Recently, I read a beautiful little novel called, “Lying Awake” by Mark Salzman. The novel chronicles the story of Sr. John of the Cross, a Carmelite nun in a community nestled in the hills surrounding contemporary Los Angeles. Sr. John’s spiritual poetry has brought her fame in the world outside the monastery walls; this writing talent surfaced with recurring and increasingly intense mystical spells that leave her unconscious after a fit of voracious spiritual writing. Not long after the novel begins, Sr. John is diagnosed with a form of epilepsy known to result in common symptoms not at all unlike those that have enabled her fame, including tremendous interest in religion and philosophy and rigorous fits of writing.
The good news appears to be that the epilepsy is treatable with a fairly safe surgical procedure. Free of this illness, Sr. John’s community would be free of the burden of worrying about and caring for Sr. John when these trance-like experiences come over her. Yet, assent to such a procedure is in no way simple for Sr. John: while the symptomatic mystical writing has brought her fame, it has also, more importantly, given her a consistent, incredibly intimate experience of God’s presence.
Amid her story, any reader is inevitably confronted by the question she faces: If I were in her position, what would I do? Would I rid myself of these symptoms for the sake of my health and my community—but at the potential cost of losing this feeling of intimacy with God? Or, would I accept ill health for the sake of this mystical life?
When discussing this book with friends, I have often said that I would choose mysticism. So much of our lives are spent seeking clarity about the decisions we make, about the convictions we live by—thus, I can only imagine how liberating it would feel to experience the kind of clarity and peace that would accompany this type of mystical intimacy with God. How could one consciously give that up after experiencing it?
However, one scene from the book made me re-think all that. On the night when Sr. John must make up her decision, she vows to stay up all night, keeping vigil in the monastery chapel until she finds peace with her choice, one way or the other. After a few hours in the darkness and quiet, her sisters, one by one, fill the chapel. Saying nothing, their presence implicitly communicates that they, too, will keep vigil with her until she reaches her decision. And in reading this, it occurred to me: It is very rare that God gives us the type of mystical clarity that Sr. John experienced for so many years. More often, I think, God gives us each other.
Surely, most of us still long for the sky to open and a divine voice to call out how to live and what to think. But a longing for this type of clarity, for this type of conviction, can distract us from the gift of God in our midst—the God embodied in those who sit next to us, in word and in silent, as we discern all those small decisions that make up a lifetime. Would I exchange that for mysticism? Well, maybe—I’ve never experienced the sort of thing that Sr. John did. But, when I recall the many nights when people have kept vigil with me—around dinner tables, on long walks, over drinks at the bar—I can’t imagine trading that for anything. And I can’t imagine that God wasn’t right there, too.