Brain Disease or Religious Experience? Mark Salzman’s Lying Awake

Brain Disease or Religious Experience? Mark Salzman’s Lying Awake December 16, 2018

What does it mean to feel God’s presence, and how is this related to brain activity? If psychopathology is involved, does this mean it’s not an authentic religious experience? In the age of scientific reductionism, it’s tempting to dismiss mystical experiences as mere abnormal patterns of neural activity. But is mysticism a matter of misfiring neurons, or something more?

In the first post of this series, I reviewed a novel that explores similar questions: Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy. But today, I take up an extraordinary work of a non-Christian author, Mark Salzman. In Lying Awake, Salzman paints a vivid portrait of a woman grappling with the delicate relationship between pathology and mysticism. Unlike Mariette in Ecstasy, the novel is written from the first personal perspective, giving the reader a privileged view into the inner life of the protagonist, Sister John of the Cross.

Named after the famed Spanish mystic and poet of the 16th century, Sister John is a modern-day cloistered Carmelite nun who has spent almost two decades in the Carmel. The majority of that time, Sister John was plagued by spiritual aridity, and suffered her daily tasks and prayers as an enormous burden.

Sister John’s “heart felt squeezed dry. God thirsted, but she had nothing to offer. The Gregorian melodies, sung without harmony sounded like dirges. Her arms ached, her back felt sore, and she was hungry. Each hour in choir was a desert to be crossed on her knees. Mirages of peace simmered and beckoned, only to recede as her spirit approached. There was no shade, no shelter, no water.”

However, when the novel opens, Sister John is in the midst of a period of great intimacy with God. Every once in a while in prayer and at work, Sister John is granted moments of ecstatic mystical experiences. that she is leaving her body and is joined to an unearthly bliss.

The content of her visions varies, but each one is characterized by the feeling of leaving her body and being joined to an unearthly bliss. As a result, she is respected by her sister as a testament to hope in God’s love. Furthermore, each experience is accompanied by an irresistible urge to write. And so, since her visions began three years ago, Sister John has published a collection of essays and poems called Sparrow on a Roof, the financial success of which is a source of security for the convent.

But as the novel proceeds, Sister John suffers from increasingly debilitating migraines, and begins even to lose consciousness. After one particularly severe episode, Sister John awakes in a hospital. There, the doctor tests her with a CT scan and EEG. He diagnoses her with epilepsy, the origin of which is a tumor in the temporal lobe of her cortex. Presumably, Sister John’s “mystical” experiences were episodes of excessive neural firing in this brain region. If this epilepsy progresses, Sister John will face loss of physical function and even death. Starkly secular and insensitive to her spiritual conflict, the doctor reassures her that the tumor can be neatly removed, restoring her to full physical health – but at the cost of her ecstatic visions.

At this point in the story, Sister John is faced with a decision of immense significance: should she undergo the neurosurgery? Her superior, Mother Emmanuel, allows her to make the choice herself, and it will radically reveal her self-understanding and her faith in God.

If her epileptic episodes were the source of her mystical experiences, does that mean they are not actually moments of contact of God? If so, does this mean her vocation and faith are meaningless? Has Sister John been living in spiritual aridity, only assuaged by a false – and even pathological – comfort? Or is God asking her to sacrifice her physical health for Him? If she chooses to undergo the surgery, will this place an insurmountable barrier to intimacy with God, or will it merely strip away a mask that shrouds the subtle whispers of His true love for her?

As Sister John enters into these questions, she is brought face-to-face with darker aspects of her history. Her abandonment by her mother. Her sense of alienation. The brokenness of her family. And now, Sister John struggles to understand her predicament in terms of its effects on her religious sisters, who benefitted so greatly from her visions but are deluded by her diagnosis. In the end, Sister John comes to the conclusion she should have the tumor removed.

As Sister John grapples with her decision, she accompanies a young novice who has recently arrived at the Carmel. Though she initially experiences jealousy of the novice’s loving family, Sister John ultimately engages her with compassion and faith. As such, it seems that Sister John has reconciled her experiences with her faith, and that she remains steadfast in hopes in the love of God.

In the end, the haunting questions Salzman raises are left open. Is Sister John’s period of mysticism devoid of truth? Is she the same self who experienced such intimacy with God? What is the relationship between intimacy with God and illness?

This book is a must-read for anyone willing to grapple with these questions.

Further reading recommendations

In Lying Awake, Salzman relies heavily on the long tradition of Christian mystics, perhaps most clearly St. John of the Cross and Meister Eckhart.

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