Lying Awake

Lying Awake During road trips, Brandon and I often take the opportunity to enjoy a book together. I read aloud while he drives, and we get to pause for discussion whenever we want. Our most recent read aloud was Mark Salzman’s Lying Awake , a shorter novel that explores the weighty subject of spiritual longing and relationship.

What if you were a longtime member of a monotheistic religious community and felt perhaps abandoned by God until you began to have mystical experiences that revived his presence in your soul? What if it turned out that those experiences were the result of temporal lobe epilepsy? Might they still have spiritual efficacy, for you or for those who read the books you write about them? What might happen to your faith if medical treatment brings these desirable experiences to an end?

Sister John of the Cross, a cloistered Carmelite nun living in modern-day LA, believes her intense experiences are being used of God to bring her into closer communion with him. Grateful for this unexpected gift and her writing skills, she shares her brilliant insights with the outside world via her acclaimed books. But the headaches that accompany her visions are increasingly debilitating, and when her abbess sends her to a neurologist for testing, she faces a severe crisis of faith.

This is a compassionate and gracefully-rendered story that raises profound questions of both personal and corporate religious experience. Published eight years ago, it is yet relevant to today’s discussions of neurotheology, the rising science exploring the biological aspects of religious belief. And though I’m not qualified to judge its accuracy, I appreciated it as a respectful, intimate portrayal of cloistered life. (Perhaps an experienced reader would care to comment on that?) I recommend it for any book discussion group that can handle religious themes with honesty and humility.

24. July 2008 by Mindy
Categories: Reviews | 3 comments

Comments (3)

  1. Pingback: Gleaned from the Saturday Review at Semicolon

  2. We read this in book club this week. Really good read. Generating a good discussion on what is authentic religious experience. Even though I read “The Echo Maker,” I’m not qualified to comment on those aspects. I did come away overall with a sense of God’s mercy to the main character. And I’m not so sure that even though there was a biological component to her spiritual experience that it makes it any less from God.

  3. Glad you guys chose this one to read together! And I agree that the biological component doesn’t rule it out as a religious experience, any more than people being moved to tears or “feeling” that something is of God rules those out as religious experiences. It does remind us to be careful of what we perceive to be divine direction. But unless we’re gnostics, we have to insist that the physical is bound up in the spiritual, and vice versa.