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Lying Awake Paperback – October 9, 2001
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About this book - Mark Salzman's Lying Awake is a finely wrought gem that plumbs the depths of one woman's soul, and in so doing raises salient questions about the power-and price-of faith. Sister John's cloistered life of peace and prayer has been electrified by ever more frequent visions of God's radiance, leading her toward a deep religious ecstasy. Her life and writings have become examples of devotion. Yet her visions are accompanied by shattering headaches that compel Sister John to seek medical help. When her doctor tells her an illness may be responsible for her gift, Sister John faces a wrenching choice: to risk her intimate glimpses of the divine in favor of a cure, or to continue her visions with the knowledge that they might be false-and might even cost her her life. Mark Salzman is the author of Iron & Silk, an account of his two years in China; Lost in Place, a memoir; and the novels The Laughing Sutra, The Soloist, and Lying Awake. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, the filmmaker Jessica Yu, and their daughter, Ava.
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The story is set in modern day Los Angeles and chronicles the life of a Carmelite Nun who has recently experienced ecstasies which are unexplained until it is discovered that her "migraines" (which preceed the light) are in fact the result of a condition known as "temporal-lobe epilepsy." She has become a copious poet and writer, even publishing a book that has benefitted her Convent. The other sister's are in awe of her connection to God!
"...she learned that temporal-lobe epilepsy sometimes caused changes in behavior even when the patient was not having seizures. The changes included hypergraphia (voluminous writng), an intensification but also a narrowing of emotional response, and an obdsessive interest in religion and philosophy. The novelist Dostoevsky, who was epileptic, followed this model so closely that the syndrome was eventually named after him," (pg 120)
"There are moments," Dostoevsky wrote, "and it is only a matter of five or six seconds, when you feel the presence of the eternal harmony...a terrible thing is the frightful clearness with which it manifests itself and the rapture with which it fills you. If this state were to last more than five seconds, the soul could not endure it and would have to disappear. During these five seconds I live a whole human existence, and for that I would give my whole life and not think that I was paying too dearly...."
Others mentioned that were speculated to have this condition were Van Gogh, Tennyson, Proust, Socrates, St. Paul and St. Teresa of Avila.
The central question in the novel centers around having an operation to remove a small meningioma behind her right ear which would stop the progression of the disorder....but take away the high spirtual ectasies that she feels God blessed her with.
I won't give away her ultimate decision, because some of you may wish to read it ...it's a very fast read., but rich with faith and hope
She struggles with the realities of how to manage a health care decision that may greatly affect the way that she views and lives the life that she has chosen. This illness that at the begining of the story seems quite vague, becomes much more clear as the story of her life in the convent unfolds and is woven throughout the story of her group and community within the sisters. It is through and with this close group of religeous women that she is able to reach a decision to deal with a serious and very difficult health care choice.
The outcomes were interesting and worth staying up late into the night to discover.
Overall a very interesting and thoughtful book. It gave me more than a few moments of pause related to my own work in healthcare.