Book Reviews: Lying Awake and Do Not Go Gentle

Two books are featured, one memoir and one novel, both of which confront us with miracles. In the memoir, a woman seeks a miracle.

In the novel, another woman considers whether to let go of one.

Both take us to the mysterious place where the physical and the spiritual intersect, surprising us and leaving us with questions, the most important of which is, of course, “What shall we believe?”

Lying Awake is the novel, a short, lyrical piece of fiction by Mark Salzman. The central character is Sister John of the Cross, a Discalced Carmelite religious living in cloister outside Los Angeles.

Sister John had entered the convent twenty years before the primary events of the novel occur, and most of those years had been characterized by a discouraging spiritual dryness.

Until, in middle age, Sister John began experiencing episodes of stunning clarity of vision and an almost indescribable intimacy with God.

Almost indescribable, but not completely, for Sister John’s mystical experiences are accompanied by an urge to write, and write she does – poetry that has sold well and has, in part, helped keep the tiny convent nestled in the Southern California hills financially afloat.

As time progresses though, it becomes evident that all is not well – Sister John’s mystical flights are accompanied by increasingly serious headaches and blackout periods. A medical diagnosis confirms the problem: temporal-lobe epilepsy that can easily be cured by surgery.

The question then becomes, what will Sister John do? If she accepts the surgery, the mild seizures and accompanying transformations of perception will leave her, but if she rejects it, her health will deteriorate and she will become a burden to her community.

Don’t be mistaken – this book does not, by any means, present a materialist rationalization for spiritual experience. Salzman, through the character of Sister John, digs deeply into the question of the complexity of God’s grace and our response to it. The result is a lovely little book, deeply respectful of the contemplative life, and quite moving as we follow Sister John discern God’s will in her life.

Writer Ann Hood narrates a tale of the physical and the miraculous as well, but hers is no novel, It is the poignant memoir of her father’s struggle with cancer and ultimately, her own search for faith.

Ann Hood was raised in an Italian-American household and as such, through most of her life, was quite open to the possibility of miracles granted and prayers answered. So when her beloved father, already ill with emphysema, was diagnosed with lung cancer, Hood determined she would get him a miracle – and she did.

She flew to El Santuario de Chimayo in New Mexico, where she gathered a plastic bag full of red dirt from the grounds, dirt with reputed miraculous healing properties. It “worked” – her father’s tumor disappeared – which had been Hood’s quite specific prayer. He died, however, some months later, from complications of his other lung problems.

It is only now that Hood’s real “search for miracles” begins – her faith in God teetering on the bridge in the loss of her father (and the lingering pain from her brother’s death years earlier), she starts trying to find it again, mostly, the book indicates, through extensive travel to various healing and apparition sites throughout the world, and ultimately, through the connections to the miraculous she finds in her own family and heritage.

Do Not Go Gentle is an interesting book, although halfway through, one can’t help but start wondering about Hood’s almost obsessive focus on the “miraculous” as she tries to recover some sense of faith. Why doesn’t the woman ever mention opening a Bible or seeking answers the way the rest of us without big travel budgets do? Why is her search all about “miracles” and not at all, it seems about Christ?

The possible answer to that puzzle lies buried midway in the book, where Hood mentions that she proposed and received the advance for this book, with this particular “miraculous” angle, after her father’s death but before the second stage of her search. One can’t doubt Hood’s pain or her authentic wish for a hope of sense and faith in her life, but unfortunately, her self-imposed contractual parameters limit not only the depth of her search, but our interest in it as well.

Amy Welborn is a columnist for Our Sunday Visitor and Catholic News Service and a regular contributor to the Living Faith quarterly devotional. You may purchase her books in our online store, by clicking here.

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