, really."  Several of the nuns laughed out loud when they heard this, leading one of them to warn, "If we don't pipe down, the neighbors might call the police."
The humor humanized this order for me, which was helpful to spending so much time inside the head of one its members without feeling like the story had nothing to do with me.  Although, there were times these scenes seemed like something right out of The Sound of Music. I wondered if Julie Andrews would appear and they would all break into a chorus of How do you solve a problem like Maria?


Unknown said...

I find questions like the one this book asks interesting, though I already know the answer I would give. It is a symptom of our age that when we look at religious ecstacy we immediately seek out a medical diagnosis to explain it.

I think it was Teresa of Avila who said that there is no way to determine who sends the visions, God or Satan. I wonder if any of the nuns bring this issue up.

Ron Hansens wonderful novel Mariette in Ecstacy deals with a similar storyline.

Sheila O'Malley said...

Fascinating!! I come from a family of Benedictine nuns (two of my great-aunts were in the order) and I can certainly attest to the awesome-ness of nuns - not a dour one in the bunch I've met. My Great-Aunt Joan speaks Latin, ancient Greek, and is one of the authorities on classical literature in this country (to this day). She drove to Chicago to see me in DEATH IN THE FAMILY and went out for beers with me afterwards in a sports bar. 75 year old nun. Brill. I just got an email from her: "So tell me more about your Elvis Presley project." hahaha

Anyway, this sounds really interesting, Ted, and I loved the excerpt.

Ted said...

CB - Well I guess that there is a way IF faith is what drives your sense of meaning, because the way to determine it, then, is to believe it. But it is the richness of this story that faith is not simple, even for a nun. I'd think you would like this one, CB.

Sheila - I thought of you when I read this. I think you would find plenty to think about in this book and, also, I can see you writing a similar portrait in that it seems almost a cross of reportage and acting.

Criticlasm said...

This sounds fascinating. I read his memoir recently about his dark night of the soul, which I quite liked. I'd like to read some of his fictions.

I'm also reading Oliver Sachs' book "Hallucinations", and I'm really intrigued by where these things originate in the brain (or depending on faith, whether that's where they originate). There's a theory about St. Joan having epilepsy as well, since her visions coincide with those symptoms as well. Sounds like a fascinating, thoughtful book.

Ted said...

Hey Cc, long time... I read his firt book, but nothing since. I have Oliver Sacks latest on the pile, but my reading is being curtailed by work on my dissertation.