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Lying Awake

3.8  ·  Rating Details ·  2,234 Ratings  ·  356 Reviews
In a Carmelite monastery on the outskirts of Los Angeles, life has continued virtually unchanged for centuries. Here, Sister John of the Cross lives in the service of God. She is the only nun who experiences visions and is regarded by the others as a spiritual master. But Sister John's is also plagued by powerful headaches and when a doctor reveals that they may be ...more
Paperback, 181 pages
Published 2003 by Bloomsbury Publishing (first published 2000)
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Sep 06, 2011 Sarah rated it it was amazing
Sister John is a Carmelite nun who, after years of dedicated service, begins to experience visions of the divine in ecstatic, crystalline clarity. But these visions are accompanied by terrible headaches, and Sister John is encouraged to seek medical attention. When told by a neurologist that her experiences are likely the result of (curable) epileptic seizures, Sister John is forced to rethink everything she knows about spiritual life.

On the surface, this seems like a(nother) religion vs. scienc
May 22, 2016 booklady rated it it was amazing
Recommended to booklady by: Secretum Meum Mihi
Have you ever longed to know God? I mean really know Him, feel close to Him, sense His presence within or near you?

Sister John of the Cross, a cloistered Carmelite of middle age, waited for many dry years to know her Bridegroom. Then a few years ago she started having migraine-like headaches. With the onset of the headaches, she became able to engage in deep meditation and began having Divine encounters, which led to a best-selling book and notoriety for her convent just outside Los Angeles.

May 13, 2008 Jeana rated it really liked it
Shelves: good-fiction
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Dec 08, 2007 Anna rated it really liked it
What a beautifully written book, written with such respect and curiosity for the monastic experience!

Basically, it is about a Carmelite Sister who learns that her religious visions (and migraines) might come from a small benign braintumor, and will she take it out, and risk loosing these visions?

I was afraid that it might be one of those science vs religion, easy-answers books, but it wasn't. It is a beautiful story about faith, doubt and everything in between.

My life couldn't be farther away f
Aug 12, 2009 Marvin rated it it was amazing
Shelves: religion
A wise, gentle book with a very different feel from Salzman's earlier book, The Soloist. It is unashamedly filled with religious language, rendered faithfully and sympathetically. We really feel like we get inside the religious struggle of a longtime nun--and do so, miraculously, without psychologizing. This nun, who struggles for 25 years to know God, finally has a spiritual breakthrough just as she develops severe headaches that turn out to be caused by mild epileptic seizures. Does this mean ...more
Jul 01, 2012 Judy rated it really liked it
Shelves: my-2012-books
[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.] - Goodreads

This book languished on my bookshelf for several years before I finally got around to reading it. It's a thought-provoking story about a nun in a very small cloister of Carmelite nuns in Los Angeles. Nearly all of the story takes place within these walls. Sister John has been here as a nun for many years, and yet
Dec 11, 2013 Alicia rated it it was amazing
Shelves: the-stack
Beautifully written, sensitive. Don't be misled by the setting, this story is not about the monastery, a nun's habit, or migraines. I won't spoil it for you, I'll let you discover the story for yourself. Half way through tears ran down my cheeks, were they for a fictitious character in a novel? pg. 170, "If I serve Thee in hopes of Paradise, deny me Paradise. If I serve Thee in fear of hell, condemn me to hell. But if I love Thee for love of Thyself, then grant me Thyself." I believe this was ...more
Jul 10, 2008 Keleigh rated it liked it
Salzman's writing is quiet and precise, as unobtrusive as a nun's rustling skirts. It went a little slow at first, but gradually I grew accustomed to the slow and meditative pace, and became entirely engaged in the cloistered life of his characters. Sister John of the Cross faces a stark predicament involving a health condition, a form of epilepsy that produces rapturous mental states--a phenomenon shared by Dostoevsky, who described it in 3rd person in The Idiot:

"He remembered that he always ha
Sherry (sethurner)
Mar 22, 2011 Sherry (sethurner) rated it really liked it
"Sister John of the Cross pushed her blanket aside, dropped to her knees on the floor of the cell, and offered the day to God."

