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Mark Salzman


Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2005).

Helen, otherwise known as Sister John of the Cross, is a Carmelite nun. For the last three years she has had headaches and altered states of consciousness which she believes to be contact with God. She has written an inspirational book of essays and poems based on these experiences which has sold well and the royalties are helping to sustain the convent.

When the headaches get worse and she starts to have episodes of unconsciousness she sees a neurologist, who diagnoses a meningioma, a benign brain tumour. He advises surgery, which will be curative. Sister John is appalled to discover the basis of her ecstatic experiences and is tormented by the dilemma of whether or not to have the operation. In the end, she does—mainly, it seems, because of the inconvenience that her fits cause for the other Sisters.

Salzman provides what reads like a remarkable insight into the life and thoughts of a Carmelite nun. Whether, or how far, it is authentic is obviously impossible for an outsider to know. No clues are offered to indicate what kind of research, if any, Salzman carried out before writing, or what inside knowledge he may have had. Certainly the contemplative life is not glamorized or idealized here; in fact, it sounds rather depressing.

Sister John values her ecstasies because they have transformed her hitherto rather dreary life into something wonderful. Oddly enough, she never seems to consider the possibility that, even though they are triggered by her tumour, they might nevertheless be authentic. She seems to assume automatically that they are meaningless. But surely, from her religious point of view, she might have thought that the tumour had been placed there by God, or at least permitted by him, for a purpose: to facilitate her contact with him. As the psychologist William James pointed out, the origin of an experience can tell us nothing about its authenticity. For all we know, an abnormal brain state may be a pre-requisite for contact with God. The book might have been richer if Salzman had included this idea.

9 June 2005

%T Lying Awake
%A Mark Salzman
%I Bloomsbury
%C London
%D 2002. 2003
%G ISBN 0-7475-6140-0
%P 181 pp
%K fiction
%O paperback edition

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