Like love, to which it is often equated, faith is a mystery for the faithless and faithful. Its rewards are not easy. Let ministers of the church exhort the congregation to a higher purpose, but leave it to the poets to describe the darker, more intimate peril.
Mark Salzman is such a poet, capturing in the pages of "Lying Awake," his shining novel about devotion and doubt, a mysticism that reaches back in time to an older tradition, yet dwells easily in the present.
Sister John is a member of the Order of Discalced Carmelites, cloistered nuns whose tradition dates to the 16th century. Their lives are devoted to the salvation of the world, a calling as anachronistic as the tunic and scapular they wear, as out of place as the monastery itself, situated near Elysian Park, near the center of this City of Angels.
Here the days and nights come and go in silent, regimented devotion, private and communal reminders of holy purpose and place. Obedience, chastity and poverty are vowed, privacy renounced.
It is a life of great sacrifice and risk that is both full and empty: At best God is everywhere, or he is nowhere. It is this paradox, this possibility and fear, that lie at the heart of Salzman's story, a story all the more wonderful for its brevity and clarity.
When Sister John entered the order in 1969, the world had stepped into its own madness. She was, at the time, Helen Nye, a young woman whose childhood--abandoned by her mother, raised by her grandparents in rural Ohio--had been marked by such earthly sorrow that her hunger for something, for anything more was palpable. God seemed to answer the call, yet years later, well after pronouncing her perpetual vows, she finds herself stumbling in her faith. A bride of Christ, she stands alone at the altar.
"The farther she traveled inward without finding him, the more aware she became of his absence," an emptiness that slowly drained the liturgy of meaning. Her life had dried to a desert until one day, mysteriously, the rain begins to fall. It starts with something as mundane as a headache, a nagging discomfort like a migraine that grows until the pain is eclipsed by a light, the light--as she comes to understand it--of faith.
"More luminous than any sun, transcending visibility, the flare consumed everything, it lit up all of existence," Salzman writes of one experience. "In this radiance she could see forever, and everywhere she looked, she saw God's love."
Like St. Teresa of Avila, a Carmelite who experienced similar visions four centuries ago, Sister John finds this rapture and the ones that follow all the more joyous and welcome for the years they eluded her. It was like praying "from inside of a kaleidoscope. Everything fit into a design of feeling, a pattern linking all souls and minds together. She felt God's presence in the design, and nothing seemed out of place."
This is the experience of grace, and Salzman, having entered this world so completely, so faithfully, describes it with perfect pitch, granting each moment--and most important, Sister John's understanding of each--its complete due, even as the steely blade of science slowly starts to drop.
Although St. Teresa was inflamed with the love of God--as she wrote that she was--pierced by an angel carrying a golden spear tipped with fire, Sister John's golden spear is a slow-growing tumor in her brain. It is a simple diagnosis that triggers a complex wave of doubt. "If what you have shown me these past three years has all been a mirage, then I am worse off now than I ever was," she fears. "If I lose my sense of you, I lose everything."
The sentiment brings her closer to her namesake, St. John of the Cross, whose "Dark Night," a touchstone of Christian faith for centuries, lies not far from the title of this book. It gives Salzman not only an opportunity to explore the psychology of religious belief and the attendant range of emotion that drives it, but also to puzzle the spiritual or medical origin of spiritual ecstasy.
As Sister John considers her course--surgery is the immediate option--she confronts her pride, and Salzman deepens the implications of his story with pictures of the world around her. "I'm jealous of you," a novice tells her at one point. "How could I not be? How could anybody here not be? We're searching, but you're finding."
Finding God, however, is not Salzman's story, as much as the search for God is. Discipline and unrequited devotion are the challenges whose rewards are all the more elusive by the book's end. "Everything we learn about God leads to deeper mystery," the prioress says toward the end of the story, a simple but encouraging line: When God's love seems but a glimmer in a much vaster darkness, the faithful know that the light is neither receding nor diminishing, and the faithless must be content to live with the darkness around them.
Thomas Curwen is the deputy editor of Book Review.