"Lying Awake"

An excerpt from one of Salon's 10 favorite books of 2000.


Mark Salzman
December 18, 2000 10:41PM (UTC)

Sister John looked to the crucifix over the door for encouragement, but instead saw a rebuke. Now that the brilliance of her seizure had faded, doubt lost its shadow-appearance and became solid again. The horizon between reality and illusion -- between the spiritual and the material, between faith and self-interest, between love and self-love -- vanished.

Too restless to stay in bed but forbidden to leave the infirmary, she pulled a chair up to the window and stared out at the garden. I must stay calm, she thought. As long as I'm more careful from now on, and go to my cell as soon as I feel a headache coming, I won't disturb the others again. It will mean more absences from choir, but quality of time given to God is what counts, not quantity. What if the seizures become more frequent, or more severe? What if I'm not able to work in the kitchen, or answer the Turn, or do my share of cleaning? How much inconvenience am I willing to impose on the others before wondering if this is really God's will after all?

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Pineapple sage grew at the base of the fountain. The narrow crimson blossoms reminded her of the wounds on Christ's body.

Doubt is inevitable, she told herself. Saint Teresa of Avila was tormented by doubts right up until the end of her life, but she did not give in. She knew that it was better to have a dream, and pay a price for it, than to be lukewarm. Sometimes the price of following a dream includes confusion. In her diaries, Teresa often wrote, "I didn't know what to do."

Sister John thought: I can't bear the thought of going back to who I was before. I prayed and scrubbed and went though the motions with no feeling of love, only a will to keep busy. If the surgery were to take my dream away, everything I've gone through up to now would seem meaningless. I wouldn't even be able to draw inspiration from the memory of it; I couldn't face the desert again, not this late in my life.

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But what is my dream? Is it really to know God, or is it to know personal happiness? Didn't Teresa also warn that the price of following a dream includes painful setback, even having to start all over again? Sometimes it means facing things that we think we can't face, to learn the depth of God's mystery and of our need for faith.

My God, I feel as if I am being torn apart.

-- From "Lying Awake" by Mark Salzman. ) 2000 Mark Salzman. Used by permission, all rights reserved

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