I'm not sure why, being raised Protestant, I wanted to read this slim novel, but I did. Perhaps I was curious about the daily life of a cloistered Catholic nun, or perhaps it was simply that I enjoyed Salzman's other books. I enjoyed this one too. Sister John is an interesting person, not at all certain of either her faith or her vocational choice. After years in the con
Mar 14, 2008 Happyreader rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Happyreader by: Celia Pastoriza
Shelves: spirituality, fiction
A humane portrayal of the struggle to connect to something beyond oneself. A central question posed by this book is what makes a spiritual life worthwhile. Are positive religous states beneficial or addictive? As the priest says in response to Sister John's fears about losing her mystical experiences: "The problem is, you're still looking out for number one." Contrast that to the doctor's confession about almost quitting medicine during his first year of residency because he realized he had ...more
Jenny (Reading Envy)
Lying Awake is a Carmelite Nun's journey through ecstatic conversation with God and a decision about her health that is likely to remove that closeness from her life. The writing itself is sparse and internal, very much like the inner life I imagine a nun to have. Beautiful and kept me up reading late into the night.
Feb 02, 2010 K rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: people who are interested in questions of spirituality
Sister John is a nun who, having struggled with doubt and disillusionment for years, is finally reaching the spiritual heights she envisioned when she first joined the convent. She is an inspiration to those around her, writing prolific devotional poetry to critical acclaim. When a neurological explanation for her newfound spirituality comes to light, everything is suddenly cast into doubt and she struggles with the dilemma of whether to relinquish her gift and have the brain surgery her doctor ...more
Stephen Gallup
Jan 09, 2011 Stephen Gallup rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was a good one to read on the heels of The Power and The Glory , which I finished a couple weeks ago. Both novels concern hypervigilant, self-critical souls questing for God and unable to take comfort in potential signs of having made progress.

Salzman's character is a cloistered nun who for almost 30 years has devoted herself to chanting liturgies, meditating, and writing poetry about the soul's aspiration. She has now begun having severe headaches, which she almost welcomes as a small por
La Tonya  Jordan
Jan 25, 2015 La Tonya Jordan rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Everybod
Recommended to La Tonya by: Cover to Cover Book Club
Shelves: favorites
This was an excellent and awesome novel. It revealed the soul of Sister John of the Cross. She thought her main purpose in live as a cloistered nun was to get as close to God as humanly possibly. It was only going through her illness of epilepsy she realized all God requires of us is our obedience and for us to continue to do his will. She lived a contemplative life for approximately twenty-five years and continued in this journey as a novice mistress at the end of the novel.

The book showed a si
Rachel Wagner
Jun 10, 2009 Rachel Wagner rated it it was amazing
One of the best books I have read in a long time. I LOVED IT. The story revolves around a nun who comes from a troubled home. As a child she clings to the nuns at school and decides to become one. (Btw this is not the cruel or goofy depiction of nuns we often see. They are good, holy women). As an adult she begins having violent visions of God where she feels compelled to write about what she has seen. To help others she publishes her writings, and they become popular. Unfortunately she finds ...more
Mar 07, 2011 Asya rated it really liked it
A gorgeous prose poem, a companion piece to the devotional/passionate/erotic poetry of the Beguines, St. John of the Cross, the testaments of all the mystics, medieval to modern, who have balanced sense and ecstasy and tried to make it a narrative and a life, put it into words, make it a daily experience you could live with. I found Sister John believable, human, and hard to pinpoint - traumatized girl, fat girl, mystic, middle aged woman, epilepsy victim, aging nun. For me, Salzman's narrative ...more
Mar 27, 2011 Marialyce rated it really liked it
Shelves: march-2011
What happens to your faith and your closeness to God when you find out that this closeness might be a result of a brain tumor? Do you go ahead and have the operation thinking that this rapture might end? These are the questions one finds portrayed in Lying Awake.

Although quite a short book, this novel packed quite a few things that people have wondered about for ages. Does God exist in our minds and hearts and if so is that enough to get one totally devoted to him? Sister St John of the Cross, i
Aug 29, 2008 K rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a small, simply written book about a current-day Carmelite nun who has passed years in her monastery feeling disconnected from her faith. She begins to have intense spiritual visions and experiences which she believes is the connection to God she has been working towards her whole life. At the same time these hyper-religious experiences are accompanied by severely debilitating pain, headaches and blackouts. She is forced to seek medical treatment and it is revealed that the visions are ...more
Elliot Ratzman
Jul 12, 2013 Elliot Ratzman rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The appeal of the monastic life is evident to those attracted to martial arts and romantic versions of Buddhism. Salzman, whose previous books entailed his concern with things Eastern and Wise, has written a fantastic account of life in a Californian Carmelite convent. Salzman worked in a youth prison while he was struggling with writing this novel. In contrast to the chatter of teen felons in True Notebooks, this novel walks softly through the austere settings and stark schedules of the nuns; y ...more
"Didn't [St.] Teresa also warn that the price of following a dream includes painful setbacks, 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."

Sister John of the Cross is going through her own "dark night of the soul." She sees the world through a kaleidoscopic lens, seeing spirituality in everything. However, she soon learns that her spiritu
Jun 29, 2009 becky rated it liked it
"An absentee father who demands that his children put him at the center of their lives and beg for his return."

this quote sums up how i would feel about being a contemplative nun like sister john. although i wouldn't choose such a lifestyle, Salzman treats this topic with great care and complexity. what i enjoyed about the book are the questions it raised about religious life:

is it selfish to give up your outside life for one of religious devotion?
is a contemplative nun just as worthy as a nun w
Jul 03, 2015 Gillian rated it really liked it
The story of Sister John, who joins the sisterhood of Carmel to know God more deeply. After experiencing a barren period in her spirituality, she begins to have mystical seizures which she believes to be answered prayer and evidence that she is with God after all. However, due to the extreme nature of the seizures and the following migraines, the mother superior insists that she consult a medical doctor, who diagnoses her with epilepsy and suggests a surgical cure. Sister John must now ...more
Jan 30, 2014 Margaret rated it it was amazing
A quiet, reflective book. Sister John of the Cross, a Carmelite nun in a small, closed order in Los Angeles is an inspiration to her fellow nuns for the depth of her devotion. Her debilitating headaches become worse, and in seeking treatent, it becomes clear that the epilepsy which causes her pain may also be the source of her visions. How should she then proceed? Should she seek treatment or not? Salzman treats the women of the convent with delicacy and respect. Nothing could be more alien to ...more
Joanne Baines
Dec 30, 2009 Joanne Baines rated it it was amazing
Shelves: book-club
I am awed by this book and all I could think when I finished it was "perfect". He doesn't need to tell you about the stark precision of the monastery because it's in the style of the prose. He doesn't need to describe the poetry that comes, unbidden, to the protagonist because you experience it at the same time that she does.

It's a simple plot line with a deep underlying question that could have easily been elaborated on or agonized over, but that is the key to the book, it's left to you to do
Nancy (NE)
Oct 13, 2011 Nancy (NE) rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
Sr. John is a cloistered nun who, upon entering the life of a Carmelite, is not finding the spiritual growth and maturity she had expected. She comes from a dysfunctional family, who were probably a strong influence in her choice to become a religious. Years later, she begins to experience visions, powerful meditative states in which she has felt a divine presence, periods of intense creativity and writing, all of which eventually are diagnosed as a form of epilepsy related to a small tumor. Is ...more
Aug 04, 2013 Jessie rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction, spirit
A quiet, gently sparkling book; the cloister of Sister John and the internal nature of the narrative (this nun struggling with the realization that her "kaleidoscope" of spiritual visions come from epilepsy) make me feel somewhat claustrophobic, but also make moments of scene and exchange and breaking-in from the outer world wonderfully startling, as if her way of seeing affects your own and you find yourself listening and watching much more intently. The italicized sections from her life before ...more
Dec 03, 2012 Paula rated it it was amazing
if you like books that take you into the mind and soul of another person, you will enjoy this beautifully written little little gem of a book. It is short, but the characters are fully developed. You will learn about the daily life of a contemporary nun living in a cloister outside of L.A., as well as how the main character, Sister John, struggles with her doubts and faith. This book both inspired and challenged me. I just finished reading it and can't wait to read it again because I'm sure ...more
Wendy Cosin
Apr 13, 2014 Wendy Cosin rated it really liked it
The subject matter of this book - religious faith - is very far from my life, and yet the book pulled me into a version of the peace I imagine people can feel through spirituality. Good choice for bookgroup.

The link below goes to a really good New Yorker article about a performance piece that Salzman did in 2000. In the performance, he plays cello and talks about how Bach's six suites for unaccompanied cello are stories that mirror Lying Awake. Also interesting stuff about him and his struggle t
Celia Pastoriza
Mar 02, 2008 Celia Pastoriza rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A short and beautiful book about a nun who realizes that her holy experiences are the result of a curable epileptic illness. I have always favored books that tackle the big questions. To me this book was about coming to terms with the failure of one's vocation, something I think most adults struggle with, as we accept that our lives look very different than we imagined they would as we made our choices.
Sep 01, 2014 Terry rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction, religion
A spare, even austere, interior novel about a Discalced Camelite nun with an affinity for mystical experiences.- not quite the book I would have expected to be on my list. A trusted friend put a copy in my hands, so I read it. The writing is excellent, spare yet evocative. The setting and content are largely alien to me, but I enjoyed the book without understanding it emotionally.
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Mark Salzman is an award-winning novelist and nonfiction author who has written on a variety of subjects, from a graceful novel about a Carmelite nun’s ecstatic visions and crisis of faith to a compelling memoir about growing up a misfit in a Connecticut suburb – clearly displaying a range that transcends genre. As a boy, all Salzman ever wanted was to be a Kung Fu master, but it was his ...more
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“It's a mean story, Helen fumed. An absentee father who demands that his children put him at the center of their lives and beg for his return. Sister Priscilla didn't think it was mean, apparently. She was so in love with God that she had married him, even though she would not see his face, hear his voice, or feel his embrace for as long as she lived. One of us, Helen, thought is flying blind.” 6 likes
“What if I have it all upside down? What if I'm the one who knows nothing of God, and the people in the world are actually interceding on my behalf with their ordinary daily struggles” 4 likes
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